Assistant Professor of Neuroscience
What is your advice to an aspiring scientist?
“Find your purpose and define yourself on your own terms — don’t let anyone else define you.”
For Dr. Sally Bernardina Seraphin, a primate behavioral neuroscientist, science has never presented her with a boundary she could not surpass. Her first memory of science was a science fair in the fourth grade, where she presented an experiment that did not get her the winning prize, but was followed by a second that was a spectacular success. “My first submission was a cardboard box with holes punched in it to map a constellation. If you looked into the box with a blanket on top, it looked like the night sky,” she recounts. “It was innovative for sure, but it obviously didn’t win me first prize — it was literally just a cardboard box with holes in it!” But then, Sally’s science teacher gave her some Paramoecium, a tiny organism made up of a single cell, and a microscope to take home. In school, she had learned that these organisms were repelled by acidic solutions because they were harmful. For her science project, Sally worked out different concentrations of vinegar to figure out the threshold concentration that killed these organisms to the amazement of her science teacher.
This victory was no small feat, especially because Sally’s family did not have access to resources to allow her to create an elaborate experiment. Sally and her family immigrated to the United States from Haiti when she was four years old. She grew up in North Cambridge, Massachusetts, living in a condemned building and public housing for nearly eight years with both her parents working full-time to support their family. “Imagine this kid, living without even the basic necessities in a barren wasteland of an apartment, trying to come up with an idea for a science fair,” Sally reminisces. This experience exemplifies how access to resources can provide students from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to succeed.
“Imagine this kid, living without even the basic necessities in a barren wasteland of an apartment, trying to come up with an idea for a science fair”
Growing up, science, art and music were Sally’s favorite subjects. She found art and music to be therapeutic. “They offered me an escape, an opportunity for enjoyment and pleasure that I didn’t necessarily get from home,” Sally expresses. She went on to pursue an undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts, with a major in Psychology concentrating in Biobehavioral Studies. During an ‘Urban Ecology’ course while studying abroad at Roehampton Institute London, she was introduced to the work of Le Corbusier, an architect who conceived buildings and structures that were not just utilitarian, but also celebrated beauty, nature and art in the context of an urban environment. Realizing the powerful influence of one’s living situation on one’s mind, Sally was driven toward the field of neuroaesthetics, an emerging field that investigates how aesthetic audio and visual experiences can shape the brain and affect people’s well-being. “I was fascinated by the mind-altering potential of beauty,” Sally says. “These neuroaesthetic buildings were completely contrary to the public housing my family lived in that tended to be dark, dank and depressing.” This ideology coupled with Sally’s personal childhood experiences, undergraduate laboratory, and field research studying parental care in rats and endangered birds, has guided Sally’s research interest. She investigates how home environments and life experiences, especially at a young age when our brain is still developing, can affect our well-being.
“I was fascinated by the mind-altering potential of beauty…these neuroaesthetic buildings were completely contrary to the public housing my family lived in that tended to be dark, dank and depressing.”
It was after Sally’s undergraduate degree that her tumultuous journey in education began. Sally was interested in studying psychology, evolution, and behavior in primates to better understand the behavior and functioning of humans. This led her to pursue a Ph.D. in Anthropology at Emory University. “I realized that I had entered a sort of fault line between disciplines,” she says. At the time, the field of anthropology was divided into two factions: biological anthropology vs. social and cultural anthropology. Biological anthropology focuses on understanding the human inheritance of genes, evolution, and adaptations to the environment needed for survival. Socio-cultural anthropology, on the other hand, focuses on the social patterns, similarities and differences in individuals across different cultures to understand society as a whole. Sally was a staunch supporter of evolutionary biological anthropology. However, the director of graduate studies of her program was a socio-cultural anthropologist. Consequently, Sally says, “I was met with a lot of resistance, making my first year as a graduate student very difficult.”
Instead of giving in to the socio-cultural ideology that was being forced upon her, Sally decided to gain a firmer footing in the field of biological anthropology. While being enrolled at Emory, she also pursued a one year Master’s program in Human Biology in the Institute of Biological Anthropology at Oxford University. As a part of this program, she did field work studying social dynamics in wild chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest in Uganda. Unfortunately, Sally’s research was met with a lot of raised eyebrows. Most of her mentors and peers were interested in using advanced revolutionary and cutting-edge molecular genetics and population biology research. Yet, Sally was more interested in studying the role of the environment and hormones on behavior in the traditional manner by using primates as a model organism. Because of her more conventional approach, her work was considered to be ‘too soft.’ Even with the tough times she faced for having a different perspective, Sally stood her ground. In fact, it has made her passionate about showing the world the importance of diverse perspectives. Sally credits her perseverance and success to the relationships she developed during this journey. “I just learnt to put my nose to the grindstone, but I wouldn’t have survived without the friends I made.”
Another obstacle that Sally had to learn to overcome was navigating the difficulties that come with being the only person of color in the room– certainly, and invariably the only Black woman. “I was always a complete outlier, not only by virtue of my race, but also because I was an immigrant,” Sally says. Inevitably, she experienced discrimination and bias throughout her career. She found out through second hand knowledge that she had been denied admission to a program, simply because she was considered to be a ‘high risk’ student with her non-traditional and irregular academic background. She had studied at a commuter campus so that she could also work in restaurants and as an office clerk to make ends meet. In addition to such blatant discrimination, she also faced several microagressions, even from people in places that claimed to be diverse and inclusive. She had to endure belittling statements like, “I’m so glad that someone like you is a staunch believer in evolutionary biology.” When asked about how she dealt with these situations, Sally says, “I remember my younger brother or my grandmother, who were life-threatening trauma survivors, and their struggle.” She derives her strength from their resilience. “I escaped a fate that was far too real. If I feel like I can’t face these obstacles for myself, I try to do it for these other people who can’t, because they are too broken to do it,” she says.
“I escaped a fate that was far too real. If I feel like I can’t face these obstacles for myself, I try to do it for these other people who can’t, because they are too broken to do it”
And so, Sally completed both her Ph.D. at Emory and her Master’s at Oxford University in six years. She then went on to do her postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School, at the McLean Hospital, a psychiatric research hospital. After this, Sally forged her own path by taking ten years off from active research. She says, “I decided to sacrifice this linear ‘white male’ trajectory of a research professional to live my life in a way that is meaningful to me.” She wanted to make an impact not only on her research, but also on her family and the community. She used these ten years to build her family and herself: raising three beautiful children, advocating for her community by fighting against gentrification pressure, and building The Thinking Republic, a platform that fosters public engagement amongst individuals who want to think big about social problems.
After her ten year hiatus, Sally recently obtained a tenure track position as an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and will be directing the Laboratory of Evolutionary Neuroscience at Trinity College beginning in July 2021. She will be teaching courses in brain and behaviour, social neuroscience, neuroaesthetics and neurolaw (a field that emphasizes the understanding of the human brain and behavior in legal affairs). Her lab will investigate the effects of adversity at a young age in animal models, such as fruit flies, voles, and primates.
“Your science may not be remembered, but the people whose lives you touch are always going to remember you”
Besides being a scientist, Sally identifies herself as a person of faith, a mother, a sister, a wife, a daughter, a neighbor, and a friend. “Your science may not be remembered, but the people whose lives you touch are always going to remember you,” she says. Although Sally’s beliefs have been constantly challenged, she has never faltered. She designed her own path, on her own terms, and never let anyone else define it for her. With this mindset, she set out and achieved everything she desired — right from who she is, to her research, her family, and her advocacy for social justice.
Dr. Sally Bernardina Seraphin is an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Trinity College. Faculty profile
by Urvashi Thopte