Jenn M. Jackson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago where she has also received a graduate certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She will be joining the Syracuse University Department of Political Science as an Assistant Professor in August 2019. Jenn’s research is in Black Politics with a focus on group threat, gender and sexuality, public opinion, political psychology, and behavior. In her dissertation, “Race, Risks, and Responses: Mapping Black Americans’ Reactions to Group Threat,” Jackson investigates the role of group threat in influencing Black Americans’ political behavior. Methodologically, she utilizes quantitative analyses of survey data and experiments as well as qualitative analysis of 50 in-depth interviews with young Black Americans ages 18 to 35 in the Chicago area to investigate both intergroup and intragroup differences in responses to and ideas about group threat. She finds that Black women are most likely to express concerns about state-based and intragroup threat. Conversely, Black men vary drastically in their responses to group threat depending on their sexual orientation, gender expression, and vulnerability to stereotypes. The Twitter story below submitted by Dr. Jackson can be found here.
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Pei Qin (Sabrina) Ng is currently a PhD candidate in bioinformatics and epigenetics at The University of Adelaide, South Australia, Australia. Originally from Malaysia, she has travelled abroad to pursue her dream to study genetics. She is a woman in a lab coat that loves to code, travel, write, and boulder. You can follow her science journey on twitter @PNgsabrina or her blog “The Dataminer’s Diary” at https://peiqinsabrina.wordpress.com. The story below was edited by Emily Sherman.
Hardships help build resilience and determination to conquer challenges, including mental bullying.
No one knows you better than you know yourself. Do not let other’s voices and perspectives define who you are.
Science has no boundaries – it is for someone who loves what they do.
Pei Qin (Sabrina) Ng
The first time I was introduced to genetics was during a high school biology lesson. I still remember how enchanting that first glimpse of the double helix structure was: the code of life, right before my eyes. My interest was sparked, and I have been infatuated with genetics ever since.. For the rest of high school, I eagerly awaited biology lessons and practicals. I did pre-lecture readings, made notes, and set myself up to dive into the world of genetics and other biological sciences.
As long as I am passionate about what I do, I will be good at it. I have always believed that, and that is the same belief I hold today as I approach learning and mastering new science.
My high school biology teacher back in Malaysia, however, challenged my beliefs when I was just starting out. She asked me to stay after class to give me feedback on my poor performance on a biology practical.
“Listen to me, Pei Qin. You are not gifted to do science. Why can’t you just accept the fact that you were born this way?”
I was puzzled by what she said. Why am I not meant to do science, just because I failed to isolate a cloud of DNA using a mixture of ethanol and isopropanol from a strawberry? While yes, it is a fruit with eight copies of its DNA material that was thought to be easy for DNA isolation, I thought to myself: it is okay to fail, I can always reflect on my mistakes and try again. Unfortunately, my biology teacher did not think that way.
I refused to take her discouraging words and continued my obsession with science. I stayed back in the library after school, reading the Campbell Biology university textbook to quench my curiosity and inquisition.
If no one is going to teach me, I am going to teach myself.
My persistence in science enraged my biology teacher. Every lesson, she publicly shamed me in front of the class, proclaiming how bad I am at science, especially biology. She warned my classmates that they were in bad luck if we were in the same group for a science project. She refused to hand me a copy of the dissection notes for our mouse dissection practical. She instilled fear in others to share notes with me, as my classmates were worried that they would fail their assessment. It got so bad that even my own friends refused to share their notes with me.
Being sequestered from resources caused substantial mental stress for me. Furious with the situation at hand, I was determined to prove them wrong.
I taught myself how to do mouse dissections through watching Youtube videos uploaded by universities, and read notes that I found online posted by university students. When the day of the exam arrived, I heard my classmates whispering how terribly I was going to fail without any help from my teacher nor my classmates.
My hard work and determination paid off. I topped the class as the first student who finished the dissection in the shortest time, with the most accurate examination of the different mouse organs for the practical.
Despite proving my high school biology teacher wrong and constantly communicating my improvements and new knowledge, she refused to acknowledge that I was capable of excelling in science. In fact, she suggested that I was better off pursuing law or teaching.
Although I graduated from high school as a mediocre student and my passion for genetics was a laughing stock among teachers, I did not let others’ perception of me diminish my love for genetics. I left Malaysia to pursue my tertiary education in Adelaide, South Australia. I enrolled myself in a science degree, and then acquired a conditional offer to transfer to an advanced science degree if I aced my first semester courses with minimum all distinctions. Fast-forward three years, and I graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) and was offered a place to immediately start a Masters in genetics on a full scholarship.
Today, I am doing a PhD in plant epigenetics and bioinformatics. My research is focused on using computational analysis to understand the functional roles of small RNAs in plants. The role of small RNAs is not to be underestimated: research has shown that they play a great role in regulating growth and development in most complex organisms, including humans. However, there is so much more to explore, and computational power allows us to do so. I am always fascinated by what these small molecules can do, as it reminds me of my motto in science: No matter how “small” you may think you are, your work will always make a significant difference to the understanding of the molecular world.
