What would you say to an aspiring scientist?
“Focus less on the numbers that try to define you… that try to say you won’t fit in because of this. Whether that’s a grade or statistic, or a GRE score. Those shouldn’t serve as the main barriers when aspiring to a career as a scientist. Don’t count yourself out.”
A little bit of soap, maybe some vinegar, and a lot of curiosity went into Rushell’s childhood home experiments. Mixing together household products made up her first memories of playing a scientist. Now, she no longer has to pretend.
Rushell is a neuroscientist in the Neurobiology and Behavior graduate program at Columbia University, who studies psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and depression. “I’ve always been really interested in the development of psychiatric symptoms because I grew up around it and [was] in a pretty religious community,” Rushell explained. While her childhood community believed these symptoms to be the work of “the devil”, Rushell knew there had to be something more. “Part of what drives my research is the ability to enhance education about psychiatric disorders and shake away the cobwebs of misconception about it… like ‘the devil’ part.” In Dr. Christoph Anacker’s lab, Rushell uses mice to study how a chemical in their brain, serotonin, plays a role in developing psychiatric disorders.
“…what drives my research is the ability to enhance education about psychiatric disorders and shake away the cobwebs of misconception about it… like ‘the devil’ part.”
The link between serotonin and anxiety has been studied for many years, but looking to early life experiences and the changes in the brain during that time may provide novel insights into depression and anxiety. People who experience stress as a child may develop anxiety-like disorders as an adult with symptoms like being unable to distinguish safe and fearful situations. Rushell’s work sets out to study how serotonin in one area of the brain, called the hippocampus, contributes to developing these anxiety-like symptoms. Better understanding the role of serotonin may lead to interventions in patients before any psychiatric symptoms develop.
Even though Rushell has found success in the lab, it wasn’t always an easy path — especially in the classroom. In high school Rushell had trouble making top grades in her science courses, and that pattern continued at Amherst College. Even though she loved learning biology and chemistry and did well in her lab courses, translating that excitement and knowledge for a test did not come easily. “I thought maybe this is a sign that I couldn’t be a scientist,” Rushell recalls. “But, I continued to take science classes despite all the C’s.”
Her persistence paid off when she finally took her first neuroscience course. This course was “life changing” for Rushell as she was exposed to a new field, and learned that she didn’t have to be a doctor if she wanted to study science. For the lab component of her neuroscience course, the students were asked to drill a tiny hole into the skulls of rats. Rushell was shocked to learn that she didn’t need years of training to do what seemed like a procedure only experts would be allowed to do. She remembers, “That level of accessibility and the confidence it gave me was unbelievable.” After her first exposure to this kind of lab experiment, Rushell knew it was the path she wanted to take.
“I continued to take science classes despite all the C’s.“
To gain more lab experience, Rushell applied to the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) during the second summer of college. After doing human research during her first SURF program, the next summer Rushell worked in Dr. Tatiana Pasternak’s lab at Rochester University studying visual neuroscience with monkeys. “It was the first, and only time, I ever worked with a female PI. [Dr. Pasternak] was more important than the actual research experience.” Rushell had noticed the gender imbalance in science, but hadn’t heard anyone else acknowledge it. Dr. Pasternak was the first person to tell Rushell that they needed more women in neuroscience and encouraged her to stay. Hearing this message was pivotal for Rushell, and made her feel like there was a community of women who supported each other in neuroscience and could support her along the way.
Even though Rushell wanted to stay in science after graduating, she struggled to find a place beyond the undergraduate community. Unsuccessful applications for graduate school and a month’s long search for a job as a lab technician made her question if she’d chosen the wrong path. “It made me feel that I was back on the outside,” Rushell recalled. “It was the biggest resounding period of hearing ‘you don’t belong and therefore we will not let you in.’ ” To make it through this period Rushell started running and reading books about owning her own future. Eventually, her perseverance paid off again with a job in Dr. Paul Glimcher’s lab at New York University. Doing research on decision making was interesting, but it was the positive day-to-day experience within lab culture that cemented Rushell’s decision to re-apply to graduate school. Every day she was excited by learning about a new topic or how to do a task in the lab. This exploratory life was what she wanted.
After her second time applying for graduate school, Rushell secured her position as a PhD student at Columbia University. “I think my experience in Columbia has been the most positive, and also the most complicated,” Rushell explains. Being one of the few women in the room wasn’t the only obstacle she faced in early lab experiences. In many of the labs she worked in, Rushell was the only black scientist. From the start she struggled grappling with how to present herself as a black female scientist, questioning how she should wear her hair and what color clothing she should dress in.
Her sense of “otherness” surfaced in many moments throughout her training: lab mates touching her hair, advisors discouraging her from reporting incidents of racism, and peers asking if she was lost while attending lectures. Even though Rushell has felt that she is the “mele-tokin” in the room, she did not allow these instances to distract from her scientific goals. Rushell’s strength in identity has been bolstered this past year, feeling that her “black female voice” is valued within her lab and current community at Columbia. A bright moment came from the grassroots organized #BlackInNeuroWeek, founded by graduate student Angeline Dukes. “BlackInNeuro was one of my favorite experiences in the scientific community,” Rushell exuberantly declared. “Feel[ing] heard and validated was epic, and made me feel like I belonged.” Within the span of a week, she heard the stories from hundreds of black neuroscientists, who had felt and experienced so much of what she had throughout her scientific training.
“Feel[ing] heard and validated was epic, and made me feel like I belonged.”
Rushell faced and overcame many struggles on her scientific path, regarding her grades, gender expression, and race. Inevitably, there will be more struggles along the way, but her commitment to self, whether that’s with a red-lip or a quarantine sewing project, allows her to bring the childhood curiosity she embraced in her kitchen lab to the scientific community every day.
by Leslie Sibener