CSULB Faculty Mentors Share Their Stories

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Contact Info: nicole.streicker@csulb.edu

By Enri’que Flores 

Kim Vu and Art Zavala, CSULB Faculty Members
Kim Vu (left) and Arturo Zavala (right) are psychology professors at
California State University, Long Beach and mentors in CSULB BUILD.

In the eight years since the California State University, Long Beach BUILD program began, numerous faculty have helped in the development and growth of the initiative. In particular, Kim Vu, PhD, and Arturo Zavala, PhD, have continued to assist by taking on roles such as Core Director, Co-Director, liaison to University of California, Irvine, and even principal investigator (PI). While both are currently professors within the psychology department, each one focuses on a different branch within the field.

This interview highlights Vu’s and Zavala’s personal stories. Like CSULB BUILD students, they participated in undergraduate research training opportunities. Both of them were first-generation college students who earned advanced degrees. 

Vu attended CSULB for her BA in psychology. She received her master’s degree and her PhD in Human Factors and Applied Experimental Psychology from Purdue University. 

Zavala went to California State University, San Bernardino, where he got his undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's degree in general experimental psychology. Later, he attended Arizona State University, and received a  PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Enri’que Flores: Are you the first in your family to get a PhD? 

Arturo Zavala: Yes, I am the first in my family to get a college degree and a PhD in the U.S. I was born in Mexico and I moved with my parents to the U.S. when I was 10 years old. All my family, except for my parents and sister, still live in Mexico.

Kim Vu: I am also a first-generation college student and the first PhD in my family. I was born in Vietnam and my family came to the U.S. as refugees.

EF: What is your area of research? Did you start off researching this topic since your time as an undergrad, or did it change?

KV: My area is human factors and human computer interaction which is designing technology for human use. I am still working in that area today!

AZ: My current area is biological psychology or behavioral neuroscience, as it is now known. However, I did not start that until I took a class towards the end of my undergraduate career that gave us an opportunity to conduct research in behavioral neuroscience and developmental psychopharmacology. That class inspired me to come back to Cal State San Bernardino to do my master's in that area. Before that, however, I did research in developmental psychology, specifically in cognitive development.

I also participated in several summer research internships as an undergraduate, one at UC San Francisco and another at Yale University, where I did research in developmental psychopathology and clinical psychology. I even did a little bit of cross-cultural psychology research. That was actually the first research area I started as a sophomore in college, where I was looking at assimilation in Mexican immigrants at the local elementary schools in San Bernardino.

I also did a little bit of work for the Thomas Rivera Policy Institute after graduating from Cal State San Bernardino, where I ran focus groups and interviewed people in the community to look at the use of technology among Latino families in Southeast Los Angeles.

EF: Whose work has influenced you the most throughout your research career, and why?

KV: It's my undergraduate and graduate research advisors’ work.

Drs. Thomas Strybel and Gerry Hanley are both professors at CSULB. Tom introduced me to research in human perception, specifically auditory localization; Gerry introduced me to usability testing and human-computer interaction. 

In graduate school, I worked with Dr. Robert Proctor. He's a cognitive psychologist and he worked in basic reaction time. He introduced me to research on stimulus response compatibility, which is how people respond to display elements based on the assignment of controls. This area has implications for measuring human performance. One of the implications for human factors is to be able to precisely measure human performance so that you can improve the designs of products so that people do their work better,more efficiently, and safely.

AZ: So, for me it was my undergraduate mentors, Drs. David Chavez, Sanders McDougall, and Cynthia Crawford.

Dr. Chavez paved the way for me to think about academia for someone like me. Drs. McDougall and Crawford are the ones that introduced me to the field of developmental psychopharmacology, through the class that I told you I took as an undergraduate. At CSU San Bernardino, we had to take a research methods class and afterward, we had to take an advanced research methods class. You basically had to pick an area of psychology and I picked biological psychology. Dr. McDougall taught that course and really opened my eyes to neuroscience. I worked with him for a little bit as an undergraduate, but after graduating I left for a year to work at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. 