Ultimately, I am thankful for the experience of being denied of exploring and developing my scientific identity at such a formative stage. I That hardship strengthened my willpower and determination to pursue science. Because I was thrown into the deep end, I am now a more resourceful and resilient in person that is ready to persevere in order to achieve my goals and dreams. People’s words and definitions of what and who I should be almost diminished my identity as a scientist. Those adversities made me stand firm and work harder to be closer to the person I imagine myself to be, and have contributed to the person that I am today.
America Ferrera said, “My identity is not my crisis. My identity is my superpower.”
Mariam Aly is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. She studies the human mind and brain with a focus on the interplay between attention, perception, and memory. She is passionate about helping students navigate school and life beyond it, with a particular goal of de-stigmatizing mental illness. The story was edited by Emily Sherman. Download the story.
Key Take Aways
Take care of yourself first and foremost.
You are not alone.
Can one pinpoint the experiences that ignited a lifelong passion? I can think of several. The earliest was when my mom bought me a book of visual illusions. I was around 6 years old, and I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world. Even if you knew something was an illusion, you couldn’t un-see it, no matter how hard you tried. How and why did that happen? Although I didn’t know it had a word at the time, that was the start of my passion for psychology.
Prof. Mariam Aly
I continued to explore this interest through middle and high school. In middle school, I did a science project on whether handedness could be predicted from whether someone was more ‘right-brained’ or ‘left-brained’. The answer was no, and since then I’ve learned that the notion of left-brain/logical and right-brain/creative is misguided anyway. In high school, I took a class called Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology — but we skipped Psychology. When it was time to apply for college, I was a bit lost: I knew what I was interested in, but had no idea what it was called. ‘Psychology’ to me, then, was just psychotherapy, and I didn’t even bother to read more about the field because of this misconception. So, what did I want? Biology, cognitive science, and neuroscience seemed close enough, and I ended up applying to universities for enrollment in those programs.
I ended up going to the University of Toronto, and enrolled in a psychology class – not because I wanted to, but because it was a requirement for my then-major. After the first class, I was hooked. This was what I had been looking for since those early days of gaping at visual illusions. I was confident that psychology was what I wanted to study. I promptly changed my major. My family was quite alarmed at my impulsiveness, and I don’t think they recovered until 9 years later, after I had my Ph.D. in psychology. To be fair, most of my family are engineers (including my mom and brother), mathematicians, or medical doctors, so psychology was a bit unexpected.
I am very grateful that my 17-year-old self made that decision. It was absolutely the right one. I love psychology, and particularly my sub-discipline of cognitive neuroscience. I feel very lucky that I can spend my days thinking about how people think, and studying the most fascinating thing in the universe — the brain. But I say that knowing that things have turned out quite well for me. After a Ph.D. from UC Davis, I conducted postdoctoral work at Princeton University, and am now an Assistant Professor at Columbia University.
I feel very grateful to have found this path. But it hasn’t been easy. Academia is incredibly stressful, and I am an anxiety-prone perfectionist who tends to over-work. My work habits were intense in college, and were not sustainable. I was warned repeatedly by family, colleagues, and mentors that I needed to take care of my physical and mental health, but I didn’t listen. The result was ever-increasing work, alongside a complete neglect of my physical health and degeneration of my mental well-being. I was perpetually anxious, engaged in very few social activities, and my physical health deteriorated severely. In my first year of graduate school, concerned colleagues anonymously reported me to university health services, and I was required to seek medical attention or be kicked out of graduate school. I finally relented — how could I give up what I was most passionate about? — and sought care. That meant being hospitalized for 6 weeks, and continuing checkups with physicians and therapists for a year after. If I had not gone to the hospital then, I am confident I would have died before my 22nd birthday.
By the way, the irony is not lost on me: despite studying psychology and being very aware of what maladaptive thought patterns and habits can do to people, I let maladaptive thought patterns and habits nearly kill me. That’s one lesson: you can’t control your mental health. You can’t just think yourself out of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or anything else. People should not be blamed for their mental illnesses.
So, yes, things are good for me now. But it was a hard road to get here. Those 6 weeks in the hospital, and the years that led up to that hospitalization, were the most difficult times of my life. Even now, 10 years after my hospitalization, I am not able to share the full story — only with my best friends and my partner.
You are not alone
After I left the hospital, I developed a renewed focus on my mental and physical well-being. I formed a close social group for the first time in many years — friends who are still some of my closest all these years later. I developed a passion for biking and hiking, and rediscovered my interests in novels and movies. I enforced a no-working-on-weekends rule that I’ve largely been able to keep with the exception of impending deadlines. Doing all this is not easy: it’s easier for me to overwork than to take care of myself, but I’m very grateful to have the attention and encouragement of friends, family, mentors, and my very loving partner, who keep me sane and happy.
Given all this, I have some advice. Take care of yourself first and foremost. When people encourage you to seek help, listen to them. And return the favor: make sure your friends, family, and colleagues are doing ok. Share your struggles: you’re not alone, and being open about ups and downs is helpful for everyone. If you’re in a position of power, this is doubly important. Many students struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. Being open about the challenges you have faced will help de-stigmatize mental illness, and will encourage others to be open about, and seek treatment for, their struggles.
