Tell us about your current career position.
I am a final year graduate student in the Laboratory of Dr. Carol Williams, of the department of Pharmacology & Toxicology at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). I am a research assistant and thus train junior graduate and medical students that come through our lab, in molecular and cellular techniques. I also provide guidance to these students with their research projects.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
When I earned my BSc. in Chemistry, I decided to challenge myself and pursue a M.Sc. in Chemistry. My plans were to get a job with my M.Sc., work for two years and then return to school to pursue a PhD. My Thesis advisor, Dr. Wardeska, saw the potential, drive and passion I had for knowledge and research, and in the last semester of my program, he asked me if I had started applying to PhD programs. I told him about my plans to get a job and pursue a PhD later. He looked at me and shook his head saying “go get your PhD.” He told me I will be selling myself short if I decided to end up with a M.Sc. This interaction reinforced my desire to further my education and I immediately applied to several programs in Chemistry and Pharmacology. I was admitted into both types of programs and my next step was to decide what I wanted to pursue at this level. To challenge myself, broaden my knowledge and expand my technical skills, I accepted the offer from MCW. It availed me the opportunity to pursue a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. Tumor biology has always been a field that I was interested in and I have always wanted to contribute to the better understanding of cancer. Once I got to MCW, I decided to pursue this interest. Because there are several labs at MCW that study tumor biology, I had to figure out which specific aspects of cancer biology (genomics, immunology, signaling, or cancer susceptibility etc.) I was more interested in. This process was facilitated by the Interdisciplinary Program (IDP) that allows incoming students to rotate through at least 4 basic science labs during their first year, with the objective of figuring out what research projects and labs they are interested in. I chose my current lab because I loved the research, enjoyed the lab dynamics, and my PI (mentor) is very enthusiastic.
How did you first become interested in science?
I always did well in my science classes but I credit my interest in science and my desire to pursue a career in science to my high school Chemistry teacher. His enthusiasm and love for Chemistry sparked an interest in me.
Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
As a graduate student I have had several challenges and failed experiments. I have spent months working on optimizing experiments that don’t seem to work. I have been discouraged, but I have learnt to talk myself out of discouragement and to move forward. Sometimes it takes longer to get over the discouragement, but I keep encouraging myself till I get over it. I am a Christian and thus I encourage myself with Scriptures. Importantly, these experiences have helped me to grow and mature into a better scientist.
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
-I’ll say believe in yourself, be assertive and use every challenge as a stepping stone to get you to the next phase of your career and/or research project. People will tell you that you won’t make it, you are not good enough, or you don’t have what it takes. Don’t let this discourage you, instead allow this to be a challenge to you to work hard and prove them wrong.
-Research is tough, so it is important to take the time to figure out what kind of research you are passionate about. As I mentioned above, my institution MCW has a vehicle to facilitate this process, the IDP program. Other schools do offer similar programs but if you are interested in a school that does not offer such a program, I advise you to contact the labs you are interested in and apply to do summer lab rotations. Most institutions offer summer programs/internships for high school and college students. A summer rotation could help you figure out what you are interested in, it provides an opportunity to get to know the people you will potentially be working with, get to know the lab dynamics. You will spend 4-6 years of your life in graduate school in this lab, so it is important to find an environment conducive for your studies, growth and maturation as a scientist.
-Mentors have different mentoring styles, and figuring out what style works best for you might be important. You can talk to postdocs/students/technicians in the labs you are considering to join and/or the PI(s) about their mentoring style. However, don’t expect your mentor to meet all your scientific needs. In this career, you’ll need more than one mentor. I have mentors who mentor me on different aspects of my career from what statistical tools to use in my data analysis, to career preparation, management and development.
-Where possible, hold leadership positions. These positions will allow you to gain leadership skills and also to meet and interact with people (network). I have served at different positions throughout my academic career. Recently I served as my departmental (Pharmacology) representative on the GSA, the student member on the Course Evaluation Committee, and I am currently one of the founders and treasurer of a minority association (USBR) at MCW.
-Most Science PhD programs offer a stipend and cover the tuition of their candidates. Stipends are competitive and require candidates to either teach or perform research duties. To qualify for a stipend you will need to have good grades. Plan your graduate career ahead of time (high school, college), study hard and keep your grades up.
What are your hobbies?
I love sports. I play volleyball and tennis. I also enjoy regular movie nights with friends. When I get a break from science (not often), I travel and explore new places.
What was the last book you read?
I am currently reading “Reposition Yourself: Living Life without Limit” by T.D. Jakes. Before this I read “Making Great Decisions” by the same author. T.D Jakes is such an inspiring author. These books talk about rediscovering yourself by taking new challenges, changing your decisions or making new decisions to change your life experience positively. They challenge the reader to re-ignite the fire of their dreams and to soar to higher heights.
Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
I have many role models who have influenced and shaped my career, person and life. These include some of the great teachers and mentors I have been blessed to have in my career path. My High School Teacher, Mr. Molu, was instrumental to my decision to study science. Dr. Wardeska helped to reinforce my desire to pursue a PhD. My boss Dr. Williams has nurtured my scientific thinking and invested so much time and efforts in me. She is an exemplary mentor and I hope to do justice to the wonderful training I have received from her. My parents taught me to believe in myself and to strive for the best. Mediocrity was never an option when I was growing up. My mom taught me the value of not giving up but working harder when things get tough.
I currently mentor a group of under-represented high school students in my community (Milwaukee Academy of Science). I volunteer some of my weekends to help them with their science projects and to hopefully be a positive role model for them.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
Challenges! The challenges I face have been the driving force that has kept me working hard. I decided to pursue a PhD in Pharmacology and not Chemistry, though I had a solid background in chemistry and not biology at the time. This I did to challenge myself. I have since then learnt a lot and continue to do so with each day. At each stage of my academic career, the challenges I face keep the fire for science burning in me and push me to work harder to get to the next level. The rewards that come with these challenges are immeasurable. The satisfaction of making a novel discovery and knowing that you are advancing science makes it all worthwhile.
Elizabeth Ntantie can be reached at email@example.com.