Ph.D. candidate Arik Davidyan is only graduate school ambassador of American Physiological Society on West Coast

Davidyan balances work, school, family life, membership in APS

Most cannot have it all: completing multiple degrees; working toward a Ph.D.; doing research work in a lab; being a parent and partner and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Yet, Arik Davidyan, a graduate student in the molecular, cellular and integrative physiology program and a Ph.D. candidate studying skeletal muscle physiology, somehow seems to make it all possible. Davidyan, the only graduate student ambassador (GSA) for the American Physiological Society (APS) on the West Coast, still makes time for his wife, Tamar, and two children, Nadav, age four, and Yael, who is eight months old. 

Born and raised in Israel in the small agricultural town of Moshav Maslul, Davidyan is the first of his family to receive a college education and one of the first in his hometown to work toward a Ph.D. He met his wife when he was just 19-years-old, and they moved to the U.S. in 2008 for college. 

Davidyan started community college at Bellevue College in Seattle and, shortly after, moved to California to attend Woodland Community College. After attending for two years, he and his wife transferred to UC Davis, where he received a bachelor’s degree in exercise biology. 

When Davidyan graduated, he got a job at the coroner’s office in Yolo County and was working in a lab, but he was not sure what he wanted to do next. He decided to apply for graduate school and was accepted to UC Davis once again. 

“I didn’t really think much about graduate school,” Davidyan said. “I am coming from a very uneducated community.”

During his time at UC Davis, Davidyan decided to apply to become a graduate student ambassador of APS. Davidyan, who was elected to be an ambassador for APS in 2018, is in the second year of his fellowship now. He is one of nine other GSAs, but is the only one located on the West Coast. 

“The society is a way for people with a common goal, to promote physiology and the importance of physiology to the general population and also for physiologists around the United States,” Davidyan said. “Both me and the society believe that physiology is something that is relevant for everyone. It is really important that people understand what physiology is.”

APS is one of the oldest medical societies in the world, said Keith Baar, a neurobiology, physiology and behavior professor and member of APS. Founded in 1887, APS brings together people all around the country who are dedicated to studying physiology and how the body works. 

Currently, almost 10,000 members make up the society, according to Brooke Bruthers, the director of education and member communities for APS.

“One of the goals of the society is to get undergraduate students involved in both research and outreach, especially students from underprivileged minorities,” Davidyan said. “We have the goal of increasing the diversity in physiology. APS is doing a lot to recruit more young individuals from very diverse backgrounds to get into physiology, support their path as they’re getting into it with funds and opportunities and [provide] networking and awards.” 

Members of APS have multiple benefits, such as the ability to attend an annual APS conference, free access to peer reviewed journals, access to career resources and job opportunities and more, according to an email from Lila Wollman, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Arizona who serves on the trainee advisory community (TAC) of APS. She also leads the graduate student ambassador program. 

“I list positions in my lab on the physiological society website,” Baar said. “The people I am looking for are usually people who are interested in understanding what is happening, and take part in the society.”

The GSA fellowship program was launched by the TAC in 2015 as a way for student members to serve as liaisons between undergraduate, graduate students and APS, Wollman said. Fellows like Davidyan administer visits to classrooms at undergraduate institutions in their geographic region and give presentations promoting membership to APS as well as information about what physiology is and the diversity of careers in the field. 

The TAC choose candidates for GSA each term by reviewing current APS members who are in good standing, involved in scientific research, demonstrate an aptitude for scientific outreach and demonstrate the ability to present to groups and explain their research, Wollman said. 

“A lot of people do not realize how big physiology is,” Davidyan said. “Pretty much everything you can think of that has to do with human health, a lot of times it falls under physiology.”

Anyone can join APS, even people who do not work in the field of physiology. Members just need to be interested in how the science of the body works, according to Baar. Students pay $10 each year to join, but senior members who are not students have to pay over $200 a year. 

As Davidyan’s mentor, Baar has looked after his Ph.D. progress for the last three years after his previous mentor moved to the University of Iowa. Davidyan also works in Baar’s Bodine Lab, helps with teaching Baar’s students and mentors other students in the lab. 

In the Bodine lab, they study how the musculoskeletal system works and the best methods for studying it. Davidyan specifically studies testosterone. 

“[Davidyan] is a lot of fun,” Baar said. “We have a very relaxed and playful environment in our laboratory. We are always giving everyone a hard time and he both gives it and takes the jabs when they are coming at him. When the time comes to be serious, he is very serious, but he likes to have a good time.”

Additionally, Davidyan has been a TA, instructor and professor for almost every quarter he has been at UC Davis. This quarter, he is the associate instructor for a NPB 101 section. He is a part of a TA consultants program which is a group of graduate students that train and provide services for other graduate students in the realm of teaching. Also, he started a new program called TA Well-being, which aims to empower TAs to take care of their personal well-being and that of their students. 

“[Davidyan] is into everything,” Baar said. “I know he has a lot of energy. He loves physiology and the idea of teaching physiology to people. He is a very, very good teacher.”

In addition to being a good teacher, Davidyan is a good role model for students to look to for guidance. 

“[He] is really good at modeling the behaviors of the work-life balance,” Baar said. “He has a very new baby girl, and we often seen him in the lab carrying his daughter on his chest. A lot of students run into him at the farmers market, and they see him with his family.”

Working in the field of science is commonly known to take over one’s life, Baar said. But for Davidyan, he is a good example of a scientist who can have it all. 

“We all hear about people who do not have a life, they just have science, [but] Arik understands that is a deterrent,” Baar said. “He is modeling the behavior and showing people they can still have a really good home life and be a great scientist.”

As far as advice for other students, Davidyan said everyone should take advantage of all the opportunities presented to them as well as take care of themselves. He believes the entire experience of college is becoming too stressful and unhealthy.

“I do my own part to try to make it better for everybody,” Davidyan said. “First and foremost, we are all humans and we all need to take care of our own body, and make sure the physiology of our own body is working okay. We need to sleep well, to eat well, to exercise and to hang out with friends.”

After living in Davis for almost 10 years, Davidyan is sad to move on and leave the town. He will move to Oklahoma City in two months due to a postdoctoral position offer he received. 

“I love it here,” Davidyan said. “We are going to really miss Davis. It is really nice for myself and for raising my family in Davis.”

In Oklahoma, Davidyan will continue doing research on the aging body, skeletal muscle mass and its function in physical activity and the physiological differences between the sexes. Although Davidyan is still figuring out his future plans, he knows that he will try to continue pursuing opportunities to do research and teach. 

“I am going to keep working on skeletal and muscle [research], but it is going to be more on [the] metabolism side of things,” Davidyan said. “I will study how muscle is utilizing energy and how it is contributing to the systematics of the entire body.”

For anyone interested in learning more about APS, they can contact Davidyan at adavidyan@ucdavis.edu or visit the APS website.

Written by: Margo Rosenbaum — science@theaggie.org