Incoming: Sara, from the USA to Bordeaux
Sara Whitestone, 24 years old, an American graduate student from the University of Cincinnati, arrived in Bordeaux in the summer of 2016. Holding a Bachelor of science (major in Neuroscience, minor in communication), she was set to start the two year International Master of Neuroscience at the University of Bordeaux.
Why did you choose to come to the University of Bordeaux?
I was ready for a new challenge in 2016! I had never been abroad, didn’t speak French so what better challenge than to start the highly competitive and intensive international Master’s program in Neuroscience in Bordeaux!
Since 2010, I have been living with my disease known as POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome – see below for more information), and this sparked my interest and passion for neuroscience. In 2016, I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree that offered a “hands-on”, international, research environment. The program here in Bordeaux offered full-time research opportunities as well as the possibility to learn about recent neuroscience efforts on a global scale so it was a perfect fit.
What was your learning experience like?
The International Master of Neuroscience was, as expected, a very intense learning experience with a strong focus on technical research skills. This meant that I was able to do what I like best – carry out my own experiments and research. I even managed to co-author two publications based on the research completed during my internship. In terms of teaching, a large variety of professors, with differing specialties, participated in the classes and this was very valuable for knowledge transmission.
What have you discovered with this international experience?
Compared to my undergraduate experience, I found the lectures to be very long and organized differently. I appreciated when teachers used a "flipped classroom" approach, and encouraged interaction – this definitely facilitated my learning. What I preferred was hearing directly from clinicians and researchers when they presented their work in the classroom. As for the exams, I initially found the lengthy, comprehensive format difficult, but eventually (and luckily!) I learned how to adapt!
What are your impressions of Bordeaux?
Bordeaux seems quintessentially French to me. In addition to being charming, the city is also very student friendly and a very manageable size – especially now that I manage without my wheelchair, I love how “walkable” it is. My favorite activity is to walk along the streets at night after a rain shower... As it rains pretty often here, this is something I can do on a regular basis!
What are your next objectives here in Bordeaux?
Despite major health issues during the second semester of my Master year 2, with the help and support of my professors and classmates, I was able to complete the program and graduated successfully in September 2018. My next challenge is to hopefully begin my PhD in Neuroscience – just as soon as some funding issues are resolved… I also really want to continue improving my French language skills.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
My motto is “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” – so all in all, a positive outlook but given my condition, I always have to be ready to tackle challenges. My focus is on what matters most, so in the future I hope to be living somewhere that provides sufficient support for my illness while I contribute actively to the research that is carried out on dysautonomia.
Today, I am grateful that my health allows me to live and study independently. I am however aware that my quality of life may change anytime with any infection, virus or complication. Thankfully, in France, even as an expat, I feel reassured by the institutional protections and affordability of the healthcare system. I now have access to a medication I could not afford in the US! The support of this healthcare system as well as from my professors have allowed me to manage both my complicated chronic health issues and to continue to study here at the same time.
There is, however, still a lot of progress to be made in terms of accessibility. I ask myself the question: How do we actively recruit and support disabled scientists? For example, if I ever have to use a wheelchair again, could I continue to physically do the same experiments? I look forward to contributing to these accessibility questions and efforts in the future, and I hope that by speaking publically about my experiences it might help others as well.
In 2010, Sara was diagnosed with a form of dysautonomia known as POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome). A circulatory disorder, this condition may cause an abnormal heart rate, headaches, nausea and even fainting upon standing.
This neurological disease resulted in chronic fatigue so severe for Sara that she was house bound from 2010 until 2012 when she graduated from high-school. In 2012 the “Sara Spins” foundation was created in order to raise the necessary funds for a motorized wheelchair that would enable Sara to access the University of Cincinnati campus. In 2014, she started receiving biofeedback treatment and heart rate training to help control the physical reactions to stress and later that year was finally able to walk again!
Today Sara continues to manage and battle her disorder along with her studies, research and life. The “Sara Spins” foundation is ongoing, raising awareness and support for other students with disabilities. For more information, please consult the website: www.saraspins.org