Meet Marcela G. Marrero, Animal Sciences Ph.D. Student
Updated: May 2
Passionate for the welfare of dairy cows, Marcela is excelling in research, as well as staying motivated through the grad school experience.
Marcela G. Marrero is a Ph.D. student in the Animal Sciences program at the University of Florida (UF). She is currently working in Dr. Jimena Laporta’s laboratory on research focused on understanding the role of serotonin (the “happy hormone”) in the immune system of dairy cows.
In the last 20 years, researchers found that immune cells respond to serotonin, and extensive research focuses on the human and rodent model, but not the dairy cow. Immunology studies like hers aim to increase animal welfare and health, which are very important to maintain in livestock.
Growing up, Marcela wanted to become a veterinarian. She somehow thought that that was the only way she could be around animals. After enrolling in an animal science major at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez (UPRM), Marcela was keen to understand how the food chain works. She became fascinated with the dairy industry when she got her first job feeding and milking cows.
This experience motivated her to change her path towards becoming a veterinarian to focusing on maintaining the health of dairy cows through research. As a result, she became a member of the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS). During her undergraduate studies, she worked more than 3,500 hours at a Research Dairy Farm and had the opportunity to be a dairy farm summer intern in the U.S.A.s twice.
Marcela pursued a master’s degree at UPRM, researching infrared thermography cameras as a tool to detect mastitis (mammary infection or injury) cases as soon as possible. She became more interested in the immune system, and how its continual research is needed to improve medical knowledge, development, and biosecurity. After graduating from her master’s degree, Marcela decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the laboratory of Dr. Jimena Laporta at the UF in 2017. Marcela published her first paper a few months ago and a second one, focusing more specifically on immune cells, is about to be published as well!
We should all strive to create supportive environments in grad school
Marcela’s lab has been beyond supportive, she explains:
“...my advisor is always present and willing to help, as well as my laboratory mates who are my unconditional friends. However, I do feel a lot of competition between people in the department- the environment is not always family-like.”
Unfortunately, Marcela’s experience is not unique. Some departments do not foster a collaborative and supportive environment.
“I find that the way students overcome this is by trying to ignore it; you HAVE to focus on you. We all work on different projects, we all need different amounts of time to develop our research, and it is just not worth it to compare yourself or to feel intimidated by the people around you. I remind myself that I am great at what I do and who I am; there is no time allocate comparisons that could be possibly fair.”
Even though graduate school can be a challenging and competitive environment, Marcela explains how transformative it can be in a positive way:
“I find that no one talks about it, but as a graduate student you just become a better version of yourself every day. I used to get very stressed at the beginning to the point where I got migraines daily, and I never felt like what I did was enough. After two years in, I look back and I see everything I know now and everything I have successfully worked on, and it literally blows my mind. WE DO IMPROVE! We work hard and things get easier with time. We just need to assimilate all the information and understand that it all falls into place.”
Don’t lose motivation!
Imposter syndrome can happen to all of us. That is why it is important to remember the role of graduate education. Marcela explains:
“...even though graduate school is a full-time job, it is also a training. There is no need to stress about what you don’t know; you will learn it and you will figure it out.”
Work-life balance is essential during graduate school, as well as any part of your life. Marcela exercises regularly and strives to go to the gym three days a week. Marcela understands how work can overpower your time to focus on yourself:
“Sometimes it is hard to find the time, but I push myself. I feel like it helps me feel balanced.”
In the future, Marcela hopes to enhance animal health and thus, animal welfare. She mentions that the idea of joining a company that develops and researches medicines or supplements for livestock intrigues her. Like many graduate students, she is still not sure of where she will end up, but she does know that she will keep studying hard to achieve her goals.
Marcela’s advice to other young female students is to
“Be selective of who you surround yourself with.
Quality over quantity, believe in yourself, and you will lead a better life towards your goals.”