Then I came back for my master's to work with him and Dr. Crawford. As I worked with them and saw how they worked with students in research, taught classes, and focused on training students before sending them to doctoral programs, I knew then that this was the kind of academic career I wanted. I decided that I wanted to get a PhD and come back to the CSU and do what they did. I also saw how they built neuroscience at Cal State San Bernardino, and when I got to CSU Long Beach, I wanted to do the same.

The short story is that they basically got us to go into this area, and then our PhD advisor made us experts in the area.

Kim Vu, CSULB Faculty Member
Kim Vu, PhD                                                                   

KV: And we still work with them today. 

EF: So, what do you consider to be one of your most significant research accomplishments throughout your academic career thus far?

AZ: My students and I, along with my collaborator at UTEP, have shown that the use of psychoactive substances early in life, such as Ritalin used for the treatment of ADHD and Prozac and Ketamine for the treatment of depression, have long-lasting behavioral effects later in development, especially in terms of vulnerability to use drugs later in life. At CSULB, however, I would have to say that being part of the BUILD program and transforming the space in the psychology building to create the BRAIN (Behavioral Research and Instruction in Neuroscience) labs has been my most impactful accomplishment to date because of the impact it has in our ability to train the next generation of neuroscientists. 

KV: I was involved with several undergraduate training programs, the Career Opportunities in Research (COR) program, funded by NIH, which gave me my start to research. A lot of the BUILD program was modeled after COR. I also was a program director for the NASA CHAAT (Center for Human Factors in Advanced Aeronautics Technologies) Program and the CSULB BUILD Program—programs designed to train students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds in research. Thus, I would agree with Art that the most satisfying part of my academic career is the training of the next generation of researchers, both with the NASA CHAAT training award and with BUILD.

EF: We know it's a very time-consuming process … what kept you motivated throughout the whole process of grad school, and how did you balance your academic and personal life schedules?

AZ: What motivated me was the end goal – getting a PhD is a pretty significant accomplishment. Only 2% of the population in the U.S. has a PhD, and there are far fewer underrepresented students with a PhD, which is why we have programs like BUILD. Thus, you have to stay focused on the end goal, get through it, and surround yourself with friends going through the process.

KV: Same as what Art said, but I'd say my family too. I wanted to be a role model to them, especially to my nieces and nephews. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t really know what to expect. Now, I can help guide others. I also wanted to be able to help contribute to the family and that's one reason why I wanted to come back to the Cal State (system) . . . to be close to my family.

AZ: It's the same thing with me. I knew I wanted to come back to Southern California to be close to family. I also really like the CSU system because it gives you an opportunity to work with undergraduate and master’s students. I also wanted to do what one of my mentors did: send people off to PhD programs and help diversify the field. I wanted to carry that forward at Long Beach.

KV: And I wanted to follow in the footsteps of John Jung, PhD, who was the Program Director of the COR program at CSULB for 25 years and also helped train generations of PhD students to diversify the research workforce … and my work will help his legacy live on too.

EF: So, how did you balance your schedules? You both talk about family and we all know that academics requires a lot of time, especially with PhDs. So, how were you able to balance those two?

AZ: Balance is difficult because you are basically working all the time, including weekends. But you stay connected to family. I would call my mom every day as I'm driving from school to the house and visit during the holidays. But it was mostly work. A PhD is going to engulf your life and that's why people struggle. I did not take too many vacations. However, I like to network and go to places and so I would go to conferences and present, and that sort of keeps you sane. You also build really long-lasting friendships with the people that are in your cohort. They are like your family, your grad school family. You bond with them too.

KV: I called my mom every day during graduate school, too. She expected that. So that's how I stay connected. 

The one thing about going away for grad school is that it did allow you to focus on work. It was long hours, weekends, nights … but you know I still made the time to call my mom and talk to my family members every day.

EF: What is a tip that you wish someone would have given you prior to starting your first year as a faculty member, and why?

KV: I think the tip would be to just relax a little bit and take it easy.

