Neuroscience PhD student
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Just keep going. The whole process is daunting and it is never going to get easier… But keep going and know that this is what you are supposed to be doing. Trust the process.”
The seminar was about to start. Looking around, she realized, again, that she was the only black woman in a room full of senior, white male scientists. Uncomfortable and intimidated, she sank lower in her seat. She tried to remain unnoticed, but knew her efforts were futile; she stood out and felt out of place. Though this used to be the reality for Jessica Jones, a first-year graduate student in the Neuroscience PhD program at the University of Washington, now, she says, “I am not intimidated anymore. I know how to navigate that space a little better so it’s not so daunting.”
Learning to feel secure in her own skin in an academic environment was not easy for Jessica. Feeling accepted and like she belonged in college was particularly challenging. Thinking back to her time at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), she says, “I thought about whether or not I fit in. There was a lot of imposter syndrome [or feeling that I didn’t belong] that came with it. I was really uncomfortable for a really long time.” However, what got her through was finding a community of peers who reminded her that she was capable. She joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). There, she says, “it really provided me a foundation to explore; I got to explore engineering a little bit more. I also got into coding for the first time and liked it, and it was cool to apply it to what I knew about science.” She also got involved in outreach while at college; she began dedicating a lot of her time as a mentor for other students through NSBE during her junior and senior year.
“I thought about whether or not I fit in. There was a lot of imposter syndrome [or feeling that I didn’t belong] that came with it. I was really uncomfortable for a really long time.”
Being a part of the NSBE also reminded her of how her mother raised her: to be brave and unafraid. A musician and singer who performed for over forty years, her mother at first encouraged her to try to play music. But, Jessica says that during her practices, “I would always rather play in the dirt, go outside, and jump off stuff.” Understanding her nature, her mother made sure to expose her to different opportunities. She took her to science camps during middle school and high school and gave her access to a variety of disciplines such as botany and astronomy. She let Jessica roam and discover her northern California and Virginia surroundings growing up and encouraged her ambitions to learn about and study the world around her. Having the unwavering support and freedom from her mother, Jessica says, was integral to her finding the NSBE community at UCSC, thriving in her lab work, and ultimately feeling empowered to go into a PhD.
Given the success she worked hard for, Jessica has inspired others to forge through their paths in science. After college, she worked as a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania where she served as a role model for undergraduate students. Her presence in academia inspired other black undergraduate students to stay in academia. She says, “They felt affirmed. And that also affirmed me. It was this positive feedback loop we gave each other. That’s why I want to stick around and keep doing that for people.”
“They felt affirmed. And that also affirmed me. It was this positive feedback loop we gave each other. That’s why I want to stick around and keep doing that for people.”
Despite her love for outreach and paying it forward, Jessica says that while in graduate school, she wants to stay focused and work on herself. She had to learn the hard way that it is easy as a minority student to overextend oneself to do everything for everyone. This year, she only wants to commit to one main extracurricular activity as well as her research so she can focus on her academic growth and being a PhD student. However, she found that others did not easily accept this as her goal.She noted that “people say, ‘but you’re the only black woman! You’re supposed to be at every diversity meeting, at every outreach program, at every protest!’ It’s exhausting.” She stresses that other non-marginalized colleagues aren’t pressured to engage with minority communities or participate in service work, which often means that they will have more time for their research.
Jessica’s research goal builds off her work at the University of Pennsylvania: to automate tasks that used to take her colleagues hours to complete. These tasks include hand-scoring rodent behaviors while watching individual videos. She hopes that her work will greatly increase the productivity of the broader scientific community. “I want to continue doing research that helps people do research better and more objectively,” she says. “That’s a lot of computational neuroscience, and that’s something that I want to try to get into at this point.”
When looking towards life after getting a PhD, Jessica is open to seeing where she ends up. Academia in particular is in sore need for more diverse representation and that it is not only a problem of who is recruited, but more crucially, who stays. “Right now, I know that I want to be in industry,” she says. I’ve always wanted to go to a biotech company and patent and manufacture things. But who knows?” Though academia can be an unwelcoming and marginalizing environment particularly for black women, Jessica plans to assess whether an academic career is right for her throughout grad school. Overall, her aspiration is to “find a place where she can continue making strides and continue making a difference. That may be in academia, or it may be in policy, or it may be in industry.”
“People say, ‘but you’re the only black woman! You’re supposed to be at every diversity meeting, at every outreach program, at every protest!’ It’s exhausting.”
In addition to her work as a PhD student, Jessica is an avid hiker and has started reading for leisure again instead of just for work. Having time to do more things for herself has been helpful for her. She acknowledges, though, that the impacts of the current political and social climate, as well as the global pandemic, have been hard on mental health, and that being a scientist is already difficult enough. She believes that this reality isn’t discussed enough and needs to be. “A lot of people don’t vocalize their hurt throughout the process of being a scientist or engineer,” she says. “Vocalizing their hurt makes it more transparent for other people to look in and know what to expect.” She hopes that being transparent and open will combat the stigma of a callous, non-empathetic ivory tower of academia and give others a safe space to feel heard. Perhaps only then can the culture change.
“I’ve gotten to a point in which I am secure in my own destiny.”
In her PhD program, Jessica admits that she is still sometimes the only black woman in the room or on a Zoom call. But she knows she has a bright future, and that her presence is powerful, inspiring, and ultimately meant to be. “I’ve gotten to a point in which I am secure in my own destiny,” she says. “I don’t regret anything up until now. Everything that I’ve been a part of has led me to here. Nothing has been a failure. I had to really trust the process from early on and know that I was going to end up somewhere like this. I’m glad that I stuck to my gut and went with the flow.”
by Josephine McGowan