This story wasn’t easy for me to share and I’m leaving out the more painful details, but my hope is that sharing it will be helpful to those who are struggling, were struggling, or might struggle in the future. You are not alone. People care about you and want you to do well. Remember that when times get hard. And when times are easy, remember that they might not be easy for other people. Be kind, be patient, and remember that everyone, everywhere is struggling with something.
Jenny Howard is a PhD candidate in ecology, evolution, and animal behavior at Wake Forest. Her research seeks to understand what affects a bird’s decision to forage in a specific place (i.e., prey, sea surface temperature, large-scale climate events) and how that could change as the climate does. This story originally appeared on Massive Science, an editorial partner site that publishes science stories written by scientists. Subscribe to their newsletter for even more science delivered straight to you. Cover image by Jenny Howard.
A monarch butterfly stood on the palm of my open hand, its feet tickling my skin. The orange and black-veined butterfly opened and closed, opened and closed its wings. On the lower half of the closed wing, the butterfly had a small white circle, a tag, with a unique identifying number and an address where someone could report the butterfly, if found. I extended my hand high above my head and the butterfly took off, ascending into the sky and disappearing.
That moment, in 1993, was the first time I ever tagged a butterfly – and I got hooked. It was part of a citizen science project that has engaged thousands of volunteers since organized efforts started in the 1940s. For me, tagging monarch butterflies as a seven-year old led to my pursuing a PhD in biology. These early experiences were also a window into a passion for science and an enthusiasm for our natural world. For many people, volunteering with a citizen science project can make science accessible, familiar, and engaging. It can also be crucial for important scientific discoveries that can only happen through collecting large amounts of data across a wide geographical area.
Citizen scientists — as biologist Caren Cooper writes in her book, Citizen Science — can be anyone, often not trained as a scientist, who collaborates with trained researchers in “collective scientific endeavors.” It can be a way for people to develop hobbies, learn new skills, join a community, or first engage with science. It can lead to friendships and careers. Citizen science projects can range from counting and identifying birds during National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, identifying animals in camera trap photos with Snapshot Serengeti, to tagging monarch butterflies to study their migration, as I did.
Community-based science data isn’t a new concept. Early oceanography depended on people reporting the location of messages-in-bottles that had been purposely released into the ocean to study ocean currents. The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count started in 1900, and more than 76,000 volunteers across the country helped complete it’s 118th count this past Christmas.
But the internet and social media have helped to significantly increase the number of projects and participation rates. Now, interested volunteers can find citizen science initiatives much more easily, and scientists can crowdsource data collection much more quickly. For example, eBird, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, allows birders to quickly report bird sightings across the world, creating a huge global database of when and where certain species occur in the world–and how that is changing over time.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that monarch citizen science efforts became organized endeavors. During the early 1900s, scientists observed that monarchs migrated south each fall, leaving when temperatures dropped and daylight hours decreased. But North Americans had no idea where the monarchs went. It was only through volunteers tagging the butterflies that we discovered where monarchs from the eastern United States and Canada spend their winter. After years of scouring potential locations, in January 1976, a professor from Toronto discovered a tagged monarch butterfly in the transvolcanic mountain range of central Mexico.
That individual butterfly had been tagged by volunteers in Minnesota earlier in the fall of 1975, providing the first concrete proof that monarchs migrated from the northeastern US to Mexico to overwinter. This discovery was famously captured on the front cover of the August 1976 edition of National Geographic. (It is important to note here that Mexicans had long known about this location, as the arrival of monarchs in Mexico coincides with the Day of the Dead on November 1, with the monarchs representing the souls of their ancestors. But they had no idea where the monarchs came from.)
One of the main organizations associated with monarch tagging today is Monarch Watch. Established in 1992 by insect entomologist Chip Taylor of the University of Kansas, the program blends education, conservation, and research. It is an inspiring testament to the power of citizen science. Each year, thousands of people, mostly non-scientists, participate in Monarch Watch’s programs. Primarily, these teachers, students, and monarch enthusiasts help by tagging monarch butterflies across the east coast of the USA to track their migration south to Mexico during the fall.
My mom, a non-scientist, found out about Monarch Watch and decided this was the perfect activity for her three daughters, all under the age of seven. My youngest sister was strapped onto my Mom’s back while we walked through an abandoned field near my elementary school. My mom taught us to carefully look underneath each milkweed leaf — the main source of food for the caterpillars — for monarch butterfly eggs or caterpillars. Anything we found, we placed in our plastic terrarium with plenty of fresh milkweed leaves for our hungry caterpillars to eat. Then we waited.
Monarch butterflies were my entryway into biology. Over the course of a month, I observed their entire metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar to pupa to adult. I watched as itty-bitty caterpillars emerged from their pin head-sized eggs and grew into a caterpillar larger than an inch; in two weeks, they were 2,000 times larger than when they first emerged. They would then climb up the sides of our plastic terrarium, “glue” one end of its body to the ceiling, and then hang in a “J.” I watched with eyes wide when the caterpillar would start shimmying its body, working to shed its skin and reveal its inner green body. In less than an hour, my caterpillar had turned into a glossy, gold-spotted green chrysalis. The budding scientist I was, I wrote the date the chrysalis formed on a little piece of tape and put that near the chrysalis. Like clockwork, almost two weeks later, a wet wrinkled butterfly emerged. Several hours later after pumping the wet fluid from its wings, the butterfly had dried out and was ready to be tagged.
