As the Class of 2020 mourns the loss of their Senior Spring and spends time in social isolation rather than celebrating with champagne, The Argus remains committed to highlighting the accomplishments of those graduating during this frightening and uncertain time. To do so, we will keep publishing WesCelebs, and we are continuing to take nominations. Nominate on, and we’ll continue to confer members of the Class of 2020 to eternal Argus glory.
Did you know the government controls your body by regulating cheese? Melisa Olgun does. She also knows a lot about the biological and sociological intersection of schizophrenia (it’s part of her thesis), FGLI student advocacy at Wesleyan (she does it), and Wesleying (she’s a writer and editor). The Argus Zoomed with Melisa to talk about her time at Wes and much, much, more.
The Argus: Why do you think you were nominated to be a WesCeleb?
Melisa Olgun: I mean, part of it is because I’ve been complaining about it on Twitter for some time, but one of my friends, we’ve been talking about—she’s known me since her freshman year, my sophomore year, and she’s always been like “You know everybody on campus, in some way shape or form, or everybody knows you”. So I think that that’s part of it, that there are definitely people on campus who know me better than I know them, which is slightly terrifying, because I don’t know in what context they know me. Part of it’s that I do a lot on campus, not necessarily just academically but social justice-wise, activism-wise, all these things that I kinda permeate in a lot of different spaces.
A: One of the nominations mentioned FGLI [First-Generation Low Income] student advocacy, which you’re involved with, could you talk a little bit about that?
MO: Yeah, so I’m an FGLI student, and my advocacy started before my first year at Wesleyan. I was part of First Things First [FTF], in its first cohort, the pre-orientation program for FGLI students. There I saw a glimpse of the activism that I could do. The kind of FGLI advocacy that I started doing my first year surrounded STEM activism. I was in WesMass, which is the Wesleyan Science and Mathematics Scholars group, and it’s typically FGLI students, students of color, who want to pursue STEM. I found my little niche in there because I was directly seeing the ways that FGLI students had faced barriers on campus, whether that’s microaggressions from professors, not having access to office hours because they do work—because of work-study— having difficulty finding representation—like a welcoming kind of representation—and a feeling of place in STEM. Not only did I see my other peers feel the same thing, but I also saw that myself. So I started doing a lot of advocacy through STEM networks and I joined the NSM Coalition within the leadership team. It started as this giant group of bringing different types of underrepresented STEM groups together, bringing all those leaders and people who were doing similar kinds of projects together under one umbrella. Since then we’ve kind of broken off into different types of projects. One of the big projects that I started—well, two—one was the TA/CA application. Basically, one thing that we noticed, especially within Intro STEM classes, was that a lot of the TAs and CAs were just like rich white students, because they had already taken the classes in high school, they already had exposure to it, so obviously they would do well in those courses. A lot of FGLI students didn’t see themselves not only in the teaching staff, but also in their TAs, and so I ended up going to a few professors and being like “Would you be willing to take a student who had a B or a B+ in the class?” because the standard was an A- or above, and was like “are you willing to take someone who has a lower grade, who might understand the material a bit more, but just may not have been able to excel on an exam?” A lot of professors seemed really into it, so we created this application. The purpose of it was to have a more holistic review of students who want to be TAs.
And then the other thing that I did/I’ve done/I’m still doing is the Wesleyan In-Reach Project, which connects Middletown and Middletown-adjacent high schoolers who are FGLI to shadow labs over the summer. One thing is that there is a program, through the Wesleyan faculty, that takes basically high-excelling high school students in STEM and allows them to shadow labs. And the thing is, that’s great, to take high achieving students and to give them lab exposure is awesome, but then you end up missing a lot of FGLI students because they may not be valedictorian, salutatorian at their school. I tried to solve that by allowing literally any student who has high school experience in STEM to just shadow a lab. We had our pilot program last year, and that was one of the big projects I did on campus, and right now we were going to do our second cohort, but we’re trying to see if it’s feasible, if research in the sciences is actually going to happen over the summer at Wes, because the program runs in tandem with the undergrads who are also on campus.
