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Trailblazing for members of her community while finding her own place

Laney Graduate School student Sandra Mendiola found community in organizations on campus as she completed her PhD in Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution while also mentoring the next generation of graduate and undergraduate students.

Sandra Mendiola began her journey with Laney Graduate School (LGS) in 2017 after finishing her bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University. At Emory, she was part of the inaugural LGS cohort inducted into the prestigious National Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society, an organization founded at both Howard and Yale Universities, and one of the many initiatives that allowed Mendiola to be a leader and advocate for the next generation of scientists and students of color.

Mendiola will graduate during the 2024 LGS Commencement ceremony, having obtained her PhD in Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution (PBEE) after defending her dissertation in the fall of 2023.

When reflecting on why she chose Emory, Mendiola, a Nebraska native, knew she wanted to be part of a prominent program focused on disease ecology. She found inspiration from the scholars within her program already doing the type of work she aspired to do — along with the warmer weather in Georgia.

“I was always interested in infectious disease epidemiology-type questions. I discovered my interest while reading a book about a yellow fever outbreak, and I remember being into the detective work that went into solving it and addressing the problem,” Mendiola says.

Her dissertation work did not go too far from this topic, as Mendiola focused her research on the role of squash bug symbiont in the acquisition, proliferation and transmission of yellow vine disease and the economic importance for agriculture.

During her first year, Mendiola wanted to find a place where she fit in at Emory. She discovered communities within the organizations she joined. Mendiola was actively involved in her PhD program’s executive board, where she helped start a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee that organized events for the program.

Hard work pays off

Mendiola was also involved in the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Latinos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapter at Emory, which was launched a year before her joining.

“I started going to informational meetings and got involved, mostly to make friends, but ended up taking it over and trying to grow the chapter at Emory for a few years,” she says.

Mendiola became the SACNAS president in 2019. During her term, she helped start the DEI Committee for PBEE, empowering the many students of color who struggled to find their way on campus. 

In addition to her academic successes, Mendiola has received various awards from Emory, including the Kharen Fulton Award, GDBBS Inclusive Excellence Student Award, Graduate Program in Biology Academic and Professional Achievement Award and more.

Leading the next generation and finding her own path

From 2019-23, Mendiola was an Emory Diversifying Graduate Education (EDGE) ambassador who assisted in recruitment and developed one of the Summer Opportunity for Academic Research (SOAR) curricula still used today in the program.

Mendiola’s Emory experience allowed her to participate in peer-to-peer mentoring through the Office of Belonging and Community Justice, where she was paired with incoming graduate students. She also participated in the 1915 Scholars Program as a grad mentor for undergraduates in various degree programs.

Since finishing her degree at Laney, Mendiola has continued in research with a three-year postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation with a lab at the University of Georgia.

Also enjoying mentorship, Mendiola says she will “probably be applying to academic jobs” while figuring out her next steps.

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