Each month, ASBMB’s education and professional development manager, Weiyi Zhao, highlights the work and life of a minority scientist. In observance of Black History Month, on these pages we look back upon what some of the scientists who’ve participated in the interview series had to say.
Vice chancellor for strategic initiative at Louisiana State University, Boyd professor and Philip W. West professor of analytical and environmental chemistry, Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor
In the beginning: “I always tell of my first chemistry experiment at the age of 2 when I tasted kerosene to see why it produced light. From that experience, I learned the first law of chemistry, i.e. do not taste the chemicals.” Read the full interview here.
Associate professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee
In the thick of it: “I have found that biomedical research, particularly in academia, can be isolating and at times fraught with setbacks and disappointment. In spite of these adversities, I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is to not let speed bumps deter you from your goals and to not be afraid to take detours off a set path if these changes move you closer to a personally satisfying career.” Read the full interview here.
Assistant professor of chemistry at Brown University
Words of wisdom: “I would advise young people from under-represented backgrounds not to view their gender, race or ethnicity as an impediment. Science is not always a meritocracy. However, in this business, ideas are commodities, and publications are the currency. It is critically important to seek out good mentors, empathetic advisers and a network of supportive peers.” Read the full interview here.
Assistant professor in the department of molecular biosciences at Northwestern University
Forging a path: “Originally, I thought I wanted to be a child psychiatrist; I had even volunteered at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan for a summer. When I went off to college, I majored in biochemistry and minored in psychology. Sitting in my psychology classes, I found I was fascinated not only by the discussions of behavior associated with mental disorders but also by our discussions on neurotransmitters. I wanted to know more.” Read the full interview here.
Postdoctoral fellow at the Baylor College of Medicine
Tips to take to heart: “Don’t let science shape you; you shape science. Make sure you ask every ‘dumb’ question you have, and you will continue to reach your goals. Lastly, be sincere, honest, direct and humble in your efforts. People will appreciate these qualities and your work.” Read the full interview here.
Postdoctoral research associate, Purdue University
Navigating a foreign landscape: “If you are from a country that is not highly represented in (the) U.S.A. … or have difficulty speaking English, things can get lonely. Try to be patient. Pay attention to the reactions and signals from the people you interact with. Remember it is not for a day; it can be years before you ever get a chance to travel back or meet someone from you country. You, therefore, need to socialize or make the people around you see your social side.” Read the full interview here.
Assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Rolling with the punches: “There are failures along the way, and a key example that many people mention is being turned down for a funding opportunity. I try to give myself time to absorb the initial disappointment before making any further decisions so that I am in a mindset to be able to think realistically and logically about my next steps. Whatever the situation has been, my mentors have played an important role in helping me identify areas where I can improve and work towards achieving a more favorable outcome. Read the full interview here.
Assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego
Lasting impact: “As a graduate student and postdoc, I was also able to develop my interest in teaching and outreach. I helped design and implement programs that promoted excellence in science by increasing the participation of members of underrepresented groups in science and research — such as a Saturday Science Academy for high-school students at Caltech. It was incredibly rewarding when, years later, one of these high-school students worked as a teaching assistant in my upper-division molecular biology class at UCSD! Read the full interview here.
Erika T. Brown
Assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina
On finding a mentor: “As a junior faculty member, it is crucial to still have mentoring. Mentoring does not stop once the postdoctoral fellowship has been completed. In the early years of my independent position, I did not have a committed scientific mentor at my institution, because there was a lack of investigators who had a similar or overlapping research interest. I learned from this experience that, if your needs are not being met at your institution, it is imperative to seek assistance from outside senior faculty with expertise in your field of research. Read the full interview here.
Professor and chairman of the immunology department at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
What motivates him: “The satisfaction of seeing members of my lab make exciting discoveries, seen for the first time, and sharing that with them keeps me working. The satisfaction of seeing students come in not knowing how to use a pipette and leave brimming with excitement about a future in science makes it all worth it.” Read the full interview here.
Assistant professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee
Lesson learned: “After my B.S. and before entering graduate school, I worked at the Albemarle Corp. in an R&D unit developing a synthetic product. I quickly learned that my worth as a chemist was primarily determined by meeting the color specifications of the marketing teams and the chemical engineers’ existing plant designs. While I enjoyed working with the business teams and engineers, I wanted to experience more freedom in my science.” Read the full interview here.
Kitani Parker Johnson
Assistant professor at Xavier University of Louisiana
Managing loss, setbacks: “I lost my major collaborator, who was also my husband, very suddenly. We had several projects going both between us and independently. To re-focus my research, I had to reach out to someone I not only respected but trusted scientifically and who could serve as a mentor during that incredible time of transition.” Read the full interview here.
Kristala L. Jones Prather
Associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
An early start: “I don’t think there was ever any particular moment that caused me to gain interest in science. I was always a tinkerer – the kid who had to set the VCR, program the satellite dish (when we lived beyond the reaches of cable in East Texas!), took apart the sink to retrieve lost jewelry, and fixed the toilet with paper clips. I think a career in science and engineering was inevitable for me!” Read the full interview here.