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QERM graduate student shares non-traditional journey from humanities to science graduate program

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Kelly Mistry, a third-year Master of Science student at UW, entered her program from an atypical pathway, as an older student with a humanities background and no connection to STEM fields. Despite these barriers, Mistry persevered to enter a competitive program where she now researches fisheries. 

Though Mistry did not formally study science during her bachelor’s degree, she had been fascinated with science since a high school trip to see polar bears and interact with local communities in Alaska. 

“I think I gave over 50 presentations in a year about climate change, with polar bears being the focal species,” Mistry said. “It's always been an interest.” 

As a student at a small university in Vermont, however, Mistry had limited undergraduate coursework options. She obtained her bachelor's degree in history and religious studies from Marlboro College prior to moving to Seattle for an AmeriCorps position with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. 

“I fell into that career, which is a pretty common story,” Mistry said. “Most people don't have fundraising suggested to them as a career path they should consider.” 

Mistry’s career trajectory — from nonprofit and volunteer positions in fundraising and data entry to coursework in science — benefited her as she returned to campus several years later.

After taking around 80 science credits at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Mistry returned to Seattle to take courses as a non-matriculated student at UW to fulfill coursework prerequisites prior to entering the master’s program in quantitative ecology and resource management (QERM). 

QERM is an interdisciplinary program where all students take the same quantitative research core courses prior to working with advisors in another department (such as fisheries) to apply the methodology to various scientific inquiries. 

The highly technical nature of the program means that prospective students must complete prerequisite coursework in statistics, science, and quantitative methods before being accepted into the highly competitive program. 

“I did data entry and sort of background administrative stuff for another 10 hours a week, so it meant I was on campus, so it was easier to go to classes,” Mistry said. “So I had two plus jobs for a while.” 

Mistry’s schedule was full, balancing coursework, her career, and her personal life — especially as a student in her late twenties taking courses with students fresh out of high school.  

“I was in the very beginning classes, so I was 28 in a class with 18-year-olds, and that was a little jarring,” Mistry said. “Ihad one 18-year-old boy tell me that I had really great skin, and I was like ‘How old do you think [I am]?’” 

Mistry also emphasized the importance of fighting against negative perceptions surrounding hopeful scientists. 

“I've been seeing things on science Twitter lately where undergrads or people wanting to go to grad school are getting the feedback that they have to have written a peer-viewed article to be admitted [to a graduate program],” Mistry said. “I still have not.”

Mistry is currently working on a project with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to more accurately calculate the biomass of groundfish in Alaska. 

Biomass refers to the weight of all combined species in a designated area; the total biomass in a region determines policy regarding fishing limits for the local community. 

Prior to Mistry’s project, policy was determined through an approximation of biomass rather than region-specific models. Mistry’s project will give policymakers a more precise measurement of biomass and more accurate fishing limits for communities that rely on groundfish for food. 

“If the catch limits can be really consistent across years, then the commercial fisheries can sort of plan better; they could allocate the resources better,” Mistry said. 

Mistry features her hobbies — especially poetry — on her personal webpage to show prospective students that science is only one part of life, rather than the all-consuming career path that popular culture depicts. 

Mistry also authored a team collaboration series where she reflects on her experiences throughout her various jobs. The eight-part series highlights how to set goals, expectations, and when to recognize when it is appropriate to quit. 

“My very first job I got backed into a corner and it had to be my husband who was like ‘You can quit,’” Mistry said. “It's not always the right answer, but I feel like considering it can be liberating.” 

Reach reporter Julie Emory at Twitter: @JulieEmory2

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