I’ve also worked with Dean Whaley on the FGLI advisory committee/coalition—the names have sometimes changed over the past few years. That was kind of bringing students and administrators together after this kind of heated discussion happened after my first year. My freshman spring, they brought us in for a wine and cheese—the FTF students—just like “Yeah! Let’s celebrate first-gen students,” and it ended up becoming a pretty heated conversation about accessibility and so Dean Whaley, in response, started the FGLI committee, and I’ve been a part of it since. It brings Financial Aid, it brings Office of Equity and Inclusion, it brings Academics, it brings a lot of different administrative departments together with students to have a “task force” to kind of address a few things. They’ve worked with Financial Aid on scholarships and all that kind of stuff.
That’s like the two main institutional things that I’ve done. Otherwise I kind of track and find FGLI students [laughs] and I’m like “Hey! Let me talk to you” and kind of through WesFest and through hosting SOC FGLI students before they’re even freshmen at Wes, kind of trying to find them and to show, to really have that representation.
A: You’re a writer and an editor at Wesleying. How has that been?
MO: I did the prototypic first year thing and I started stalking Wesleying the second I decided that I was going to come to Wes. I had this thing where I would judge schools based on their libraries, and for some reason I found a picture of Olin through Wesleying and I was like, “Oh, what is this thing?” and I kept reading about Wesleyan’s crazy history and everything that students have done, and so I kind of squeezed myself into Wesleying even before I came to campus. I was already in touch with Will, who was one of the editors at the time. When I came to campus, I took over the Wesleying snapchat—I don’t know how all these things happened, I think I was just super hyperactive on the internet—I met a bunch of people in Wesleying through that, and so I started coming to meetings. My first article—the thing is, Wesleying has this tiered process where in order for you to write a feature you need to do a bunch of event posts, but I didn’t, and so I wasn’t expecting to be able to publish a feature for a while, but then the entire clown thing happened. My first year, in the Fall, there was this weird phenomenon, that people were dressing as clowns, and some of the clowns were actually dangerous, it was this entire thing. People were starting to get scared, right, there were a few reported clown attacks around the US and so I wrote this, now looking at it, super embarrassing article about how to like protect yourself from the clowns. I was trying to bring in some Wesleyan references, about Usdan, like I don’t even remember. But that ended up being my first feature, and I kind of just kept with it from there. My writing on Wesleying kind of waxes and wanes—I have a lot of ideas, but then I get distracted by other things, but that year was like a big year where I had really funny—“funny”—really cringey meme-ish articles and then the other half were activism-based. My freshman year I posted this article about—basically exposing University statistics about STEM students. One of the big stats that we had was if a student is privileged, they have like a 90% chance of having a 3.0 or above in STEM, and then for students of color it was around 60%. That was an article calling for action, and I ruffled a few feathers doing that, and I was like “Okay, cool. This is what I want to continue doing.” My junior year, I think it was, I was asked to become an editor. And it was super, like—one of those moments where I got that text that was like, “Hey, wondering if you wanted to be an editor?”, and I love editing papers, it’s one of my favorite things. I have a thing for semicolons; I have this prototypic sentence structure that my friends make fun of but it’s like words semicolon words colon words. I just love writing, and I love editing things, and making things clearer for other people and all that good stuff, so I immediately accepted the position and have had like a really fun time seeing the other side of Wesleying. As a writer, you see like “let’s produce things, let’s have them edited, done,” and on the editor side you end up obviously finding more information about what’s happening on campus because it’s always a topic of conversation, and it’s super cool. I love Wesleying so much.
A: What kind of stuff have you done in [Neuro] labs that’s been interesting?