How does one tag a monarch? Very carefully. When I first started tagging monarchs, we had small pieces of paper that were attached to the wing of the butterfly with a special glue. Now, I can easily apply a sticker the size of a pencil eraser. The tag is lightweight and when placed close to the body on the lower wing, it doesn’t affect the butterfly’s flight. Anyone interested in participating can get Monarch Watch tags, recording information on each butterfly tagged, like the sex and body condition, and the date and location of the butterfly’s release. I continued tagging monarchs throughout my childhood, earning the nickname “butterfly girl” from teachers.
Monarch populations are found on most continents, and even isolated islands, but they are best known for the incredible migration that the East Coast population makes each fall. Butterflies in the northeast respond to light and temperature changes and start migrating south, navigating to Mexico using air currents and a built-in compass calibrated to the sun. They weigh less than a paperclip, yet are able to travel thousands of miles to spend the winter in Michoacan, Mexico, layered on top of each other on the branches of Oyamel fir trees.
What makes this migration even more incredible is that the butterflies that travel to Mexico have never been there before, similar to young arctic terns instinctively migrating 12,000 miles south to Antarctica for the first time. Monarchs partition their life cycle into four or five generations per year, each with a purpose. Most live less than a month, but one “super” generation lives many months, emerging in the late summer or early fall, migrating to a less than 50-square-mile forest habitat in Mexico, and dying after reproducing the following spring. The butterflies that migrate south are the great-great-grandchildren of the adults that migrated north.
Monarchs are the only butterflies that migrate at this scale – and this phenomenon is at risk, because of human-caused factors, such as a decline in available milkweed as farmers switch crops or illegal logging destroying their winter habitat.
Long-term monarch monitoring programs, fueled by generations of energetic volunteers, have helped show new patterns in monarch migration. Monitoring monarchs in the same location, year after year, has allowed researchers to determine that warmer falls, like we had in 2017, can delay the migration to Mexico. These delayed or late migrators don’t survive as well as early migrators. Warming temperatures associated with climate change could lead to increasing delayed migrations, putting the monarchs further at risk.
I visited one of these monarch reserves in March 2005. It was a transformational experience. The monarchs bring in thousands of tourists each year, helping the local economy and providing some incentive to protect the remaining forest. The town of Angangueo, Mexico, for example, hosts an annual Monarch Butterfly Festival that fills hotels and restaurants with visitors. My visit was 13 years ago, yet the sensory experience of visiting the reserve still sticks with me in fine detail.
The Oyamel fir trees were majestic and the air was cool and dry. It was quiet, a muted stillness like walking into a cathedral. Butterflies dripped from the tip of each fir limb so that the trees were all the same orange-brown from the millions of monarch wings blanketing the branches. Somewhat miraculously, as I stared down at the blanket of dead monarchs on the ground–those unfortunate to not survive their overwintering period — my eyes caught sight of a dot of white. I reached down and picked up a tagged monarch butterfly. My heart thumping, a careful inspection of the tag revealed it was a Monarch Watch butterfly — tagged by someone, somewhere, in the eastern US.
Though my tagged monarchs never made it to Mexico (they were never found there, at least), it was powerful to find one that had. You can make a direct link between where that monarch was tagged, what date it was done, and where it is found many months later.
My passion for science inspired by these small insects continued to Kenyon College in Ohio, where I majored in biology. And it led to Cape May, New Jersey, in 2010, where I had the amazing opportunity to be a Monarch Butterfly Technician for two months. I worked with the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project, tagging monarchs, monitoring the butterflies’ migration south, and helping to give lectures at the local state park. Here, I found an inspiring community of driven volunteers, citizen scientists, and friends. Together, we tagged more than 3,000 monarchs, talked to hundreds of interested visitors, and witnessed the amazing movement of monarchs crossing the Delaware Bay from New Jersey to Delaware. Ironically, these citizen scientists were also passionate birders who introduced me to a whole new world of winged, migrating creatures: seabirds.
Monarch butterflies, and the citizen science projects supporting them, helped draw me into science over 20 years ago. Other projects like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count have also empowered other young students to embark on careers in science. Engaging in any manner of projects, like monitoring sea level rise or collecting and donating sparrow eggs found in bluebird boxes, contributes to science and helps get students of any age outdoors. Remember, science isn’t just for scientists.
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Yasmine Ayman is a rising junior at Columbia College double majoring in neuroscience and philosophy. She was raised in a multicultural household in Luxembourg that makes her especially fascinated by how borderless and global science is. She wishes to continue her journey in science through pursuing academic research and science advocacy in order to effect change in society on an individual and collective level. She is currently conducting research as an Amgen Scholar in the Axel Lab. The story below was edited by Fanuel Muindi.
Story Key Ideas
Dedicate your life to something far greater than yourself
Search for questions that compel you to keep going
Science is one tool for social empowerment
Cognitive Scientist Daniel Dennett once said that “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” I would say that ever since I embarked on what is slowly unfolding as my story in science, I have hearkened back to that maxim, albeit with a minor edit. That “something” I am searching must be a question I feel especially equipped and suited to answer, since there is a plethora of important causes deserving of our time and energy. It appears to me that one of life’s struggles is learning to focus on your own path, while having faith that others will tackle the rest. As a matter of fact, that faith and collaboration is essential in practical science as well given the many mysteries in nature that still require us to unravel together.
