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Taking on the taboo of depression in STEM

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Fay Lin. (Photo provided by Ms. Lin.)

Xiaofei (Fay) Lin began to speak openly about mental health issues with fellow STEM graduate students after experiencing a serious depression. While completing her Ph.D. in biochemistry, she has honed her communication skills as a mental health advocate.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

In honor of International Women’s Day 2021 on March 8, the UCLA International Institute is publishing a series of profiles of female Bruins who have overcome challenges in their quest to effect change in the world.

UCLA Global, March, 9, 2021 — Xiaofei (Fay) Lin grew up in a family of scientists in Stony Brook, New York: her father is a biomedical engineering professor and her mother is a lab technician. She was drawn to the sciences in school and went on to earn a B.S. in biology, along with minors in computer science and chemistry, at New York University (NYU). It was there that she developed a love of computational biology.

After graduating from NYU in 2016, Fay moved to Los Angeles to join the UCLA Biochemistry, Molecular and Structural Biology Graduate Program. Moving to the West Coast was a huge change. Add the combined stresses of a demanding Ph.D. program and living far from family and close friends, and Fay found herself struggling with a major depression.

“Depression doesn’t have one look. On the outside, I was going to classes, submitting assignments and met people with a smile. At the same time, there were days I couldn’t get up in the morning,” Fay said. Struggling with research due to depression was difficult for others to understand.

Getting better was a journey, she says. “It took a lot of work to recognize that negative attitudes toward depression are due to societal stigma, and not a reflection of my self-worth or ability as a scientist, as well as to find a treatment plan that worked for me because — contrary to common belief — recovery is not instantaneous.”

“I also saw firsthand some of the graduate school–specific struggles you encounter,” continues Fay. Among those, she mentions a lack of diversity in STEM fields and a general sense of powerlessness as a graduate student.

“I personally experienced a really dark point of depression that was extremely difficult,” she says. “But I realized that this knowledge could help other people — that one of the problems of mental health is that we don’t talk about it.”

So in 2019, she launched a personal Twitter account to share her personal experience and insights with others; it has since attracted over 16,000 followers composed of academics from around the world. She soon began to receive messages from students thanking her for sharing her story and saying her openness had helped them.

The outgoing, friendly Bruin is also regularly invited to give presentations on mental health issues at STEM conferences, graduate student organizations and professional societies.

Fay’s latest advocacy effort is a weekly “Grad Chat” YouTube Live video series (and podcast) published by PhD Balance. The informal conversations with scholars and non-academics cover a broad array of issues related to graduate students, ranging from mental health awareness; professional development; diversity, equity and inclusion; and more.

“Fay Lin has contributed her expertise on mental health to a number of projects for Chemical and Engineering News, and I am extremely impressed with her skills in science communication,” says Linda Wang, senior editor at C&EN. “What I find so inspiring about Fay is that she uses her voice — and her growing social media platform — to help others find their voice, passion and purpose.”

Now in her fifth year of her graduate program, Fay uses mathematical modeling to predict biological behavior. Computational biology is a growing field that integrates computer science modeling, big data and biological research. “It’s a complimentary tool to the experimental aspect of biology — what we think of as mixing chemicals and growing cells in the lab,” she says. “My research aims to make computational predictions that can guide experiments.”

Her first dive into computational biology was modeling protein structures at NYU. Today, her research uses computational models to gain a better understanding of the human immune response. “Thousands of different health threats exist in your environment,” she explains. “At the molecular level, your cells are able to identify which threat you are facing right now and appropriately fine-tune your response so that you can fight it off,” she adds.

Although she enjoys research, Fay’s real passion is communications. In fact, she seeks a career in which she can make science more accessible to the public. In 2019, she won the Audience Choice Award at the annual UCLA Grad Slam Competition, presenting her research project in three slides and three minutes.

“Fay’s group meeting presentations have always been exemplary in clarity. She has a knack for communication that is really inclusive,” says Alexander Hoffmann, Thomas M. Asher Professor of Microbiology at UCLA, director of the Institute for Quantitative and Computational Biosciences (QCBio) and Fay’s Ph.D. advisor. “Both senior and the most junior undergraduate group members seem to gain: they are drawn towards her project and learn about the methods she is using.”

“What I want to gain from my Ph.D.,” explains Fay, “are the skills needed to do a research project and, just generally, how to be a scientist. Insight into the research world is extremely valuable for science communication. I really appreciate how supportive my advisor has been about my decision not to pursue research as a career after my Ph.D.

“Stigma still remains when it comes to leaving research,” she reflects, “and that has to change.”

Fay is currently exploring potential professional options and has applied for a summer internship that focuses on science journalism. “As a woman of color and daughter of immigrants, I have had an academic journey impacted by discrimination and saw the effects of the cultural taboo of openly speaking about mental health,” she says. “As a result, equity and inclusion is a huge theme in my communications work.”