Name: Taylor Walker
Alma Mater: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (Molecular and Cellular Biology B.S., Minor in African American Studies, Research Certificate); currently attending Cornell University for Masters in Engineering (M.Eng)
STEM Career Path: Currently, Biomedical Engineering Graduate Researcher. Next, applying to MD-PhD programs and looking for biomedical engineering jobs.
Let's Start From The Beginning, Tell Us A Little Bit About You And What Inspired You To Become Interested In Biomedical Engineering.
TW: I’ve always wondered how things worked. I used to tear apart anything I could get my hands on to “figure it out;” if there was a concept I wanted to know about, I quickly jumped on Google to do some research. This was especially true about medical science. Getting into college, that meant I was taking classes purely because I was interested in them, and they always happened to lean toward science and research methods.
At the same time, even though I started undergrad as a chemical engineer, the classes didn’t intrigue me, and at first I struggled. I let myself know that was okay, and that I should keep doing what I liked to do, which has always worked for me. It was hard because I was worried about getting the right grades, and I was concerned that maybe I wouldn’t be able to do this. But I was just so interested in learning about science, learning about how our bodies work, how chemical interact, that even when it was hard I still wanted to keep going. I adjusted my major to Molecular and Cellular biology as a pre-med, not because it was easier, but because I liked it more. I also got into health research, focusing on combating health disparities, because I was passionate about social justice. It really all seemed to click very easily.
As I prepared to study for the MCAT, I realized I still felt like there was more that I wanted to learn. I didn’t want to know just how cells worked; I wanted to know how to manipulate cells and cell-products toward human health. I wanted to know how we could use biology to combat health disparities. I wasn’t sure there was even a link there, but it was a topic I couldn’t ignore, to the point that I felt like I wasn’t ready to go straight to medical school yet. So I went with my heart and applied to biomedical engineering graduate programs. At the same time, I looked for some biomedical engineering research teams I could get experience with.
I was worried about my background being too all over the place, and my GPA was rough due to working so much during school, so I did have conversations with many professors and mentors. They all said I should go for what I really wanted to do, and that any research team or school would give me a shot because of my passion. And so that’s what I’m doing now.
You are pretty passionate about promoting health equality and mental health. Could you touch on what drove your interest to these particular research areas?
TW: I’ve been fascinated with the concept of fairness for a while. I don’t like that we can predict, pretty reliably, how comfortable of a life someone will have based on their race, class and geographic region, or gender. Honestly, I started off just talking to people over the internet about what was going on in the world. I realize now that, that was an early form of theorizing and conceptualizing. Those conversations were an early form of research and investigation.
Since social justice was something I couldn’t get off my mind, I knew I would have to incorporate it into my career in order for me to feel fulfilled. At the same time, though, I really loved science. I personally felt like there had to be a link between those subjects, as science and how we view it is influenced by the society we all live in, but I couldn’t figure out how to marry them. I got lucky and ended up taking a general African-American studies research methods class, and the professor was looking for undergraduate researchers for her project on health disparities. I had to reach out, and she accepted me with open arms, and connected me with other interesting projects.
I got to work on teams with powerful, intimidatingly intelligent black women from various disciplines on projects that were relevant to me and the communities they served. My favorite thing about their work is that they made sure to center the wellness of that community rather than just their own research. They didn’t just want to study some theoretical phenomena, they wanted to make a real impact on these communities and form relationships with them, person to person. I really loved that. I learned so much about what really causes health disparities, which is not some innate biological deficiency as pop-science would like us to believe, but it’s socioeconomic disparity. Now I can quickly identify that in biomedical research and piece together those two worlds.
As a biomedical engineer, I'm sure your day to day is a bit hectic. Walk us through a typical day in your "office".
TW: As a Masters student, I don’t really have typical days, haha. My typical day is a toss up, since we’re in between researching like a PhD student and taking courses like an undergraduate student. I usually spend 2-3 hours in research, 4 hours in class, and maybe two more hours doing some other student activity. Then I go home and do 3 hours of work, but it’s all in subjects that I’m super interested in. It’s not bad at all, I feel so lucky! Sometimes the days are a little long though.
If you could sit down and have a conversation with one woman in STEM who would it be and why?
TW: I would talk to Dr. Treena Livingston Arinzeh. She’s an active biomedical engineering researcher. She’s the one who discovered one person’s stem cells could be implanted into another person. That’s been critical to everything I’ve learned about stem cells so far and I think it should be more well-known that a black woman did that.
I would ask her about her creative process. How does she decide what direction to explore? How has she navigated this space that’s largely white male dominated? What’s been most useful to her in empowering other women and underrepresented communities? I think she’s pretty cool.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
TW: Finishing an experiment, or uncovering some detail in the literature, and feeling like I’ve made some small impact to a bigger imitative. The victories throughout the process are cool to me, because in a couple months you look back and say wow, I really did that. I was part of something that’s going to be helpful. Which means I can then go help other people in the future.
Best Advice You Have Ever Received?
TW: “If you’re passionate about something, keep pursuing it.” I’ve heard that from my parents, my teachers, and even my career advisers. It’s certainly been true. Rather than stress myself out about how I’m going to make something happen, or whether I’m worthy, I let my passion push me through and make the most strategic choices I can. It has always worked out.
For a young woman of color that are interested in biomedical engineering, what steps should she take to get there?
TW: The first step is to be confident in what you have to offer. I know a lot of times, in STEM, we tend to focus on what skills we don’t have or what we need to do better, because we’re often looking toward that next achievement. But don’t be afraid if you feel like you don’t know coding, or you don’t know cellular biology, or anatomy, or whatever skill it is. Rather, focus on your ability to learn and your passion for the subject.
The next step is to take chances. The biggest thing I see people doing is holding themselves back because they’re afraid of failure. Instead, think of the act of trying as the accomplishment in and of itself. I was proud of myself just for trying to apply to an Ivy League engineering program and I put my best foot forward; they were able to see that, work with me, and make things happen.
The most important step, especially for women of color, is to draw on your resources, especially ones geared toward underrepresented communities. That’s where you can find your support base, find people and groups that really do want to see you shine. Keep volunteering, keep going to career-building events, and of course, keep networking!
Trust yourself. If you trust yourself, your confidence will shine through, and you will get to where you need to be.
Thank You Taylor For Being Such A Great STEMspiration!
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