Yasmine Raya Ayman
I would say there are three main episodes that come to mind when I think of what distinct stages have led me to my present state. The first episode took place all the way in Japan, where I was spending my 10th grade spring break with my family. One night at dinner, our family friend who lives in Kyoto was telling us stories about his work as lead molecular geneticist at Kyoto University. He was describing one type of cells called the Induced Pluripotent Stem cells which were the next big thing at the time. He was sharing his excitement at conducting research in the field as well as the tangible impact it would have on society. It is crazy to think that this was the first time I consciously registered that being a scientist was an actual profession I could pursue. I remember being so awestruck by this possibility that I remained glued to his stories for the rest of the evening.
Of course, I quickly pledged myself to becoming a future molecular geneticist. I started reading more about the field and stumbled onto Nessa Carey’s book – The Epigenetics Revolution – which served as my first science book (little did I know 5 years later I would be working on a project centered on epigenetics). I remember being very fascinated by the human studies that were tracing various metabolic or neurological abnormalities to environmental factors. I thought to myself, what better way to delve into the perplexing, yet captivating “Nature vs Nurture” debate than to study epigenetics. I was unconvinced by statements such as “We are our brains”, because just intuitively speaking, I felt like we were so much more.
Another portal to understanding who we are is Alzheimer’s disease. This is paradoxical, since Alzheimer’s erodes our sense of self by gradually stripping away our memory until we can no longer remember the most basic facts about our lives. I came to this realization the summer following my family’s trip to Japan when I did research in the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Centre (CNADC) at Northwestern University. I worked on a project investigating the molecular hallmarks of Alzheimer’s pathology in human brains. This experience marked the second episode that has led me to my present state: I was formally introduced to the field of neuroscience. During my time at the CNADC, I saw my first human brain and witnessed all the steps involved in preserving it — from autopsies to tissue mounting.
Concurrently, a close family friend had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and I witnessed first-hand the overt behavioral changes arising from alterations in the brain’s organic matter. This experience accentuated the mysterious divide between morphology and behavior, as well as the more uneasy disconnect between the emotional labor involved in witnessing Alzheimer’s pathology, and the removed academic setting in which it is carefully studied. In an attempt to reconcile these opposing sides in my academic trajectory, I planned to double major in both philosophy and neuroscience in college. I believed that one needs both the introspective and objective measures to truly understand the human mind, and hence, the elusive self.
The questions we have that so deeply compel us to keep going only help us get back up after it feels like the whole world wants us to give up.
Throughout my studies, I was often told that neuroscience has two main mandates: studying nature and understanding disease. Upon first entering college, I was much more fascinated by the latter. Prominent scientists I had met and spoken to prompted me to start searching for my “question” i.e that “something” I would dedicate my life to. Convinced my questions would be found in pursuit of understanding memory formation and Alzheimer’s disease, I started working in a cutting edge Alzheimer’s and Depression research lab. The lab used novel techniques such as optogenetics to stimulate the Dentate Gyrus (DG) of the Hippocampus, a region of the brain implicated in the formation of new memories. A paper published shortly before I joined the lab had shown that stimulating the DG caused the retrieval of previously found to be lost memories in Alzheimer’s diseased mice — a discovery that dawned many exciting new interpretations of the disease pathology.
The findings were riveting, and I gained first hand exposure to research in a field I felt viscerally moved by. I learned a lot from this lab; not only in the realm of key techniques used in neuroscience research such as immunohistochemistry, brain sectioning and genotyping, but also in the realm of instrumental soft skills required in conducting scientific research effectively. I experienced my “firsts” with pipettes, microscopes and mouse surgeries, and was more confused than ever before. I began to formulate my own questions with increasing sophistication, and learned how to approach forging a path to answering them.
The research path I was carving for myself was, however, tumultuous. Amid constant failure, I found myself foolishly comparing myself to those with far more experience than myself, and returned home many nights feeling defeated. Over the summer, where I worked full time in the lab for around two months, I came face to face with my deepest flaws. I questioned myself every day, wondering whether or not I was truly cut out for academic research in neuroscience. When everything else in the lab seemed to be running so smoothly, things weren’t working out as such in my hands. I faced a multitude of new obstacles that took me weeks to surmount. If it had not been for my friends and the little voice inside of me telling me to focus on why I had started research in the first place and to keep going, I would have almost certainly given up.
At the end of the summer, I felt grateful for the significant learning and growing I had done that had shaped my identity as a scientist. But ultimately, I wanted to keep exploring new research avenues and exposing myself to different lab environments. Instead of moving to another Alzheimer’s or cognitive neuroscience lab, I chose to dig deeper in an effort to unearth the more molecular mechanisms underlying human nature and evolution. I felt that delving into a completely new realm of research would only complement my future inquiry into disease.
