I’m a HUGE proponent of black women doing amazing things, especially when it comes to pursuing higher education! I wanted to spotlight all of the other fabulous, beautiful, and black women I know who are brilliant geniuses. I really wanted to investigate the trials and successes of black women in non-traditional fields and academic spaces, from their hair journey and beyond! If you’re interested in being featured as a brainy brown beauty, or know someone who would be a good fit, feel free to let me know!
Hi all! My name is Lamia and I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. I am a Ph.D. candidate at NYU School of Medicine studying biochemistry and microbiology. My research is on the bacterial pathogen Staphylococcus aureus and how it is able to regulate the toxins that contribute to illness. I started my graduate program immediately after graduating from Brandeis University (literally 2 weeks later) where I earned my Bachelor of Science in Biology with minors in Chemistry and Women/Gender Studies. Through the course of my current program, I’ve also been awarded my Masters degree in Biomedical Sciences from NYU.
How did you get so interested in science?
As you can probably guess by now, I’m big on science. I’ve loved it since I was a sophomore in high school and its been my passion ever since. But I didn’t start off loving science; I actually hated it and it was usually my worst subject. I didn’t see the practical value in science; it was abstract, confusing, and unreasonably hard. I did, however, love the passion and dedication that my sophomore year chemistry teacher had for science. Ms. Barrett, the only black science teacher I’ve ever had, was a transformative figure in my life. She commanded the classroom and her very presence demanded respect. She held me accountable, encouraged me to explore the unknown, and refused to accept mediocrity from me. She made science exciting and drew out a passion that I never knew I had for the sciences. Ms. Barrett was, and still is, my biggest role model, advocate, and muse.
Why did you decide to pursue scientific research?
I decided to pursue biomedical research because it’s extraordinarily fascinating and cool to get to explore the diverse world of science! At this point, people’s eyes usually glaze over or they roll their eyes and say something like “you’re just smart. I just don’t get science; I wasn’t cut out for it”. This just isn’t true. I’ve never been the smartest in the room but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who worked harder than me to ‘get’ it. It’s rarely an issue of aptitude but rather an issue of interest. A lot of students lose their natural curiosity and excitement for science by the time they reach high school so if they decide to go to college, science seems unattainable or uninteresting. After starting my ‘research career’ as an unpaid dishwasher in an undergrad lab, I eventually realized that being a scientist just meant you get to be an adult sized kid! It’s about curiosity and excitement for exploring something new. I ask a question that no one has an answer to and figure out how to answer it. Science is essentially a big jigsaw puzzle and as a scientist, your job is to figure out where your small piece fits in. You realize that as much as we know, there is so much that we don’t yet fully understand. As a scientist, I get to address the unknowns of the biological world and that excites me.
What’s your hair story?
I technically went natural when I was a junior in high school. I didn’t have any major realizations or moments of self-reflection; I just didn’t have the patience or the money to maintain my relaxed hair anymore. It was burdensome, broken, dry, and and falling out so I just stopped relaxing it. I prefaced with ‘technically’ because when I stopped relaxing it, I didn’t actually do anything with my natural hair. It was a passive process. I just braided my hair with extensions and forgot about it until it was time to redo it. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I finally started wearing two-strand twists and another year before I wore it in a kinky style-out. Now, I love exploring with my natural hair! I’m still a fan of two-strand twists but I usually wear twist-outs or curly afros, out of convenience. I’m always trying new styles but they don’t usually make it out of my apartment haha. Despite being a natural for almost a decade, it is still a learning process for me!
Is natural hair ever a concern in your field?
As a natural in the sciences, it is hard at times because wearing your hair out can be an internal struggle. If you are going to a professional meeting or an important interview, you need to ask yourself, if I wear my hair out in a curly style or put it in an afro, would this hurt my chances of succeeding? Is this environment “progressive” enough that being my natural self, kinky hair and all, will be good enough? It might seem easy to think, “if they don’t accept me in all my natural, kinky curly beautiful braininess than I don’t want to be involved with them anyway!” But when you realize how prevalent those stereotypes are across the field and that you still need to find a job, get funding, or build your network, it becomes harder to just dismiss all the ill-informed people. What we need is more people like us, in these fields where we are underrepresented, showing the world (and other brown naturals) that women of color rocking their natural hair is just as normal as a white woman rocking hers.
What is the representation of black women in your field, both in school and in the profession?
In the sciences, there is a problem with diversity and as you advance up the academic ranks, the problem only worsens. For example, of all U.S doctorate degrees granted in biomedical sciences in 2013*, only about 11% were granted to people that fall under the “underrepresented minority group” – that encompasses African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. For African Americans alone? 3%. African American women? 2%. So in the field, the representation for black women is pretty low. At my institution, there is not one black female PI (principle investigator – the person who runs the research lab). Actually, there aren’t any black PIs, period. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with fellowships like the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and the UNCF/Merck Science Initiative Fellowship, which has opened up doors for me and allowed me to meet other brilliant brown scientists and mentors. We also have an amazing cohort of minority graduate students at NYUMC that really help make the journey doable.
How has diversity, or lack thereof, either affected your learning or motivated you?
Throughout college and now in graduate school, the lack of diversity has served as a catalyst for me to make a difference. I want to make science more accessible. I want students to experience the excitement of science. Ultimately, I want to change the face of science. I’m heavily involved in community outreach geared toward getting more brown boys and girls into science. I speak at events, participate in science-centric mentorship programs, invite students into my research lab, and teach, tutor, and volunteer in minority serving middle and high schools. I want younger students to look at me, see my passion and commitment to science, and want to explore it more as well. I don’t want to fool anyone though. Science isn’t easy. It requires discipline and being okay with delayed gratification. It’s a matter of going through a lot of hardships and failures to one day make a meaningful contribution to science. The hardest part about being a brown brainiac is knowing that with so few of us in science, there is a real pressure for us not only to succeed but to excel. And with that comes the burden of knowing that if I turn back or don’t succeed, there are students who may never find their “Ms. Barrett” and realize their full potential.
Why should other naturally smart girls do what you do?
Naturally smart girls should explore science because we need you! We need more women of color exceling in the sciences and showing the next generation of brown beauties that they are brainiacs as well! We need more women of color in scientific leadership roles showing the world that it is possible to slay inside the boardrooms and out. We need our women leading research projects in the lab and showing how we excel in every field. Our community already has so many of the qualities that make a scientist successful: curiosity, creativity, resourcefulness, persistence, diverse perspective, and leadership just to name a few, and we have the capacity to learn whichever others we don’t already have. Come join me!
What other hobbies and passions do you have?
My number one priority, even above science, is my faith. I am a faithful and faith-filled woman of God and a lot of my time is spent serving in my local church (yay to Hillsong!), connecting with my sisters in Christ, and fellowshipping with my fellow Christian scientists at NYU. I was agnostic for most of my life so finding God and building my relationship with Jesus has been an amazing 3-year journey and counting. I’m also an avid traveler! I’ve been to 15 countries throughout North America, Europe, and the Caribbean and have been to at least 50 different cities. Living with the locals and exploring different cultures has been such an adventure. Like science, the world is such a diverse and interesting place and traveling has given me perspective, a sense of self, and memories that I will never forget. My faith in God, drive for science, and passion for travel have definitely helped me to become a woman that I always hoped I could be.
So inspired by this young black women pursuing a career in this field. I say break down the barrier of walls that say we can’t.