MO: [There’s] the Schizophrenia Cognition Lab, which I’m still at. It’s a clinical psychology lab where we compare the efficacy of two types of cognitive remediation therapies on people with schizophrenia. I don’t personally do the therapy because I obviously am not a clinical psychologist, but what we do, the lab associates, we go to River Valley Services which is an outpatient center, like five minutes away from Wesleyan, and we administer clinical testing to track the changes of symptoms. It’s a really incredible lab. It’s one of those moments where—you read about clinical testing in class, and you read about different therapies that are being employed to help people, and then being there…It’s super exciting but it’s also a huge responsibility, right, like I am directly asking patients about their experiences, their symptoms. I’ve had clients tell me super intimate things about their lives, because you’re in that setting where you’re soliciting information, and that weird juxtaposition of being like, who the hell am I, as an undergraduate, talking to these—typically older people—who have been disenfranchised from the world because they have the label of schizophrenic, kind of inspired my thesis work.
I am writing my thesis in Neuro and SiSP, and it’s kind of the first type of thesis to come out of the lab like this. It analyzes how race, class, and gender intersect with medicine to co-produce schizophrenia—that’s the tl;dr. But basically my central thesis is that schizophrenia is not just its own biomedical process, it’s—I don’t want to say it’s not a real thing—but, it is the product of the way that we view madness, and what we consider as “crazy”. And that is influenced by racism, it’s influenced by the patriarchy, it’s influenced by classism, and the way that society has created it—because of all these things—is that it creates a schizophrenia that disproportionately targets Black men, as schizophrenic. There’s a lot of epidemiological data that kind of get there—they’re almost there. They’re like, “oh, Black men are more likely to be diagnosed as schizophrenic,” or like, “Men are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia,” or “Poor people have these traumatic experiences that can lead them to have schizophrenia,” and they just like forget that there’s—it’s like this entire thing that Neuroscience, oftentimes, tries to have this idea of objectivity where they’re like “If it’s not biological, and if it’s not supported by empirical data, it’s not real.” A lot of Neuroscience theses end up having this huge pit, this huge gap of acknowledgement of how not only does bias in science affect the way that we view the world, but your own bias as a researcher [does]. My thesis tries to grapple with that reality by also presenting my research with this science and technology studies/sts lens, and it’s frickin’ hard. When I first pitched it—so, Professor Kurtz runs the lab, and then my advisor in SiSP is Andy Hatch, who is incredibly wonderful—and when I pitched it to him, he was like “This is going to be hard,” and I was like “Nah! It won’t be that bad, I’ve written papers in Soc before, I’ve written Anthro papers, this’ll be fine.” And it’s hard, trying to bring in the sciences with non-hard STEM disciplines together, because you’re trying to make that balance between criticizing science and criticizing what my Neuroscience readers will be reading, while also being like “No, you’re not bad—it’s the system that’s bad” and trying to put it within a language that’s also accessible and understandable by both disciplines, but it’s so much fun. It’s so exciting.
What I’m doing right now, I’m in my third chapter, this is my last part of the thesis, and it’s like—so now I’ve given you theory, let’s talk about the person, let’s talk about the experience, and the narrative, and how that’s as important as the enumeration of schizophrenia. The numbers are helpful when done correctly, but that should be supplemented with story. That should be supplemented with experience, because that allows you to have a dual approach, right, that allows you to look at the brain and look at symptoms and these objective measures of illness, but then you also have that subjective, this is my experience [aspect]. One thing that happens in the lab, and that’s because it’s a pilot study, very few participants—about 25, at this point—our data doesn’t show much. If we published our data, it’d be like, oh, it’s promising, but we don’t have much significance. People in the Neuroscience community may not view it as legit, but the thing is, the clients who I’ve talked to, the clients who most of the RAs and Professor Kurtz have been interacting with, they’re like, “This thing helps me. It may not come up in your data, but me coming consistently to an intervention, me coming consistently to be tested, helps me find stability within my life and I have seen improvements in myself.” The thesis will end on that—numbers don’t explain it all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sophie Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org