I switched to a new lab and started working on a project studying Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance (TEI). Epigenetics literally means “above genes” and it describes how the environment impacts gene expression through so-called epigenetic markers. TEI refers to the transmission of these epigenetic markers from one generation to the next, so that the descendants of the individual who was initially exposed to that environment bear the scars of their ancestors. This hits home as my father was a refugee from Iran during the Revolution where he fled from the persecution of Bahá’ís. Stories such as these harbor sadness and trauma that could lead to cultural, but perhaps also physiological, imprints on future generations.
Serendipity reunited me with the question I was initially interested in: what makes us who we are? Eager to understand trends in historically oppressed communities and frustrated by the impasse I was feeling with how we were tackling the mental health epidemics, I was determined to understand how these susceptibilities arose. In doing so, I hope to work towards cultivating strength and resilience in individuals in an effort to help them escape the specters of crime and poverty. Pivoting from understanding disease to studying nature marks the third, and present day, episode of my story.
Bringing clarity to the complex phenomenon of TEI seems to preside in the distant future, as there is much to be unearthed when it comes to human development. However, the general principle that there are aspects of ourselves that lie out of our reach because of the unfortunate circumstances we or our ancestors have been exposed rings true. Heightening our consciousness thereof can only alleviate the burden many members of society, such as veterans or refugees, face. Further, these insights can shed light into how we can best navigate criminal justice proceedings or (re)integration into society. To me, the very real impact this research can have on people around the world illuminates both the power of basic science research and the merit of interdisciplinary approaches to real world problems. From a philosophical standpoint, this research weds our internal states with the external world, reconstructing the notion of the self as a fluid, unbounded entity — one with the world around it. As such, the most recent chapter of my story in science ended up feeling the most human.
Over the past year and into this upcoming summer, I will continue to hone my skills as an undergraduate researcher and absorb as much as I can about the academic research around me. I am seizing every opportunity that comes my way. I believe in the power of science to discover physical reality and gain insights into human conduct and the life of society. And I also trust in its faith to embolden individuals like myself to investigate the world around them fearlessly. Nothing about my journey so far has been smooth, nor providential. Rather, it has been characterized by hard work and personal faith. I am lucky to have supportive mentors today; however, there were far more voices telling me I was not qualified for large parts of my story. I therefore feel compelled to help others empower themselves through science and actualize their potential. In that regard, I find science is yet another tool for social empowerment, albeit one that should mainly come from within.
Today, whether through the UN IVY STEM Connect program, a project under the Girls Education Initiative, where I host weekly science workshops with young girls in Tanzania and Rwanda via Skype, or on campus through organizing panels and conferences, I strive to advocate for science in many forms. The main message I try to communicate hearkens back to advice Bianca, my postdoc mentor, gave me to me earlier this semester when I was doubting myself: you should never base your self-worth on science as it is a mystery for us to unfold and it does not care about you. This self-worth and confidence in your abilities must come from one’s own faculties, and the onus is therefore on each individual to reflect on what environment best conduces to strengthening those inner faculties. For me this meant switching labs, but that was an example of one decision out of the many I will still have to make to buttress my own journey.
The bottom line is that before we can dedicate our lives to that “something” far greater than ourselves, we have to have faith in our own abilities to contribute to scientific advancements. The questions we have that so deeply compel us to keep going only help us get back up after it feels like the whole world wants us to give up.
Dr. Mages is an educator, researcher, and storyteller. She earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s in Theatre at Northwestern University. Dr. Mages is a faculty member at Mercy College and an affiliated faculty member of the Mercy College Center for STEM Education. She researches the effect of the arts on learning and development, and she performs at storytelling events in the US and abroad. To learn more about her research, teaching and storytelling, please visit her Mercy College Web page, Wendy Mages: Mercy College.
Story Key Ideas
The wonders of everyday science
Experimentation (the willingness to try something new) as a problem-solving strategy
Prof. Wendy Mages
I am standing in front of a classroom of aspiring kindergarten teachers presenting a hands-on demonstration lesson on “things that grow in a garden.” In this lesson, I am demonstrating how to conduct a read aloud of a picture book, called The Carrot Seed (Kraus, 1945), and we get to taste some raw carrots. We sing “Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow” and we get to touch oats, peas, beans, and barley, just as these new teachers will do with the young children in their own classrooms.
At first, when planning for this lesson, I was just going to suggest that teachers could extend the lesson by germinating lima beans and growing lima bean plants in their classrooms. This is what I have done every single time I’ve taught this lesson. However, I’m not sure my suggestion has ever convinced a single teacher to germinate a single lima bean.
To be honest, I’ve been feeling stuck, and stale, and rather ineffective. In an effort to engage all of the learners in my class, I’ve added all sorts of bells and whistles to my PowerPoint slides: literally bells and whistles, “Brrring” and “Wheee-whoo.” Still, some sit in the back secretly texting underneath their desks. Others sit silently, staring, rarely uttering a word. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re shy but attentive, or asleep with their eyes open. Nonetheless, I persist in my quest to engage every learner in my classroom.
In preparation for class, I had purchased a bag of lima beans, so we could touch the beans for “Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow.” As I sat gazing at the whole bag of lima beans, I remembered my own experience germinating lima beans when I was a kindergartner.