I think new faculty come in with a mindset that they have to do all these new tasks and with a sense of urgency. So, I try to tell the new faculty that you want to get your lab running, you want to get your publications, but you know, take time to breathe and enjoy the process as well.

AZ: Along the same lines, there is a lot of imposter syndrome when you are starting new things. So you have to remind yourself that you were selected, that you competed for this and that they chose you for various reasons that are all positive … so they have faith in you. You have to relax and not be so worried about things.

The faculty in the department want to support you. They want you to succeed. So keep that in mind.

KV: And to ask for help when you need it, there are many people willing to help.

Art Zavala, CSULB Faculty Member
Arturo Zavala, PhD

AZ: Yeah, every time I asked for help, someone was also willing to talk to me.

EF: So, we spent over a year dealing with the global pandemic. And the academic setting made a shift to online learning, at least for those that were primarily in person, teaching. And we also began, as you know, working from home. What have been some of your takeaways with respect to the accommodating faculty needs and also with student needs.

KV: I do think one good thing is that instructors have been a little bit more understanding of the situations and being flexible with deadlines. They realize that it’s been hard for everyone. And I think there's some patience that we've learned, some empathy, and understanding.

AZ: This situation has also increased accessibility. We're more accessible to people now because it's so much easier to meet with somebody online because of platforms such as Zoom, whereas before they would have to come here (CSULB). Now I am much more accessible, especially to the students that I work with within the lab. The accessibility to work with them has increased.

Also, we can now meet with other faculty from across the country because they can come and give a talk and meet with the students over Zoom. So it has increased their networking as a result of that because everybody is very willing to come (virtually) and give a talk now. They don't have to take a flight, make reservations, and so on. It's just an hour and a half of their time.

EF: Are there any techniques or tools that you'll be utilizing when we go back to in-person teaching that you'll still try and bring over that you've used while you were doing virtual teaching?

AZ: I would have to say using Poll Everywhere (that) allows you to be more interactive with your audience. People can either respond on the web or respond through text. It’s easy to implement and integrates well with PowerPoint, and so it makes the class a little bit more engaging because students can talk and participate more. And before, it was an issue of accessibility. For instance, you had other services where you either had to pay for a subscription or purchase an actual device to participate. Since we subscribe to it, then the students get access to it for free. So that's one feature that I'm going to keep.

EF: Finally, what are some pointers that you would give to individuals seeking to take the path of becoming a faculty member at a university?

AZ: I think I would say don't underestimate yourself and don't reject yourself.

You should apply for opportunities, even if you don't think you feel ready. I think oftentimes people don't apply for faculty positions because they don’t feel ready. I almost didn't apply because I didn't feel ready. Typically everybody goes on to do a postdoctoral fellowship in our field, but I convinced Kim and others that I was ready. 

Of course, the impostor syndrome will always be there. But you have to celebrate your success and take a chance.

Sometimes the path is not going to be direct. Those that really want the job and want to be a faculty member, I think, eventually get there. They just have to have the same things that made them succeed at grad school: persistence and strong faith in themselves.

Staying focused and allowing for some failures is key because you will have some along the way. You might not get your target the first time, but you keep trying things and you’ll find things that open up. Something to also keep in mind is that getting a PhD is not just about going into academia, it's also about increasing your options and building your skills that oftentimes are of great benefit if you go into industry jobs.

KV: I agree with Art. Apply to all opportunities that come up and interest you. That's what I did. I applied to everything. I applied to jobs that people kept asking me why I applied. In the end, I would apply because I saw myself in that position, it suited my passion in my field, and it would fit some of my personal requirements, like being close to home. 

Both Art and I are immigrants to this country. For me, I was a refugee. We're both first-generation college students, we’re both products of the CSU, we're both ESL (English as a Second Language). We applied to opportunities even when they seemed out of our reach. And, we were fortunate to meet others who helped us along the way.

Part of that is coming back to the CSU and giving back and giving opportunities to other students. And I think that's a main motivator … to help other students. So I would tell others seeking a path to becoming a faculty member to work on projects that give them meaning. 

For more information about CSULB BUILD, visit www.csulb.edu/build.





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