Professor of Neuroscience
What would you say to an aspiring scientist?
“You got to persevere! It’s worth it. No one can take your [scientific] knowledge away from you… The world is open to you.”
“I always thought I was a weird kid,” Dr. Yasmin Hurd reminisced on her childhood in Jamaica and adolescence in the US.
Yasmin grew up wondering about everything around her. She pondered the meaning and the biology behind our existence with questions like “Why are we here?” As a child, she ran experiments to see if sunlight could cook rice. She thought about the signals ants must use to move large objects across long distances. “I was a nerd and loved school… I didn’t fit in,” Yasmin said. Although this curiosity might have made her feel like an outsider growing up, the passion for learning guided her through scientific training. This passion continues to help in her current position as a professor of neuroscience and psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
During childhood, Yasmin was passionate about learning, no matter the subject matter. Not too surprisingly though, Yasmin’s favorite subjects in grade school were biology and chemistry, but also history, language, and art. Yasmin ran for her school’s track and field and loved being on the gymnastics team. She even took up painting which she still enjoys doing today.
As she pursued her career however, she’s had less time for painting and non-science reading. Yet, one of the great things about science, Yasmin said, is that “you bring many things from your different worlds… art, political science, etc.” Likewise, many of the scientists she admires bring their passions outside science to their work.
Yasmin has incorporated many of her scientific interests and life experiences to her research on the brain’s role in addiction. Early in Yasmin’s career, despite others doubting whether it was possible, she found that aspects of human addiction could be modeled in rodents and was able to conduct molecular studies in the human brain. From there, Yasmin’s research has leveraged translational strategies using both animal models of addiction and human subjects to gain insight on this brain disease. Yasmin’s recent research even has overlap with Alzheimer’s Disease, which has personal relevance as her mother suffered from the disease. Studying human brains, she found a link between exposure to an addictive class of drugs called opioids and increased tau, a protein known to be critical for Alzheimer’s Disease. Speaking on her other research endeavors, Yasmin said, “I am always excited about research. I love the brain… there’s always more to learn!”
In her mind, curiosity is the major factor in becoming a successful research scientist. “I don’t think you can create a scientist… You can’t give someone their passion or curiosity. You might be able to memorize and regurgitate [information] to do outstanding on an exam, but that’s not science.” In addition to curiosity, Yasmin stated that exposure and having adequate resources are major factors in getting into and being successful in science.
“I don’t think you can create a scientist… You can’t give someone their passion or curiosity. You might be able to memorize and regurgitate [information] to do outstanding on an exam, but that’s not science.”
During college she worked as a technician in a vivarium (a place for raising and housing research animals). Her constant scientific questioning and deepened investment in the scientific process led her professor to offer her an unpaid volunteer position in the lab, but she declined. “I needed to make money.” Dr. Donovick, her future research mentor, found a way for her to be paid for research in his lab. He believed in her and thus challenged her to achieve high goals. The time spent in Dr. Donovick’s lab gave Yasmin the exposure she needed to further explore research.
“The bar was raised so high for me. It was great to try to achieve that, rather than to try to push off the weights that were placed on me as a Black woman in the U.S.“
Yasmin’s research trajectory changed when she moved to do her doctoral (Ph.D) research at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. There, she remarked, she was not the “Black girl who no one expected to excel” as was the sentiment stateside, but was seen as the “American who must be the best.” There were no other Black scientists at Karolinska then, but the lack of negative connotations from being different allowed her to focus on science and evolve into the researcher she is now. Yasmin said, “The bar was raised so high for me. It was great to try to achieve that, rather than to try to push off the weights that were placed on me as a Black woman in the U.S. I wasn’t supposed to fit in [in Sweden]… and it felt great.” In Sweden, she was reminded again that she does science because she loves it and she received strong support from her mentor, Dr. Urban Ungerstedt. He was one of the first preeminent neuroscience researchers who she held in high regard and was one of her science heroes. Her experience at the Karolinska provided a high standard and supported her scientific growth.
Ordinarily, “not fitting in is a burden.” Yasmin is the only Black tenure-track basic science professor at Mount Sinai and the only Black female neuroscientist in many of the rooms she enters at the higher levels of academia. She lives with implicit and explicit bias every day; sometimes from well-intentioned peers who see her as a very good scientist and thus “not really Black.” She has persisted in spite of this, but accepts that biases will not ever fully go away. Yasmin wrote about this and ways to move forward in Addressing racism and disparities in the biomedical sciences published in Nature Human Behaviour this year. She does not want to continuously educate people on racism, but Yasmin suggests that it is important to make people aware as they may be perpetuating their biases unconsciously.
“The road isn’t easy,” Yasmin said about the journey of a scientific researcher. To help get through hard times, Yasmin recommends that aspiring researchers build a strong support network. “Everyone goes through hard times… even the people who are born into it and have amazing mentors and have all the resources.” Her friends outside science serve as a “personal cheerleading group” who help put her achievements in perspective. Her friends in science, particularly fellow women scientists, stick together at conferences and provide support through their research projects. Yasmin went on, “Introduce yourself to everyone.” You’ll need a strong network to succeed.
Continuing her advice to aspiring scientists, Yasmin affirmed that it is important to build on your scientific training through graduate school and a postdoctoral fellowship whether you choose, as she did, to pursue a career in academia. Her advice for finding the area of science that is right for you is to seek out mentors and continually expand how you think about science.
Harking back to her previous statements, the road to becoming a scientist involves letting your curiosity lead the way, even if it is a little weird and leads you to places where you seemingly don’t fit in.
Yasmin Hurd, PhD is the Ward-Coleman Chair of Translational Neuroscience and the Director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai. Lab Website
by Ashlea Morgan