I decided to germinate a few beans so I could bring the seedlings to class. I thought this might capture the attention of the novice teachers and inspire them to try this in their own classrooms.
I got on the Internet and discovered that things have changed since I was in kindergarten. It seems the days of beans wrapped in wet brown paper towels are long gone. Nowadays, you use plastic sandwich bags and damp cotton balls. Who knew?
I was hesitant to try this new method. I wanted to make sure this would work and I knew the brown-paper-towel method works just fine. Grudgingly, I realized that if I want these young teachers to try something new, I myself, a not-so-young teacher, should be willing to try something new too.
These seedlings are a bit like the children you’ll teach. Each will develop a little differently and each at a different pace.
I picked three beans out of the bag and soaked them overnight. The next morning, I transferred them to a transparent plastic sandwich bag with damp cotton balls and placed the bag in my window. Every day, I checked on my lima beans. The transparent sandwich bag was genius, as it made it easy to see everything that was happening to my little beans. In a few days, the first bean began to sprout. Then I noticed the second one sprouting. Finally the third one sprouted. I can’t explain why seeing each little shoot or root was so exciting, but I was fascinated by my three little lima bean seedlings. Before I headed to class, I carefully packed my little seedlings into my book bag, so they would all make it there safely.
In class, when we finish singing “Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow” and tasting the raw carrots, I take the seedlings out of my book bag. As I show the teachers my three seedlings, one of the teachers, Angela, who usually sits in the back of the class and almost never says anything, notices that the seedlings are not equally developed and asks, “Did you start germinating them on different days?”
“No, I started them on the same day,” I say. “When I picked the beans out of the bag, they all looked exactly the same. I put them in the same jar of water, and in the same plastic bag with the same damp cotton balls, but each is growing a little differently and each at a different rate.”
I look down at the seedlings in my hands. Then I say, “These seedlings are a bit like the children you’ll teach. Each will develop a little differently and each at a different pace.”
After class, I find myself unable to throw my little seedlings away. I bring them home and place them in a jar on my window sill. I continue to watch them grow and develop. They grow leaves, and flowers begin to blossom on their vines. I know this is what is supposed to happen (plant reproduction 101) but I don’t remember ever seeing lima bean blossoms before.
I am totally amazed by the unique potential inherent in each of the three little lima beans. Now that I have witnessed the wonders of each of these beans, I can no longer look at a bag of seemingly identical lima beans in quite the same way.
Kraus, R. (1945). The carrot seed. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.
Dr. Chika Ejikeugwu is a Lecturer at Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki in Nigeria where he teaches microbiology to undergraduate students. He is also an ‘Associate’ Development Knowledge Facilitator (DKF) for the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) headquarters, Abuja, Nigeria. He holds a doctorate degree in Pharmaceutical Microbiology & Biotechnology from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria. The edited story below was originally published by Science Communication Hub Nigeria.
As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a scientist. Of course, I also thought about becoming a medical doctor as well from time to time. However, after gaining admission to study microbiology at university, I dropped all thoughts about studying medicine because microbiology opened my eyes to a brand-new world of microbes. These little things provided me with a new way I could impact society.
In 2015, I created and founded an online platform called MicroDok for the teaching and study of microbiology. The site is now the number one and largest microbiology website in Nigeria and Africa. It has also attracted many followers from around the world. After completing my doctoral thesis in July 2017, I received the 2018 Matsumae International Foundation (MIF) postdoctoral fellowship award to study at Kyoto University in Japan. There, I studied HIV-1 for 6 months. I was 32 years at that time, and also the youngest fellow to receive that award from Nigeria and around the world.
Broadly, my research interests are currently clustered around understanding the molecular mechanisms behind antibiotic resistance, and functioning HIV-1. I thoroughly enjoy research especially given that the topics I am studying are global problems to which Nigeria is not immune. For example, with respect to antibiotic resistance, I am energized because it cuts across all fields of medicine since we cannot fight infectious diseases without antibiotics. However, the efficacy of these antibiotics is being threatened by some resistant microbes. Microbiology is an exciting field that literally impacts may facets of life. I am captivated with how microbes – as invisible as they are to the naked eye – can positively transform society.
The challenges facing scientists in Nigeria are numerous. This includes lack of funding, lack of collaboration amongst Nigerian scientists, epileptic power supply, and dilapidating infrastructure. These are challenges that many scientists in Nigeria face. Nonetheless, we are passionate about the work which keeps us moving forward despite the challenges.
I remain excited about my research. I am hopeful to take up the Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellowship in Berlin, Germany to do another round of research on antibiotic resistance for two years. I plan to also sustain my collaboration with Kyoto University on my HIV-1 research. I continue to explore ways my current university in Nigeria could establish a student and staff exchange program in an effort to help strengthen the academic and research profile of my home University.
My advice for the aspiring scientist is to remain resilient. The journey in science is tough. It is especially tough doing science in Nigeria and Africa at large. But I strongly believe that with preparation, determination, focus, a little help from mentors, and a bit of luck, every mountain can be overcome.
