My name is Michelle Chicas Aslett, and I am currently studying chemistry with a biochemistry emphasis. I was born in Los Angeles, California, to two parents who immigrated — my dad’s side from El Salvador and my mom’s side from Guatemala. We didn’t live in the best neighborhood, so my dad relocated us to Layton, Utah, when he joined the military.
Science caught my interest at an early age. Throughout my childhood, my dad took me to museums all the time. At one point, he bought a microscope from the observatory, then we would observe anything we could find in the microscope. I vividly remember putting one of my mom’s hairs under it and being awed by the amount of detail I could see through the lens. My observations made me realize there is an entire world that I can’t see with my naked eyes, and I had a deep desire to discover that world. I was also drawn to medicine when my dad came home pretending like he had a small injury, and I would grab my toy medical tools and pretend to treat him as a doctor would.
When I started junior high, science and math didn’t come easily to me, but I loved doing science projects in class and worked hard to learn as much as I could. In junior high, I was part of a program which was focused on STEM. Then in high school, I took all the science courses I could and went outside of the required curriculum to take courses such as physics and physiology. I also completed an internship with a family physician, which led me to begin college with my mind set on medical school.
Transitioning from high school to university was challenging because I had no idea what I was doing. My parents sacrificed so much to give me the option of going to college, but without the chance to go themselves, they didn’t know how to help me prepare for it. By a few great strokes of luck, I happened to be placed in the path of teachers who provided information and helped guide me in applying for school.
I started at the University of Utah because it seemed a good place to prepare me for medical school, and I chose biomedical physics as my major to make my medical school application competitive. School was great at first, but about three years in, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That fall, my entire world was flipped completely upside down. My dad wanted me to continue school, but I struggled so much with motivation to work hard in my classes, so I didn’t do very well. Being with my dad was more important to me than being at school, so I decided to drop out during spring semester.
After he passed, I was devastated. I’d lost my dad, and with him, apart from myself. I started again at Utah soon after but having become an empty shell of who I was before, I didn’t do well. But my dad had yearned for me to get my degree, and I wanted it, too. So, with the intention of coming back eventually, I took a deliberate break from school to first take care of my mental health. I attended therapy, moved to Saratoga Springs, and got a job at After Class Tutoring in Draper, helping high school kids learn math, science, and complete ACT prep. I’d been in the students’ shoes before, so I offered my insights and perspectives while teaching the material. I eventually worked my way up to Director of Education there.
After a while, therapy was working, and I got the itch to go back to school. But I needed a completely fresh start, so I applied to Utah Valley University (UVU). My first semester here was Spring 2020. I was so shy that I didn’t talk to people. To add insult to injury, the COVID pandemic fell upon us. Luckily, I noticed right away that the communication between students and faculty here is so good. I felt like I could ask questions without being judged. In addition, my peers in my chemistry classes talked to me and with one other. People weren’t competing against each other but building each other up.
During the summer semester, my lab partner from organic chemistry, Connor Dearden, last year’s senator for College of Science (COS), invited me to be the department representative for chemistry. That was the catalyst for everything that happened after. In that position, I had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Halling, the Department Chair of Chemistry, and I recognized that he was so personable and cared about the students. I also got to work for Dr. Chamberland as his instructional assistant and tutored students in organic chemistry. Dr. Chamberland also cared about me and wanted to help me with my goals. He was always providing information about seminars and fellowships and encouraging me to work hard.
Other professors have given me the chance to do research with them. Dr. Rocks from the chemistry department is my research mentor. She and I are studying microplastics in Utah Lake. We want to quantify the microplastics and see how they are distributed around the lake. Dr. Rocks introduced me to Dr. Shipp in the physics department, and I work with him to find the sources of these microplastics — where are they coming from, what type of plastics are they (polyethylene, polypropylene, etc.). It’s all the same project, but it’s interdisciplinary research between two departments, which is super awesome! I could go on all day about my UVU professors, because they’ve been integral to my amazing college experience, and to the person I have become.
I am also the president of the chemistry club. I lead a group of passionate students to go to libraries or chemistry classes in elementary schools and do chemistry demonstrations. Sharing the wonder of chemistry with children is so rewarding. We are privileged to see kids’ curiosity spark and their minds open.
In September of 2021, Dr. Rocks nominated me for the American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Student of Utah, and I was one of two students who won. She also encouraged me to apply for the ACS Spring 2022 Experience, a conference where scientists share their research projects. Attending was extremely beneficial to my growth as a scientist. I am beyond grateful to Dr. Rocks who has taught me how to be a great scientist. When problems arise or we need to make changes in our project, she guides me through the process and always considers my thoughts. She is empathetic to the fact that being a woman in science can be hard and imposter syndrome is normal. But she reminds me that I am here for a reason.
I had poor grades from my last semester at the U of U. So medical school didn’t seem like an option anymore, but Dr. Halling introduced me to the idea of graduate school, which I’d never even thought about. I felt silly asking, “What is a master’s?” and “What is a PhD?” but a whole world of opportunities opened for me when I discovered graduate school. Dr. Rocks guided me through the process of applying to schools, wrote a letter of recommendation for me, and offered me important advice on how to choose the best graduate schools for me.
I want to express gratitude to my faculty who nurtured and pushed me to grow. Even in things I didn’t feel confident in, they gave me opportunities to practice and learn. And I know they do that with other students as well. Without them and several of my fellow students, I wouldn’t be here to tell my story.
As far as post-graduate plans go, I applied to nine graduate schools, some in state, some out of state. I was accepted to six out of nine schools, and I just committed to attend the University of Washington, which is one of the best schools for biochemistry PhD programs. I want to research cancer, RNA and DNA, and genetic treatments, such as CRISPR or modified transcription. I’d love to help others by researching how to combat disease through genetic manipulation.
Whatever I do right out of graduate school, I want to end my career as a professor, teaching, training, and preparing other students to work in the research or medical fields. I want to be an example to the students who make up the future of chemistry and encourage members of my Latinx community that there is a place for them in STEM.
As you can see, I’ve had failures that led me to where I am now. The message I want to share to UVU students is that your journey doesn’t have to be perfect for you to get where you want to be. So long as you have the determination, you can get there. You just have to believe in yourself and your abilities.