Portrait of Alan Avalos.

Alan Avalos

Research and Representation

Senior Alan Avalos finds his passion for neuroscience and for advocacy.

May 13, 2024

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Looking back at senior Alan Avalos’s accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine him ever experiencing imposter syndrome.

Avalos, a neuroscience and behavior and Latino studies major, works as a research assistant in the Smith Lab, where he studies sensorimotor circuitry in the spinal cord and is the lead author on a forthcoming research paper.

During his time at Notre Dame, he has also served as president of the Latinx Student Alliance and on the advisory board of the First Gen Careers Initiative, performed with Mariachi ND, and volunteered at La Casa de Amistad in South Bend.

But in his first days on campus, Avalos struggled with the idea that perhaps he wouldn’t be up to the challenges he might face at a research university like Notre Dame.

The community he found here helped him overcome that mindset and showed him that Notre Dame was exactly where he belonged.

Avalos and his family came to the US from Michoacán, Mexico, when he was 13, and he began eighth grade in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, knowing only a sentence or two of English.

Alan Avalos stands in front of the dome wearing his mariachi costume and holding a guitar and sombraro.
Avalos, dressed in a traditional charro suit, performs with Mariachi ND and learned to play the guitar for the group.

Five years later, he had mastered the language and his high school coursework and was admitted to Notre Dame through the QuestBridge Program. Avalos said he was drawn to the University, in part, because it allowed him to stay close to his family in the Chicago suburbs.

“Family is really important to me and was one of the big things driving my college decision,” he said. “I didn’t know much about Notre Dame at first, except that it was close to home. But the more I researched it, the more excited I got. The community aspect of it was unlike any other school I was looking into. And when I came to campus for the first time to move in, my parents and I were amazed at how beautiful everything was.”

Over the next four years, Avalos found that the people he has encountered at Notre Dame have become a second family to him, offering him mentorship and support—particularly through the AnBryce Scholars Initiative for first-generation students, the Galvin Scholars Program, and the Institute for Latino Studies.

Now, as a senior, he is offering that same guidance as a mentor to first- and second-year students in the AnBryce program.

“I always tell them, ‘Don’t worry about imposter syndrome. You might experience it at one time or another, but you can do this,’” he said. “‘Things that feel difficult now will get easier by the next semester or the next year and won’t seem like such a big deal.’ In hard times, I think it’s easy to forget how much the future holds.“

Avalos, who started out as a pre-med major, is grateful for the variety of opportunities Notre Dame provided that helped him discern his true passions for research, for representation, and for advocacy.

The summer after his first year, he participated in a Summer Service Learning Program (now called NDBridge) through the University’s Center for Social Concerns. Through the immersive experience, Avalos worked at the Nativity Jesuit Academy in Wisconsin as a summer camp counselor leading middle schoolers. Almost all of them were of Mexican heritage and about the same age he was when he came to the US.

Avalos plans to return to the camp to work this summer before starting his graduate studies and said the position helped him see the importance of role models who understand your experience.

“I could really see myself in them, and I think it was impactful for them to see someone who looked like them and spoke their language who was now at Notre Dame,” Avalos said. “There is a long way for the Latino community to go to be fairly represented in education and in STEM fields. The opportunities are not always there, but the potential is. And I hope that I was able to make a difference for those kids.”

The following year, Avalos secured a summer internship at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, where he worked in a biology lab for the first time—an experience that helped cement his passion for scientific research.

When he returned to campus for his junior year, he began working as a research assistant with Cody Smith, the Elizabeth and Michael Gallagher Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, doing foundational research tracing circuits in the spinal cords of zebrafish.

Alan Avalos performs on stage with the Latin Expressions mariachi band
Avalos (far right) performs with the band Mariachi ND at the Latin Expressions showcase.

“I have loved working with Professor Smith, and then I took a class with him last semester, which was very impactful as well,” Avalos said. “I knew I wanted to work in a lab, but seeing him teach was an inspiration for me and persuaded me to pursue teaching as well.

“There are not a lot of Mexican or Latino people teaching and researching in biology or neuroscience as a whole. So just contributing to that a little bit makes me excited.”

Avalos said his research project in Smith’s lab, which presents a map of the local sensorimotor circuit including neurons and astroglia in a completed circuit, is one of the things he’s most proud of from his time at Notre Dame.

“It’s a little bit rare for undergraduate students to get a project like mine, so I think I had to prove myself to my adviser and show that I was dedicated to science and wanted to take this on,” he said. “But the project has really prepared me well for graduate school and helped me discern exactly what I want to focus on.”

Funded by the Galvin Scholars Program, he was also able to travel to New York last fall to present his lab work at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Zebrafish Neurobiology Conference.

“It was really cool and inspiring to see myself in a room with world-class neuroscientists who are leading the field,” Avalos said. “It felt like I was now part of the conversation.”

When Avalos is not focused on lab work at a molecular level, his coursework in Latino studies has allowed him to see the bigger picture, he said, with classes in Latino literature, Latino theology, and Mariachi music and symbolism.

“My two majors complement each other in that they both keep me afloat,” he said. “Latino studies keeps me excited about classes at times when I’m overwhelmed with STEM and lets me explore things I’m passionate about. I like to write as a hobby and it’s great at times to take the focus off science and work on that, too.”

Avalos has also found joy in performing with Mariachi ND—and even learned to play the guitar for the group.

“I had a friend who was in it and said they needed singers. I have no musical background, but I’m a shower singer, so I thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “And it’s been really fun. We’ve been invited to perform for Admitted Student Days and cultural showcases. We offer serenades around Valentine’s Day. And we’ve performed at La Casa de Amistad in South Bend, so there has been a lot of community engagement, too.”

One of Avalos’s favorite memories of his time at Notre Dame—and a full-circle moment for him—has been helping to welcome new students to campus this year as part of the St. André Committee.

“Coming in, everyone is excited, and now you have the chance to make them even more excited about being here,” Avalos said. “Because the whole point is to welcome them home and being able to give back in that way to other students has been so cool.

“I tell everyone that coming to Notre Dame was the smartest decision I’ve made. Notre Dame has prepared me for my future, and I know that beyond graduation, Notre Dame will always be with me wherever I go.”