Neuroscience PhD student
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Knowing who you are and what you can contribute and being able to separate the value of your labor from the value of yourself matters so much at any given stage.”
Up until a few years ago, Sade Abiodun, an incoming graduate student at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, thought that her two passions, science and visual media, could only exist in separate parts of her life. For a long time, she envisioned herself pursuing a career in medicine, where her life as a doctor would rarely intersect with her interests in art, design, and film. This rigid dichotomy began to dissolve for her during the first year of her post-baccalaureate research assistant position, when she attended an inspiring talk on how films can be used to study the brain.
During this talk by Dr. Janice Chen, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Sade learned how films can be used to study memory. She was delighted that “visual media and neuroscience don’t have to be mutually exclusive spheres — they can be united together in a beautiful and epistemologically sound way.” This intersection is the focus of her current PhD research in neuroscience at Princeton University, where she plans to use films to explore how the brain processes emotions and social interactions.
“I’ve always had a knack for other areas — the arts, theater, and sports,” she says, “but science always felt like home.” After watching a program on the Discovery Channel when she was in preschool, Sade became obsessed with microscopic creatures called water bears. Her persistence in asking questions about them led her father to call her his “little scientist Sade.”
“…science always felt like home.”
Despite her early affinity for the subject, Sade didn’t consider scientific research a potential career option until her senior year of college. When she began her undergraduate studies at Duke University, she was committed to becoming a doctor and considered majoring in biology, chemistry, and physics. After taking a series of introductory neuroscience courses at her father’s suggestion, she discovered there is “something beautiful in the mystery that still exists about the brain.” Her creative side admired artists’ intricate illustrations of individual neurons and photographs from brain scanners of the entire organ.
She initially thought of science as a “means to an end,” where scientists “ask questions only to learn about how they can apply [the answers] to a form of care… not for the sake of exploring the questions themselves.” For her first few years of college, she focused on completing courses required for medical school admissions and performed scientific research, initially as a “means to [the] end” of going to medical school. Her experience in different neuroscience labs led her to realize that “science is a full enough field and avenue to be a career in itself.”
“[There is] something beautiful in the mystery that still exists about the brain.”
During her last semester of college, as she was finishing her required classes and writing a senior thesis, she received the distressing news that her father had a life-threatening brain tumor. To process this, she channeled her stress and energy into her cinematography class. She “absolutely loved” it and enjoyed creating films to “express an emotional process.” About a year after taking that class, she was inspired to “create a visual poem focused on Black womanhood.” In her free time, she wrote, directed, and produced “Godspeed,” which has won numerous awards and earned her a finalist spot for a fellowship through Sundance Institute.
While contemplating what to do after graduation, Sade found herself drawn back to scientific research: “I was still wanting to ask questions and get answers, and ask more questions, and have the scaffolding of inquisitive thinking and dialogue.” To gain more research experience, she decided to work as a research assistant/lab manager for Dr. Gregory Samanez-Larkin’s Motivated Cognition and Aging Brain Lab at Duke University.
Since listening to Dr. Chen’s talk, Sade has been inspired to use films in her research on the brain. In many of these experiments, scientists ask people to sit in a brain scanner while watching movie/show clips. Using films for visual input to the brain breaks the “tightly vacuumed environments” of many experiments in which scientists try to control as many variables as possible. By capturing some of the complexities of everyday life, films provide “a new level or layer of possibility” for understanding how the brain works in everyday situations. “I am excited to… figure out a way to flesh out neurocinematics (the neuroscience of film) and the way I want to incorporate understanding of cognition into this field,” she says.
Although Sade has considered science to be “home” from an early age, she has sometimes questioned whether academia has space for her. Some of this self-doubt stems from an experience she had with her high school guidance counselor. After looking over her college applications and the list of competitive universities she was applying to, her guidance counselor questioned the likelihood that she would be accepted and said, “I’ll submit your materials to these schools, but honestly it’s just for me to see if you get in.” Sade says this experience made her question “whether [she] was good enough to go to those schools,” but she has not allowed it to discourage her. She believes it is critical for aspiring scientists to find “people who you trust academically, professionally, and also personally because those will be the people who, when you fail, will be able to push you through.”
“[Find] people who you trust academically, professionally, and also personally because those will be the people who, when you fail, will be able to push you through.”
One of her personal and professional allies is Dr. Samanez-Larkin, her postgraduate mentor. From the outset of working together, he made it clear to Sade that as long as she gives “heart” to what she does, “she can be whoever she wants to be.” Sade credits him with instilling in her the belief that as a Black woman whose experiences are not shared by many in the field, “it’s important to protect your light… your sanity, and your mental health.” She has oftentimes been the only Black scientist in her research labs and the lack of visual representation of Black neuroscientists has felt like “an echo of ‘you’re not meant to be in this space, you’re not meant to be here.’ ” She wishes she had a network of Black neuroscientists when she was an undergraduate, and that longing fuels her passionate advocacy for equity, diversity, and inclusion in science.
“First and foremost, you have to preserve yourself and your core.”
For scientists from underrepresented backgrounds, Sade says that having a strong sense of self is critical because grades and external recognition are not “sustainable [sources] of reinforcement or affirmation.” Even though she now recognizes the importance of self-affirmation, she acknowledges that she still needs the occasional reminder. She notes that “especially as a person underrepresented in the field, that lack of representation is just going to make you feel like you shouldn’t be there, no matter how accomplished you are, or how many accolades you have.”
As Sade begins her graduate studies this fall, she is of the mindset that “first and foremost, you have to preserve yourself and your core.” At the moment, Sade is uncertain about where she will take her scientific career and artistic endeavors, but she is confident that her passion for science, filmmaking, and advocacy will remain at her core.
by Alice Xue