PhD Student at New York University
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Don’t get mad; get persistent. There will be so many instances where people will be discouraging or tell you that you can’t do something. Rather than get angry about it, use that energy to prove them wrong and be persistent about what it is that you want to accomplish.”
Growing up half Black and half Korean in the southeastern US, Sarah Frances Phillips is no stranger to the unique joys and challenges of being bilingual. “I would speak African American English with my dad’s side of the family and then go make kimchi and speak Korean with my mom,” she fondly recalls. “These are aspects of my life that are tightly interwoven and interconnected with my experience,” she says. Indeed, this experience of growing up straddling two cultures was formative for Sarah – so much so, that bilingualism is a core facet of the research she now conducts as a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Liina Pylkkänen at New York University. As a neurolinguistics scientist, Sarah studies how the brain comprehends, produces, and learns language. For many, science is driven by concrete rules and numbers, but for Sarah, science is the key to understanding how we connect through language.
Sarah vividly remembers the first time she realized she enjoyed science. “I was a junior in high school, and I was taking an AP Chemistry class at the time,” she recalls. “We were making aspirin, and I was fascinated with how cool it was that if you were precise, careful, and diligent, you could make this life-saving medicine.” Sarah had always done well in math and chemistry, but had never loved it until then. From that point on, she was hooked. The experience in chemistry pushed Sarah to initially pursue a pharmacy major as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia (UGA). Nonetheless, while the precision of chemistry is what drew her to science, Sarah later found her true calling elsewhere. “I got bored in lab,” Sarah admits with a laugh, “…and I realized that looking at chemicals and pipetting [was] not what I wanted to do.”
Instead, Sarah found her true passion in the study of linguistics, which she loved from the very first linguistics class she took. “I realized immediately that I love everything about linguistics,” she says. “It’s a field where you go in and you take the scientific method, and you analyze language for what it is and how we use it to communicate.” Sarah’s experience in her linguistics class prompted her to switch to a linguistics major. However, although Sarah’s passion for linguistics is straightforward, her career path has been anything but. While she wanted to conduct linguistics research, she wasn’t quite sure how to get there. “No one in my family has done graduate school. Just finishing my bachelor’s degree was a big deal,” she says. After graduating from UGA, Sarah moved to California to work at SAGE Publishing. As a sales representative, Sarah sold textbooks to universities and professors. Here, she developed a rapid familiarity with psychology and research methods; specifically, she was fascinated by the research she encountered on language. “I realized that while lots of researchers were studying language from the frame of psychology or neuroscience, none of them had any experience in linguistics.” After one particular meeting, Sarah’s manager remarked that Sarah went into meetings with faculty not as a salesperson, but as an interested academic. This realization allowed Sarah to envision how her talents could be leveraged in a research setting.
To develop experience in scientific research, she completed a master’s degree in linguistics at California State University – all while continuing to work in publishing. It was there that Sarah encountered Dr. David Medeiros and Dr. Sharon Klein, who she says were pivotal mentors during her journey in science. “I don’t think they even realized it at the time, but they really put me on the path towards my PhD,” Sarah observes. With their advice and support, she was able to envision a place for herself in science and to apply for PhD graduate programs. Sarah now resides in New York City as a graduate student at New York University where she studies how language is processed in the brain.
“I don’t think they even realized it at the time, but they really put me on the path towards my PhD.”
Sarah’s research is multifaceted, but at its core, it allows her to explore her own multifaceted identities. In one project, Sarah is exploring how different bilingual communities process code switching, or the rapid switching between two languages. Using eye tracking and magnetoencephalography, a technique that uses magnetic fields to measure brain activity, she records eye movements and brain activity while participants rapidly switch between two different languages. Sarah’s data will ultimately allow her to understand the differences in how bilingual and monolingual individuals anticipate and predict upcoming words. In a second research project, Sarah is studying the brains of individuals who speak both African American Language and mainstream English. Ultimately, Sarah’s goal is to demonstrate that “maybe the brain is not so interested in these strange theoretical divides [of language] we have created, but is instead just interested in when to use what with who.” This impressive series of research projects is perhaps Sarah’s exploration of her own identity, underscored by a theme with which Sarah is all too familiar – despite our different cultures and languages, there is more of what makes us similar than what makes us different.
