Because I was so passionate about science, Abraham Lincoln's quote "Nothing in this world is impossible to a willing heart" resonated above all the negative comments that might have kept me from becoming a scientist. Looking back over my life and achievements, I feel that commitment and perseverance has helped me to pursue my professional goals and will continue to facilitate my growth as a scientist and individual.
My Career Path
I am an African-American postdoc at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of South Carolina. While it's easy to see now, I never could have imagined myself in this position a decade ago. While chemistry was interesting to me in high school, I didn't associate that discipline with a specific profession. I decided to become a pharmacist. Coming from a working class family that had not attended college, this would be an outstanding accomplishment for me. When I shared my plans with my extended family, they were far less than supportive. They didn't feel that someone who was a black teenage mother should set their hopes so high, knowing as they did that the likelihood of success was slim.
Despite their objections, I entered college as a pre-pharmacy major. My first day of class was paralyzing. The chemistry lecture course was larger than my entire high school graduating class. I was faced with many challenges, including time management, finances, and lack of mentorship. But it seemed that chemistry came natural to me, and I enjoyed it so much that I switched majors.
Still not being totally clear about what chemists do, I sought the advice of my undergraduate advisor. It was he who encouraged me to consider graduate school, and who recommended I become involved in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program (LSAMP). This National Science Foundation program is designed to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in science, math, engineering, and technologies. The coordinator of the local program, Dr. Angela Williams, was an African-American graduate student in chemistry at the time. She told me about all the career opportunities available to Ph.D. scientists, made research opportunities available to me, and even informed me, in detail, about the different stages of graduate school. She told me to work hard and do my best.
While my own doubts and the doubts of my family about pursuing graduate school as a single parent kept my confidence in check, I continued to research science careers for scientists at the master's and Ph.D. level. Armed with all the information that I would need, I entered a master's program. To my surprise, I did well, and found the research more exciting than any work that I had ever done before. I knew I would stay for the Ph.D. I had, by that time, developed good relationships with several senior scientists; they all were very supportive of my efforts. Unfortunately, my master's advisor was not supportive of minorities in science and came up with every excuse that he could for not allowing me to study beyond a master's degree. I wanted it so badly that I continued to pursue every possible route to a Ph.D.
One of my mentors suggested that I speak with a senior faculty member, Dr. R. Bruce Dunlap, who was experienced in such situations and who had proven sensitive to the needs of graduate students at all levels. Dr. Dunlap was awesome. He encouraged me to switch programs and gave me a list of people that I could work with--including himself--and fellowships for which I could apply. He even created a teaching position to give me experience as I made the transition between departments. I later joined his lab and worked diligently. I continued to work with LSAMP as a graduate mentor and recruited a number of undergraduates to our lab for summer research. I completed my Ph.D. under the direction of Dr. Dunlap and his collaborator, Dr. Trent Spencer, who have both been mentors, not just in science, but in all aspects of my life.
Both encouraged me to do a postdoc and to pursue a faculty position thereafter. I was apprehensive about pursuing a postdoc because I was worried about the need to balance science with family. I shared this concern with Dr. Sanya Springfield at the National Institutes of Health's Comprehensive Biomedical Branch and she assured me that if I looked carefully for the qualities that I needed in a postdoc advisor I would be able to meet the needs of both career and family.
I would have never predicted this outcome. The culture of my laboratory here at Hopkins is absolutely perfect for me. The mentor is extremely supportive and invests a great deal of time in my career development.
Challenges I Faced
My greatest challenge in becoming a scientist has been balancing a family with the demands research places on your time. During graduate school and even now, as a postdoc, I would often feel guilty about not being able to invest the same number of hours as my colleagues because of day care constraints. I watched other women who juggled, and I quickly learned to manage my time. I would arrive at the lab at 7:30 a.m. with a clear plan for the day, and exit promptly at 5:30 p.m. to begin mommy duty. The majority of my reading, writing, and planning were done in the evening after my daughter was in bed. To maximize my time with her, I made church on Sunday morning a priority and committed myself to maintaining her emotional security.
Before going to graduate school, I had spoken with people who recognized the strain that research places on your family obligations; they advised me to choose a graduate school close to my family so that they would be able to assist me in my duties. This was one of the best pieces of advice that I've received. Regardless of how well your time is managed, there will be times when you will not be able to make it. That's where my extended family became invaluable. Although they were initially hesitant about my career choices, they have always helped immensely with my daughter, including getting her from day care on short notice, putting her to bed, and running errands that I had neglected because of research.
Another challenge that I've faced has been the feeling of isolation. It seems that the more you train as a scientist, the fewer minority contemporaries you encounter. Many of my colleagues are the progeny of educated, middle class families, while I am a child of a working class widow. During many discussions I find myself holding contrary opinions as a result of my unique background. I remember a colleague referring to a member of the custodial staff, who was also an African-American woman, as "the maid." This woman was someone with whom I'd talk daily and liked very much. I find these kinds of comments insulting, and I oftentimes take them personally. My colleagues and I may also have different financial foundations. We sometimes talk about the pleasures of college days, and I usually have very little to contribute because I was a parent during college and worked two part-time jobs. Instead of social events, I took care of my daughter in my spare time.
I must admit that I have grown a lot over the past decade. When things would get difficult for me, I would often think that it was a sign that I wasn't worthy of a Ph.D. Luckily, I had friends and mentors who always encouraged me and persuaded me otherwise.
All things considered, science has treated me quite well, and I've been able to overcome many obstacles once I found an area I was really passionate about. My training has taught me a lot about science, but so much more about life. I'm able now to set personal and professional goals with a certainty that I did not have prior to graduate school. I now give myself permission to go after what I want, despite the doubts of others. Science has also taught me to treat every unsuccessful attempt as a learning experience. It doesn't matter how bad things seem; I consider every occurrence an opportunity to gain insight and knowledge about my predetermined destiny.
Patience is something else I've learned from science. Dr. Sondra Berger of the University of South Carolina would always refer to the Ph.D. as a degree in perseverance. While I would like instant gratification for my hard work and effort, success in science, and in any area, takes time and patience.
I've also learned the importance of mentoring, and how it differs from advising. Without mentors, I would probably have gotten a bachelor's degree and entered the workforce. While this is a great option for many, I'm glad I didn't pursue it. I feel my mentors assisted me in tapping into potential that I didn't know I had. At each fork in my career, there was always someone encouraging me to do more than I would have otherwise done. Now, as a postdoc, and definitely in all future endeavors, I will try my best to serve as a mentor to others. I hope that my energy and excitement about my career will inspire other women and minorities to consider a career in science.