Dr. Carrasco is a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU. Dr. Carrasco investigates visual perception and attention, using human psychophysics, neuroimaging, and computational modeling in order to study the relation between the psychological and neural mechanisms involved in these processes. She grew up in Mexico City and earned her Licentiate in psychology, specializing in experimental psychology, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where she graduated summa cum laude. She then obtained her MS and a PhD in psychology, specializing in cognition and perception, from Princeton University, where she received the highest scholarly excellence award, the Jacobus Honorific Fellowship. She became an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University, where she was the recipient of an NSF Young Investigator Award and an American Association of University Women Fellowship. She joined NYU (1995) as an Associate Professor and became a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science (2002). From 2001-2007 she served as chair of Psychology. At NYU, she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Cattell Fellowship, and her research has been continuously supported by NIH and NSF. She has been a senior editor of Journal of Vision and Vision Research, is a fellow of the American Psychological Society, and has been president of both the Vision Sciences Society and the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. A dedicated teacher and mentor of undergrads, grads and postdocs, she received the NYU award for excellence in postdoc mentoring in 2018; she has been Collegiate Professor since 2007, and was named Silver Professor in 2019. The story below is co-published with Growing up in Science. Learn more about Dr. Carrasco’s lab HERE. Cover Image by Shari E. Ross.
It all seems so pre-ordained when you neatly line up the stepping-stones that lead to the present. But of course, that apparently smooth narrative toward who we are now does not capture how we actually live our lives, or how we experience our careers. Because in some places, there were no visible stepping stones, just mud; in other places the stepping stones were so small that a tiptoe balancing act was required; and at every step, there were forking paths ahead, difficult decisions, influenced by will, but also by many factors like love, laws and luck.
In relative terms, my journey has been comfortable. I grew up in Mexico City in a very supportive home with college-educated parents, in which academics are highly valued. My parents provided everything so my siblings and I could concentrate on our studies and activities we liked (like tennis, music and dance). They instilled in us, with example and words, the ideas of giving our best to whatever we do and of having strong work ethics. And they unselfishly supported us to pursue our dreams, even when they may take us far from home (not a tradition in Mexico, and two of my siblings are also faculty members in the US). Ironically, I didn’t experience or foresee many of the limitations that in the US are often automatically attributed to me. Throughout my career, I have often been asked if I am in the Spanish Department, and more recently, if I work on immigration studies. (What else could a mexican professor possible do?). Sometimes I reply snarkily and laugh, but often I fail to take the opportunity to “educate” people. I can’t help but wonder if these questions are due to my being mexican, a woman or both.
Juggling research, teaching, and academic service with family life, motherhood, and in recent years, aging parents, has been a difficult balancing act.
I could have become a medical doctor or a physicist (two possibilities I entertained through high school), but I decided to pursue psychology. My father, a chemical engineer, was happy I’d specialize in experimental psychology. (As a girl I loved going to his lab on pulp-and-paper and look through the microscope). I was fortunate to go to the UNAM (the oldest and largest university in this continent). I had the opportunity to take great classes and seminars and to conduct research. But more importantly, it opened my eyes to diverse and complex social and political issues in Mexico. I fell in love with research and with visual perception and I wrote a thesis on why simple bars mask letters more than gratings. I decided to apply to graduate school.
I could have gone to a different graduate school. After being accepted by several public universities, I learned that as a foreigner, I could not receive financial aid. As luck would have it, the mexican agency that gave fellowships to study abroad, due to yet another economic crisis, cancelled their program that year. Luckily, private universities also accepted me and I chose Princeton (yes, in part because its proximity to NYC). For my doctoral dissertation, I investigated various aspects of spatial vision, temporal vision, and their interaction. I was very fortunate to have a fabulous mentor and friend, Ron Kinchla. Until his passing, we stayed in touch and discussed science, family, politics and life. The last summer of graduate school, I attended the first summer institute in cognitive neuroscience. That was a transformative experience.
After grad school, for technical and legal reasons, most post-docs were not feasible for me (Columbia and Penn fell through because I was not a green-card holder) and I had to get a job. Fortunately, both Jim (my partner at the time, husband now, whom I met in the cafeteria of Princeton’s Graduate College) and myself got several offers and decided to join Yale and Wesleyan, respectively; the only combination enabling us to live together. (A distinguished Princeton professor scolded me for not accepting the offers of research universities). We had our first son in CT, a course teaching relief for me, but no maternity or paternity leave.
Six years after, NYU’s Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese recruited Jim and they asked Psychology to consider hiring me. Wesleyan offered Jim a faculty position in an attempt to retain me. We preferred to be in a research university and in New York. Our second son was born weeks after arriving at NYU. Again, a teaching relief for me, but no maternity or paternity leave. I remember that I had to convince many colleagues that attention could be and should be rigorously investigated (many of whom ended up being collaborators; touche!). And through the years, submitting and resubmitting many grants to secure federal funding. It has been difficult being in the grant cave but more difficult coming out of it to realize that I’ve fallen behind in many things in the lab and at home.
Since arriving to NYU, I have been very fortunate to have supportive colleagues in Psychology and Center for Neural Science, as well as great graduate students and postdocs. Juggling research, teaching, and academic service with family life, motherhood, and in recent years, aging parents, has been a difficult balancing act. Constant love and support from Jim and our sons are what have made possible the equilibrium; providing not just more stepping stones, but broad and solid continent-sized rocks.