March 2013

Tiffany Oliver

Tiffany OliverThis month, Weiyi Zhao, the education and professional development manager for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, interviewed Tiffany Oliver, an assistant professor in the biology department at Spelman College in Atlanta. Learn more about her research at

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?

I’ve always been interested in science. I started competing in the Detroit Metropolitan Science Fair in the fifth grade, and I competed each year until I graduated high school. Another decision … was attending Tennessee State University. I wanted to go to medical school when I first started college; however, during the second semester of sophomore year, I took genetics with Dr. E. Lewis Myles, and my life was forever changed.

While taking Dr. Myles’ class, I sincerely began to appreciate the logic within science. Another advantage of attending Tennessee State was their active (Minority Access to Research Careers) program. MARC programs are only available at minority-serving institutions, so had I not gone to TSU … I might not have had ample access to a structured research experience. While participating in the MARC program, I learned how to think scientifically, work with model organisms and to work independently as well as a member of a team.

Writing my predoctoral (National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award) and postdoctoral (NIH Pathway to Independence Award, or K99) fellowships really helped me learn the art of grantsmanship. This was possibly the most important skill I obtained to date. I was directly mentored in the completion of these activities by my graduate school adviser and science role model, Dr. Stephanie Sherman. Without grantsmanship, you are dead in the water, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to practice this art.

The final set of decisions that have helped me reach my current position are (1) participating in the FIRST Program at Emory University and (2) conducting curriculum development with the Center for Science Education at Emory.

FIRST stands for Fellowship in Research and Science Teaching: It’s an NIH-funded (Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award, or IRACDA) program and a nonconventional postdoc. FIRST fellows take courses on teaching, receive a mentored collegiate teaching experience and then teach independently on the college level.

How did you first become interested in science?
My dad was an elementary school science teacher. He would come home from school and perform “magic tricks,” which I later learned the scientific basis of. I would be remiss if I did not credit him with introducing me to the world of science.

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?
I sure did. Transitioning from undergrad to graduate school was very difficult. Both the social and cultural changes as well as changes in the way I had to learn and prove my understanding of materials threw me a major curveball. I didn’t fail, but I was on academic probation after my first semester of graduate school because I received a “C” in one of my classes.

How did I deal with it? I shed a few tears and kept moving. Most importantly, I changed my study habits. I scheduled regular meetings with my teachers and did my best to ensure I understood the primary literature and underlying experiments before I came to class.

What advice would you give to young people from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
My persistence has gotten me much further in life than my intellect. So my advice is to keep pressing on: Even when your knowledge fails you, persistence will kick in and help you achieve your goals.

I’ve had several unfortunate experiences with people in science. I’ve been harassed, doubted, lied on, prejudged and discriminated against. Something important that I’ve learned from each and every one of these experiences is that people are hurting, and sometimes the way they treat you is a reflection of something they’re going through, something they’ve been through or how they’ve been taught to treat people.

My advice to you is to hear it all but only take away the part of what is said that will help you achieve your goals or complete the task at hand. It’s not so important how people say what they say. What is most important is what they’re saying. Think about it. Don’t hold people’s ill treatment of you against them. It’s not good for them or for you. Each day is a new day with new mercies and favor.

What are your hobbies?
I scrapbook, roller skate, and I do Chicago Style Stepping. I also like to travel and spend time with my friends and family.

Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
I love Jesus. For me, he’s the ultimate role model. I try to be more like him each day. My father, Herman Oliver, is also one of my role models. He’s been through a lot in life — from losing his mother at an early age to being drafted during the Vietnam War. He is so resilient and adaptable, which are good qualities for any aspiring scientist. My graduate school adviser, Stephanie Sherman, is also one of my role models. She is a tenured full professor, loving mother and wife as well as a great scientist who is loved and admired by many.

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
The Bible states that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” I take this very seriously. I’ve been entrusted with the honor of providing teaching and experiences in research for minority women in science at Spelman College. It’s the most exhausting yet fulfilling job that I’ve ever had, and I am grateful to serve in this capacity. I also love the challenge and variety that science presents. Every day is different, and so are its complexities. However, I must say that interacting with my students and mentees is often the highlight of my day. I learn something new every day, whether it be about popular culture or a common misconception. I love knowledge and wisdom, and my job supplies a continuous source for both of them. These are things that keep me going.

Weiyi ZhaoWeiyi Zhao ( is the ASBMB manager of education and professional development.

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