Graduate school can be tough, but being a graduate student in the STEM can be exceptionally challenging. The challenges are not just academic, but social, and personal. In my experience being a graduate student is somewhat of a mystery to many people. To illustrate what its like to pursue a Ph.D in science, I’ve interviewed another Doctoral Candidate, from Auburn University, Alabama. She responded in pink font, and I felt it was so indicative of her personality, that I kept it. I enjoyed reading about her journey. Keep reading to find out how a one time aspiring model becomes a scientist.
What is your name and where are you from?
Hi! My name is Lani and I am @blackgurlscientist on Instagram.
We follow each other on Instagram. I see that you are a graduate student like myself. What institute do you attend and what is your major?
I attend Auburn University and my degree program is Pharmaceutical Sciences.
What is your research on?
One of the specialties of my lab is liposomal formulations for cancer therapy. Presently, we’re working on the development of a novel delivery system by developing liposome formulations that can be selectively degraded by certain phospholipases, which are upregulated in cancer cells and their microenvironment. My research specifically looks at which phospholipases are upregulated in triple negative breast cancers and whether we can exploit that upregulation to selectively target cancer cells.
What do you like most about being a researcher?
I love asking, “Why?” Life is full of curiosities and unknowns, and that excites me. As a kid, I often felt like it was a cardinal sin to question anything. That sucks for the kids who question everything (i.e. me!). Now my entire life is built around asking [and answering] questions. It’s a beautiful thing.
What is the hardest part about being a graduate student for you? What are some of the struggles that you face?
I often find that the hardest part of being a graduate student is being viewed as a “professional student”. Also, the hardest thing for me is the lack of structured deadlines and the realization that everything that happens is up to me.
How can it be up to me?! I’m still trying to figure out how not to lose my socks in the wash!
Imagine someone handing you a map and telling you that your future depends on getting to point “X” and then walking away. What do you do first? If you’re like me, you panic. But then you start to devise a plan and you start your journey. Every so often along your trip, you get texts in all caps telling you, “YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” or “YOU SHOULD’VE ALREADY CROSSED THIS REGION!” So, you panic a little more. Then you realize that no one told you when you needed to get to point “X.” So now the trip that your future depends on has turned into a full-on panic party because, what the heck are you even doing? What if you get there and it’s too late? That is hard for me. It keeps me up at night.
What do you plan to do after you complete your degree?
This is always a fun question. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. My head is set on industry and being a lead scientist at some fun place like Pfizer, but in my heart, I want to impact others in a real way. I want to encourage young girls and boys who come from where I come from to pursue the glamorous life of a scientist. So maybe academia? Who knows? (That keeps me up at night also.)
I see that you also have a blog. Can you tell me more about it?
How long has it been up? I do have a blog – www.blackgurlscientist.blogspot.com. It’s still in its early stages but it has been up for about six months now.
What made you decide to start blogging ?
I’ve been into blogging off and on for quite some time (probably since Xanga days *eeek I’m telling my age*)…I love writing and sharing my thoughts and ideas with others.
I love the idea that you can write something be it a recipe, a helpful tip or even a funny story and it resonates with someone who could be across the street or across an ocean.
Blogging makes me feel connected.
What do you hope to accomplish with your blog?
The purpose of my blog is to share my experience with others. While pursing my master’s degree and even more so now that I’m pursing my doctorate, I find myself feeling alone. It’s a loneliness that stems from not seeing people who look like me or share my set of experiences.
One goal of my blog is to write something that resonates with people who feel the same way. I also hope that my blog shows people that, you don’t have to be extraordinary to have the desire to be a scientist or to have an interest in science. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I only feel slightly above average on my best days. No one starts out knowing everything. However, you DO have to be passionate about what you do and committed to hard work.
As a woman and a person of color in science, what have been your experiences? Were there any obstacles specific to your race or gender that has impacted your journey?
Being a woman in a male-dominated field, no less, a Black woman is a journey. Being a minority in STEM means that you’re subjected to a different kind of scrutiny. Being a Black woman, I feel like I must be perfect all the time or risk being seen in a negative light. I’ve encountered men who treat me with less respect than my male counterparts and women who ask me about the Black girl on the fourth floor because we MUST know each other…and don’t get me started on the number of people who discuss minority initiatives as though the government just hands out money to anyone who raises their hand.
I have often considered leaving academia because I spend so much time feeling like I don’t belong. Along with the normal doubts you feel in graduate school, you must figure out how to exist in a space where few people share your experience. You must reconcile with other people’s perceptions of you and how they influence your perception of yourself…so the biggest obstacle is how this all affects my self-image. All of this makes me feel like I am not enough…I spend a lot of time reminding myself that I am good enough.
I’ve had the experience of being considered too pretty to be a scientist. Have you experienced this as well?
I recently had a colleague tell me that they thought I was an undergraduate student passing the time in the lab because I was “too pretty to be a grad student”. That is honestly the only time I’ve had someone come right out with it. Of course, there are the subtle jabs – the smirks and the surprised looks that I’ve learned to ignore.
What do you think about the perception that beauty and brains cannot coexist in one person?
It’s absurd. I think people who hold that perception are attempting to conceal their own insecurities.
What do your friends and family think about you being a scientist?
I honestly don’t know! I think my friends and family are proud of me, but I also think they’re all just praying that I get out of school soon (lol).
I’m the first person in my family to pursue graduate school and oftentimes I feel like my family [and friends] don’t quite understand what I’m doing. And that’s fine. I think they’re worried about whether I’m going to end up homeless lol.