“Science isn’t inaccessible, [it’s] meant for everyone to engage with, and people do engage with it and find it cool.”
Sarah’s research has also allowed her to connect beyond academia to the general public. “My proudest accomplishment so far is when I was featured on NPR’s Shortwave podcast,” she admits. “Being on NPR was cool.” In fact, Sarah has been featured twice on the science podcast, the first time to talk about neural signatures of noticing grammatical errors, and the second time to discuss how the brain learns a second language. “I like knowing that I can explain science for a broader audience,” Sarah says, and she recalls receiving emails from appreciative listeners thanking her for her expertise and contributions. “For me, I like that idea that science isn’t inaccessible, [it’s] meant for everyone to engage with, and people do engage with it and find it cool.” Sarah has continued to use her science to connect to others through her blog, where she discusses her experience in science as well as topics in neuroscience and linguistics. Here, Sarah aims to make science feel more personal, accessible, and realistic. “At the end of the day, most of academia does not look like me, act like me, or talk like me,” Sarah says. “Me being multiracial and being very explicit about my identity helps to debunk myths not only about what a woman scientist looks like, but also what it means to be Korean-American and what it means to be Black.” Through her work, one participant at a time, Sarah is redefining our expectations of who can be a scientist.
While science has allowed Sarah to connect with her own and other communities, however, her experience within the science community has not always been smooth. Like many other Black scientists, Sarah has encountered instances of racism and microaggressions. The experience that vividly sticks out to her was at a conference several years ago. At a poster session, Sarah had arrived early to set up her poster and encountered another scientist who was also setting up. This person approached her and asked if she was part of the venue staff to help set up posters for the presenting scientists, despite Sarah’s badge, professional attire, and poster tube. Sarah politely explained that she was actually there to set up her own poster, and the other scientist then walked away. “It was at that moment I realized that I could be doing all the right things,” Sarah explains, and yet she would still be perceived a certain way. To deal with this, Sarah says, it has been crucial for her to find her own community. “You find the three other Black people there, and we instantly form a group because we’ve all been there and we know what it’s like,” she explains, “People look at it from the outside and assume that it’s a statement, but it’s not. We just want to come together and share our experiences.”
Sarah says that she has also been fortunate to have the support of her lab, especially during the summer of 2020 and the marches for Black Lives Matter. Up until that point, she had kept the instances of bias she had experienced to herself. However, when her advisor made a point to talk about racism and bias in science, Sarah felt comfortable sharing her experiences. Being able to share her stories, such as being mistaken for hired help at a conference, to her lab was cathartic for Sarah. “It was a moment where they realized these kinds of things exist. For those of us who are underrepresented, we need to be sharing and documenting our experiences.” It is important, Sarah says, to share their lived experiences and to find community not only within her own group, but within her lab. Indeed, in New York, Sarah has found a support system within her department, through her advisor, and outside of academia. Nevertheless, she admits, the biggest challenge has been residing far from her family. Having grown up in the southeastern US, Sarah has traveled far from home – first to the West Coast, and now in the Northeast. In her next steps, Sarah hopes to end up closer to her family, and to be able to spend more time with them.
“For those of us who are underrepresented, we need to be sharing and documenting our experiences.”
Sarah is currently finishing up the final year of her PhD program and hopes to defend her dissertation soon. She is currently looking for teaching or research positions in neuroscience and linguistics. Ultimately, Sarah hopes that by being so open about her identities, she can shift people’s thoughts, not just within science but also people who are looking at science. “I am a Blasian woman, and I love being Blasian,” she proudly declares. “I’m on fire.”
by Briana Chen