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UNIVERSITY PRESS

Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.

UNIVERSITY PRESS

Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.

UNIVERSITY PRESS

Navigating FAU as a student and educator: Q&A with Michelle Cavallo

Michelle Cavallo, professor and director of operations at FAU’s Broward campus, discusses her turbulent path towards a career in STEM as a former student and current professor at FAU.
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Erika Fletcher
Michelle Cavallo

For many individuals, a career in STEM is often outlined at an early stage in life, representing a field of work one either opts to pursue or does not. For Michelle Cavallo, this decision did not come until later on in her academic life, revealing the significance of experience and passion when deciding on one’s career. 

The UP talked with Michelle Cavallo, a former student and now professor at FAU, about the importance of establishing a career path and on her own experiences as a student at FAU, emphasizing the importance of a student-based approach to teaching. 

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

 

UP: What made FAU stand out to you and what do you like best about working here?

Cavallo: Well, when I started here as a student in 1999, we did not have a stadium, the nursing building was not built, and the college of medicine was not around yet. FAU has grown wild throughout the time I have been here and it has been really really awesome to see.

“What I like best about working at FAU are the students! I love the opportunity to support them in achieving their goals, which is very personally fulfilling for me.

 

What is your current research, and what is its importance?

Right now, the research that I am involved with is primarily to identify novel antibiotics. Medicine went through this “golden age” of antibiotics… Over time, however, through misuse and the evolution of bacteria developing resistance, bacteria have become increasingly resistant to the antibiotics that we have, and big pharmaceutical companies are not incentivized to discover new antibiotics. 

And now we are entering a dangerous territory, where we have to ask ourselves, “Are we going to die from strep throat?” [to] things that should never be fatal. Most of the antibiotics that we have found in nature have come from soil, which is a potentially rich source of antibiotics. My research involves going out and collecting soil samples and isolating bacteria from them and then seeing if any produce new undiscovered antibiotics, and when we do, then we continue investigating further with it…  my goal is to help people not suffer unduly from infection. 

 

What is something you wish you could tell your undergraduate self?

Pace yourself because I put myself into burnout mode. It’s so funny because I went from someone who was like, “Science is not for you,” to somebody who was doing science and really enjoying it. I had never been one of those people who got straight A’s and I worked hard in undergrad to get to the point where in one semester, I had straight A’s… which forced me to believe I could never have anything less following that; I turned myself inside out and upside down to the most I could possibly do. 

I am not saying to not try hard in school, but I am saying that during this time I did not manage my wellness at all and sometimes now, I ask myself, “Did I ever really recover?” because I carried that into grad school where I worked from 9 a.m. until anywhere until midnight or 4 a.m., seven days a week and I was really burning out on both ends. Do not miss out on important experiences — I will never stop regretting all the birthdays, holidays and weddings I would skip participating in to be in the lab and do all of my work. 

Don’t forget to enjoy your life a little bit, not so much that you don’t get anywhere, because the only thing you cannot get back is time.

 

What is an experience that changed your perspective on academics?

An ongoing conversation within my family would be how my grandparents would always tell me that I was going to be the one to take care of everybody eventually and that I had to make sure I went to college and got a good job so I could ensure that. For me, that was a repeated subject throughout my life, and it really determined what I did and how I lived my life; I had to make sure I did not leave for college to stay home so I could take care of my family. 

When I tell this to people, they sometimes say, “Your family is terrible,” and that’s not it at all. I put the pressure on myself in the end, and that’s something I think about sometimes. All of my choices have revolved around that: studying instead of going out, working on trying to get scholarships instead of doing things that might have been more enjoyable. 

I feel like a lot of people here at FAU are in that situation, where they can’t leave their hometown for that reason, and a lot of people will try to tell you that you are never going to make it if you don’t leave, however, here I am. My point is that you can be both things, never try to sell yourself short.

What is something you experienced in your field that affirmed your career choice?

Honestly, it’s funny because I kind of followed a weird path where I was kind of teaching when I was a grad student. I was also involved in pre-supplemental instruction as an undergrad, and then I got more involved in the technical side of things and management and operations of labs taught by other people. Up until the last two years before I started teaching again, those years had me away from all of my students. When I finally came back to teaching after all of that… I had not realized how much I missed teaching and being with my students. Then when I came back I was like, why have I not been doing this the whole time? Coming in every day, happy to see all of my students, affirms for me that this is what I should have done sooner.

What advice do you have for any of your students who want to pursue a graduate degree?

I would tell them to start exploring what does and doesn’t work for them as soon as possible. There are so many different kinds of research you can do. As an undergraduate, I worked with drosophila, which I did not really enjoy, and human tissue cells, which I really loved working with, which is why I always say to try different things, sooner rather than later… 

I hope that students know that there are so many different mentors and I believe that every student has a mentor.. Don’t let a bad experience with a mentor make you believe that science is terrible and that you are not capable of science, don’t make that mean that your mentor is terrible, just try somebody else; there’s always someone else. Don’t be so easily discouraged; there are so many scientists out there who have done great things and were told by people that science just was not for them, be open-minded to all opportunities.

 

How did your experiences as a student help shape your mindset on the importance of helping your students? 

As a student, on occasion, you have experiences that are not super pleasant. There have been times during my undergrad when I needed support with something and I couldn’t get it… and felt myself get increasingly distressed but all I wanted was someone to help me. I think that that was a huge part of what has had me want to contribute as much as I can, beyond the course content, to my students, because students are human beings after all. 

For me, I had someone to take me under their wing, who kept bringing me to the person who ran the SI program until she hired me. Once I started working for her, I could always ask who I could talk to in case of an issue, and she would always go out of her way to help me, introducing me to and calling people who could help. This made such a difference to just have a person who could always help me in one way or another, which makes me so much more passionate about helping my students today.

 

What was your dream career growing up?

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with drawing, and I also really liked drawing and making outfits for my dolls. I was always like, “I am going to be an artist” or a fashion designer, which is pretty funny as now, you will always see me in a white shirt and jeans because I am trying not to break any rules. 

When I got to college, I thought I was going to major in either literature or art. I took my first science class in my first semester of college with Dr. Diane Baronas Lowell, who is no longer at FAU, and I loved her and I loved the course and I realized this was the stuff I did not feel strange studying for because of how interested I was in it, which convinced me to change my major to biology. Many years later, I ended up working with Dr. Lowell in the biology department, and when she left I ended up taking her position and she was the person who inspired me to pursue a career in science.

So don’t believe it when people tell you you are not good at science, because here is the thing, people put a lot of stock on whether you are brilliant or you aren’t, on if you “get it” or if you don’t, and although they always said I was not brilliant, I worked really hard to get where I am, and quite frankly that is what counts the most.

 

Gabriela Quintero is a contributing writer for the University Press. For more information regarding this article or others, you can email her at [email protected].

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Erika Fletcher, Lead Photographer
Erika is a junior majoring in multimedia studies with a minor in photography. She loves shooting sports and street photography and in her free time, she enjoys drawing, skateboarding, playing soccer, listening to music, and being with her friends and family. She joined the UP on a whim to make new friends and to get better at photography. In her time here, while not long, she's made connections and learned so much about herself already and can't wait to continue her journey with such great people.

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