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Active Minds hosts a STEM x Mental Health Panel with Dr. Todd and Dr. Starko

Marlo Armstrong | November 29, 2022

On October 25, Vanderbilt’s chapter of Active Minds held a STEM x Mental Health Panel with guest speakers, Dr. Tara Todd and Dr. Savanna Starko. Active Minds is a national organization dedicated to mental health outreach, specifically for young people. The event’s purpose was to give STEM students better insight on how to take care of their mental health and why it is so important for Pre-Med and Engineering students especially. The panel covered three different sections: Stress Management and Balance, Comparison and Doubt, and lastly, Professors and Departments. 

The two people who led the discussion were Christine Shatrowsky ’24, one of the Co-President sof Active Minds and Nandi Zhang ’24, a member of the Executive Board of the organization. They asked questions that were previously submitted in prior years of holding this panel. The two speakers were chosen based on their openness to share about mental health and their expertise gained from handling plenty of students. Dr. Todd is a Principal Senior Lecturer in chemistry and the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Dr. Starko is a Senior Lecturer in physics and astronomy and also a 500-hour registered yoga teacher at Small World Yoga in Nashville.

Topic 1: Stress Management and Balance

Stress can be shown physically, emotionally, or verbally and knowing how to deal with it as a student and a professor is crucial. “I’ll see [signs of stress] in office hours more so than in a classroom,” Todd said. “Students will show up and they will actually express it on some level. It’s expressed verbally or you can just see it in their reactions. That’s when we know that there is typically something going on and to address it.”

Stress definitely gets a bad rap due to the connotation of the word, but some of it is needed to push students to actually do their work. “Not all stress is bad, but I think you need to pay attention to how it feels in your body,” Starko said. “Stress to a certain extent is important because of fight or flight.” If stress does get to the point where it is taking over your body and you’re feeling symptoms like sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, and difficulty breathing, then you should reach out for help.

Continually, motivation is a huge factor in keeping STEM students productive throughout the day and even throughout their Vanderbilt career. “It’s important to keep your goals in mind,” Todd said. “Sometimes that lack of motivation is because you don’t recognize the tie-in to the goal. Whether that be law school, medical school, or whatever other reason to connect those dots and keep the goal in mind.”

Topic 2: Comparison and Doubt

One of the hardest things as a student in STEM can be not comparing yourself to others. “We always tell students not to compare,” Todd said. “The reality of it is that students still want to compare.”

Class averages being publicly shared is probably the biggest culprit of comparison. “Dr. Starko does not hand out class averages and I wish [General Chemistry] didn’t, but we do,” Todd said. “In General Chemistry, we use [class average] as a general gauge to figure out how everybody’s doing. We check to see that everyone’s on track to where we think everyone should be. When you’re talking about 750 students though, that average is just an average because there’s such a distribution. It’s really not overly meaningful.”

Separating your self-worth from a grade on a test can be difficult, but it’s necessary. “You are not your number and you are not your grade,” Todd said. “That grade is just one grade. We can always have conversations about how we can improve that and move forward if that’s what needs to be done.”

Comparing yourself to others is wasted energy. “If I think about how I compare to other people for a fraction of my day, that’s a fraction of my day gone where I could have been doing much more meaningful things,” Starko said. 

First-year students face the biggest changes with moving away from home, starting a new life, and taking harder classes. “A lot of people think that [the adjustment to college] is supposed to be easy and fun, but it’s not, it’s hard,” Todd said. “That first semester is the hardest semester because there’s so much that comes at students. There are so many people in the same boat in college, but they don’t realize it because they don’t talk to people.”

Imposter syndrome tends to be very prevalent at top-tier universities like Vanderbilt. “It’s important to recognize that you really do belong and that Vanderbilt didn’t get it wrong,” Todd said. “You’re here so make the best of it and we can get through the classes together. The imposter syndrome thing is real, but we just need to figure out how to help you guys find a place.”

Your mental health should come before schoolwork in order to prioritize your well-being. “Everybody’s pathway is going to look different,” Todd said. “For some people, it’s going to take four years, for some people it might take six, and it could take even more. If you have mental health issues, it could prevent you from carrying a particular workload so maybe you have to go down to a smaller workload. All of this is totally okay because you have to do what is absolutely necessary for your health. Everybody has their own timeline and don’t let anybody speed that up for you.”

Topic 3: Professors and Departments

Every professor runs their classroom differently. “On day one with my students, we talk about my three themes of class which I borrowed from the type of yoga that I teach,” Starko said. “One of the biggest things in preparation for class is to give up what you have to give up, which is usually in the form of pre-conceived notions. Second is what means to be a yes: coming in and having an open mind, open ears, and open eyes to everything that is possible in class. Third is coming from a place of being ready, right here and right now.”

    In the STEM department, it can be easy to zone out of class if you have a different test that week and are only focusing on that. That method is impractical in the long run. “Try to do your work in small doses,” Starko said. “Do little bits of everything instead of whole chunks of one course.”

Active Minds Involvement

If you’re interested in getting involved with Active Minds, reach out to either president, Christine Shatrowsky ( or Doah Shin ( The GroupMe is linked below for easy access to GBMs, large-scale events, and book club meetings! 

Active Minds GroupMe: