Science Narratives is a series of interviews with students from diverse fields in science at various stages of their career. By learning more about individuals and their journey in science, this series has the goal of breaking the stereotypes in science and showcasing the diversity in STEM. We hope readers will find connections and inspirations in these stories told.
Describe your research or love for science in a haiku.
That is how I describe us.
My research and me.
What is the focus of your research?
My research focuses on developing and optimizing nanomedicines to treat aggressive, metastatic breast cancers. Studies have shown that certain phospholipases are upregulated and therefore more abundant in cancer cells than normal cells. I plan to exploit this property by creating “designer liposomes” which are selectively degraded by these phospholipases.
Tell us your personal story in science + research. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
Growing up, I had quite the disdain for math and science. It was not because I particularly hated the subjects but because I found myself having more questions than answers. As a child in a mediocre public school where the teachers were only partially equipped with the knowledge they needed, I was the worst possible student. I can think of at least two teachers I should probably apologize to for my constant interruptions in class. I did love learning but I often found myself growing increasingly frustrated because I had more questions than my teachers could answer. I asked too many questions and I disputed answers. I wanted to know the “why” as opposed to mirroring the “how.” As one could imagine, this landed me in the hot seat. Of the principal’s office. Regularly. So, I stopped asking questions. I memorized the notes, recited what I was told, and slowly I grew unenchanted with learning.
I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t choose research. Research chose me. As a child, I never considered being a researcher or going to graduate school. I didn’t even know it was an option. My mother worked hard to provide us with all the things we needed and a few of the things we wanted but my family was relatively poor. My mom, brother and I lived in a two-bedroom apartment for most of my childhood. Before that we lived in a one-bedroom apartment and before that we lived with my grandparents. Honestly, I just wanted a job. I dreamt of financial stability.
I decided to go to college based solely on the notion that college educated people earned more money. I majored in Computer Science because my advisor told me that it was “a good way to go” but I quickly realized how much I hated it and began taking courses in Chemistry instead. I did so with hopes of answering some of the questions I had stopped asking in primary school. During this time, I was introduced to a program called HBCU-UP which gave minority undergraduates in STEM the opportunity to do research. This was my first experience in research. I asked questions and to my surprise, I wasn’t reprimanded for it. Instead, I was encouraged to search for answers. I could work for as long as I wanted to and no one bothered me. My thirst for knowledge and understanding was reawakened in those moments.
After receiving my B.S. in Chemistry, I worked as a research assistant at my university. During that time, I was encouraged to pursue graduate studies and I began working towards my M.S. in Biological Science. I worked on a project to determine the efficacy of peptide conjugated silver nanoparticles against resistant bacterial strains. I also applied for another minority initiative called MBRS-RISE. This program provided me with the mentorship and opportunities that ultimately solidified my decision to pursue a PhD. Thanks to that program, I spent a summer interning in the lab that would eventually become my lab home.
I am now working towards my doctorate in Pharmaceutical Sciences. I look at how we can make better dosage forms for cancer therapeutics. It feels unreal every time I say that; to think that years ago in that tiny apartment, all I wanted was a job. I never dreamt that I would be here but I love what I do and I owe my decision to pursue science and research to those teachers who grew tired of answering my never-ending questions and the programs and mentors who encouraged me to ask again. I may have stumbled into this, but looking back, it feels like fate to me.
What do you like most about blogging about life as a STEM researcher?
It makes me feel connected. When I post things on my blog or on my Instagram, seeing other people say, “I go through that too!” or “I needed that advice,” lets me know that I am not the only one. It gives me an extended family that cheers me on when I’m excelling but also understands me when I’m down.
As a woman in science and person of color, have you faced any form of discrimination? What advice do you have for others who go through similar challenges?
I’ve never faced any blatant discrimination in science but it is the subtle things that go home with you at night and make you question yourself. Being an African American woman, I am most often surrounded by people who do not look like me or share my culture or my life experiences and it is difficult. Being a minority in research, I often feel like I must be perfect. That mentality is detrimental in graduate school because you can’t learn if you’re busy pretending to know everything. If you don’t know an answer you don’t ask because you fear being thought of as “stupid.” If there are a handful of people who look like you in the department, people will assume you know each other and often they will subconsciously rank you. And you know this, and it drives you crazy.
What is your best advice for promoting diversity in STEM?
Prioritizing STEM education for young children and the continued backing of minority initiatives in STEM. Looking at my story, it is abundantly clear that I owe a lot of my success to minority initiatives. I am where I am today because of initiatives such as HBCU-UP and MBRS-RISE which provide funding and opportunities for students like myself who would not have been privileged enough to exist in this space.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone considering science research?
In the words of Dory, “Just keep swimming.” Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t belong, like you’re not smart enough, not motivated enough, etc. but the key is to just keep going. I’d also tell them to become really good at failing. You will fail. You will make mistakes; a lot of experiments won’t work – but that’s fine. It’s all a part of the process.