Alicia Swan: Inspiring the next generation of scientists through her persistence and passion for research
Alicia Swan's career in psychology did not start in a typical way. Now an assistant professor of psychology at UTSA, Swan committed to psychology late into her junior year after participating in a transformational undergraduate research program. After changing her major, she juggled completing her degree on time with applying to graduate programs; however, she wasn't accepted to any of them.
"If the trajectory of my career has taught me anything, it's that things tend to work out in the end no matter what," said Swan. "I've learned more from failing than I have from succeeding, and I think in science that's good because you're going to do a lot of that so you've got to get comfortable with it."
Slightly discouraged after being rejected from graduate school, Swan took a job in the financial industry. After two years on the job, and with a big promotion on the table, she decided to take a third and final crack at applying to graduate programs. This time she received four offers. Right before she interviewed with the schools, however, a close friend was in a terrible car accident that left her permanently disabled from a traumatic brain injury. In a way, this tragedy changed the trajectory of Swan's life.
"The accident was a big part of my headspace when I got an invitation to interview at Southern Illinois to do traumatic brain injury research, and it felt really serendipitous," says Swan. "The week before I had interviewed at another university and it was awful, they made me feel like an idiot because I had been out for a few years. I thought maybe I was a fraud, but Southern Illinois rolled out the red carpet for me. They were attentive every moment I was there."
After receiving her Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University in 2011, she held a postdoctoral research position in molecular neuroscience working with animals. A few years later, she was offered an opportunity with the largest integrated healthcare provider in the United States at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). As a research coordinator for the landmark Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium longitudinal study, Swan was able to see a path forward as an independent scientist.
"At our heart, scientists are storytellers — we're the professionals and specialists that have spent years working in a discipline. It's up to us to showcase the things we do, why they matter, and how that can meaningfully change people's lives," said Swan. "I love my job because there's always a challenge to rise to; we will never want to stop making people's lives better."
After several years as a contractor at the VA, Swan joined UTSA in 2018 and established the Swan Lab. She and a small cohort of dedicated graduate and undergraduate students work together with clinical experts from the VA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to explore functional recovery and rehabilitation strategies following traumatic brain injury, particularly among post-9/11 veterans. Through her lab, Swan is able to give undergraduates meaningful research experience and help them see a professional path for themselves.
"I've always loved working with students because one of the things that happens as you become a specialist in an area is that you become so laser-focused and so comfortable in all the things you've read before that you stop questioning them. Students force me to question things again and see something differently," said Swan.
The Swan Lab's research isn't just significant to local veterans. By partnering with the VA and DoD, it ensures that UTSA's research can help active duty members of the military, veterans and civilians with traumatic brain injuries across the world.
In addition to running her lab and teaching, Swan and her colleague Monica Lawson, assistant professor of psychology, co-founded a show called Prof Talk on Twitch TV. The series introduces students to different careers in psychology and the behavioral/social sciences. By connecting students with industry professionals through this informal and engaging medium, Swan and Lawson hope to dispel the myth that only the exceptional can be successful in their fields.
"There seems to be this broad misconception that unless you have a 4.0 GPA, top notch GRE score and the most elite research experience, it's not possible to get into these careers," said Swan. "One thing that you'll see with the existing Prof Talks is that almost nobody has a direct line from undergrad to grad school to career. It's really competitive to get into good, funded programs, but it is possible."
For undergraduate students considering graduate school, Swan advises they pursue research opportunities and not be afraid to ask questions. She stresses that having solid foundations in research experience and professionalism are critical to being a competitive candidate for graduate programs. Swan says that it also doesn't hurt to build a healthy resilience to hearing the word 'no.'
"Get the research experience, don't be afraid to go out and ask for it. The word 'no' has never hurt me. As a scientist, you're going to hear that word a lot. So if you're afraid of hearing 'no,' science might not be the best place for you. But if you can become resilient to the word, you can grow from it."
Swan teaches the following courses:
- PSY 4183 – Physiological Psychology
- PSY 4953 – Sp Studies: Psychopharmacology
- PSY 5383 – Biological Psychology
Read more Faculty Features about other interesting and accomplished faculty at UTSA.