Name: Jazmine I. Benjamin
Alma Mater: University of South Carolina Aiken
STEM Career Path: Drug Discovery and Policy
KH: Who/What inspired you to become interested in science?
JB: Until college, I thought that I was terrible at science. I’m certain that my parents got used to me coming home with an A in everything except science and math from 6th-12th grade. I lost my grandfather in middle school and had a moment where I wanted to do something in the medical field, but that quickly waned and I decided that I wanted to do something in a field that I was more confident in, like English. I applied to undergrad as an English major and got the news that I lost a close friend of mine unexpectedly during orientation. Once that happened, I immediately went and changed my major to chemistry and decided that I was going to go to medical school. At the moment it was a total knee-jerk reaction to a difficult experience, but I decided that I would stick with it for a semester or two.
I ended up taking an introductory biology course with Dr. Hancock, who patiently fielded all of my questions about the figures in our textbook and the experiments we did in lab. One day, he told me to change my major to biology; he would be my advisor and he had space in his lab for me to do research. The next week I changed my major, and a few days after that I started working in his lab. He always put me in a good position to improve as a scientist, whether it was presenting at a local conference or taking the GRE and ultimately applying to grad school. He really helped me realize my potential to be a great scientist. Of course, I’m also really fortunate to have supportive parents who, although they were a little skeptical about me pursuing science, have always listened to me drone on about the things I’ve learned.
KH: If you could sit down and have a conversation with one woman in STEM who would it be and why?
JB: If it could be any woman in STEM regardless of time, I’d really like to chat with Henrietta Lacks. Before I worked with HeLa cells for the first time, I had to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I think that it should be required reading for anyone working with her cells for the first time. I know that she wasn’t necessarily a scientist, but she is the mother of modern medicine. If I had the chance to tell her how much of an impact she’s made in life sciences and show her some of the amazing things that have been accomplished because of her, that would be a dream come true.
KH: What struggles have you faced as an African American woman in STEM thus far? How did you overcome those struggles?
JB: One of the biggest things I’ve struggled with is a general lack of representation for African American women in STEM. Of the many conferences I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a keynote speaker that was a woman of color. Even amongst the presenters, I see few African American women with posters or doing oral presentations. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to meet several successful African American scientists through minority participation programs and I also have classmates in my program that I interact with. That lack of representation at bigger conferences is still something that gets to me, but it also motivates me. To know that one day I will be the keynote speaker at a national conference and other African American STEM students will see me and feel that they can one day be in the same position is definitely a driving force for me.
KH: Any advice on women that are discouraged to pursue a PhD?
JB: Really gauge your passion for science. If you have a deep love for science, both working at the lab bench and being in the classroom, then go for the PhD. I find that every aspect of my life since I’ve started my PhD has science sprinkled somewhere in it. Even when I go out with classmates for a “break from the lab”, we end up talking about our experiments or seminars we’ve been to. If you’re comfortable with and excited about (literally) your whole life being science, then a PhD is definitely for you. Getting a PhD is not easy. You’ll quickly learn that there’s a lot that you don’t know and that the realm of knowledge is seemingly endless – every time you learn a new thing, there will be ten more things that you don’t know. Don’t let that intimidate you. Embrace it. If you love learning, you’ll enjoy a PhD program.
KH: What has been the most interesting part of your career?
JB: My favorite thing about being a PhD student is my everyday life as a student. Some days I’m so busy with lab work that I don’t sit down once. Other days I spend reading papers and planning out experiments. I also get to attend seminars given by accomplished scientists and ask them questions about their experiences and their research. I love that every day is different so that I never fall into a routine and I’m never bored.
KH: Best advice you have ever received?
JB: Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes you’ll be declined for a funding opportunity or admission to a program that you really wanted to be a part of. It’s discouraging for the moment, but it’s important to remember that for every door that closes, there’s another one opening up that’s going to get you where you need to go. Don’t be afraid to take detours. As long as you keep your goal in mind and work toward that, everything will fall into place to make it happen.
KH: How do you enjoy your weekends?
JB: If I don’t have to go into the lab, I usually try to do something outdoors, whether it’s running, hiking, or taking my dog to the park. I’m fortunate to live in a bigger city where there’s always something to do or a new restaurant to try, so I try to meet up with friends and try something new every now and then. If I’m not doing any of that, I’m usually taking a nap or binge watching a Netflix series.
KH: For young women of color that are interested in pursuing biology or becoming an ethicist, how do they get there?
JB: Let people know what it is that you want to do. If you’re in high school or college, see if you can get set up with a mentor who will point you in the right direction and let you know about opportunities for you to do something like job shadowing with someone in the field that you’re interested in. If you’re in college, try to get a research opportunity regardless of whether it’s on or off campus. Research experience is a great way to see if you’re interested in science and if you are, it looks wonderful on your applications for grad school. Lastly, don’t give up. Build a support system of family, friends, or teachers/professors and keep in touch with them. It can be frustrating being in a field that is not dominated by women of color. I follow a lot of science related African-American lead Instagram accounts (@ladieslovestem @shetoostem @wokeSTEM @blkingradschool, just to name a few) that are interactive and allow me to meet other people of color who share my interests. Surround yourself with a support system made of people who are going to hold you accountable for what you want to do and who will make sure that you’re in a position to do well. That by itself will go a long way.