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Career Corner Interview: Dr. Klarissa Jackson, Dr. Seun Ajiboye, and Dr. Natasha Hill

December 02, 2020
Interview conducted by Dr. Dianicha Santana

For this career corner, we are interviewing three scientists who are Black women with different career paths including tenure track, independent research scientist, and science policy and regulatory affairs. Dr. Klarissa Jackson and Dr. Seun Ajiboye are members of ASPET.

Dr. Klarissa Jackson is currently an Assistant Professor in the Division of Pharmacotherapy and Experimental Therapeutics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy. In addition, she is an active member of ASPET where she serves as the Councilor for the Division for Drug Metabolism and Disposition as well as a member of the Mentoring and Career Development Committee.

Dr. Ajiboye was part of the ASPET Mentoring Network while completing her PhD in pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She currently works as a Biologist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

We are also interviewing Dr. Natasha Hill who is an Independent Research Scholar at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease (NIAMS). Dr. Hill also serves on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the Society of Investigative Dermatology (SID).

When did you get interested in science and a career in biomedical research?

Klarissa Jackson: I got introduced to the sciences as a child. My mom was a chemist, and my dad is a physician assistant. In high school, I developed a passion for science and chemistry in particular. I like understanding the molecular basis of biology and to think from a molecular chemistry perspective. I attended Jackson State University where I majored in chemistry and pre-pharmacy. After my junior year, I received a scholarship from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF)/ Merck Science Initiative. During my summer internship at Merck Research Laboratories, I started studying drug metabolism, a combination of the sciences that I enjoy -- understanding individual differences of enzyme expression and how that impacts a person’s risks for drug toxicity or their response to drugs. After two summers at Merck, I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school and get a PhD. I decided to get my PhD in Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University.

Seun Ajiboye: Back in college I was interested in policy as a chemistry major. Instead of changing my major, I added a concentration in Pharmacology. This experience really brought the sciences that were very theoretical and abstract back to society, where it can affect and apply to people’s everyday lives.  After I graduated from college, I got a Cancer Research Training Award Post-Bac at the National Cancer Institute where studied associations between genotype and drug response in prostate cancer patients.

Natasha Hill: I became interested in science in high school and therefore, I attended California State University San Bernardino in getting more hands-on experience in this the biological research, so I decided to apply for a Master’s degree at California State University Fullerton. The idea of obtaining a PhD began with my Master’s research advisor and mentor. She saw the potential in me and convinced me that getting a PhD was the right choice for me. Thus, I applied and attended Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio where I work on skin cancer research. I always knew from a young age that I wanted to help people with cancer and throughout my career, I have focused on how I can successfully attain this goal.

What was the biggest challenge in your journey to complete your PhD and how did you overcome this challenge?

KJ: The first year of graduate school was challenging because it was a steep learning curve. However, studying in groups and using university resources was very helpful.

Within a year and half of being in my research laboratory my research mentor passed. This happened three weeks before my qualifying exam. It was a very devastating situation. However, the director of the graduate program reached out almost immediately to let me know they were there for me and to make sure I continued to progress. This was a challenging time that helped me grow, and it was great to have a support network from the faculty, people in the lab, and my church community.

SA: The hardest part of graduate school was the fact that it is an incredibly lonely experience, everyone is going through the same thing but it still feels really lonely. In order to overcome these feelings, I found a group of people to get together and share these experiences. For example, I got to be part of a writing group. I also was part of a group of Black women scientists at [Johns] Hopkins. In this group, we would get together to talk about research and the experiences of being Black women in academia. The great thing about this group is that people were in different stages of their careers and I was able to find mentorship and support.

NH: The biggest challenge was being one of the few women in my PhD program and being the only woman of color in my class. Additionally, I felt that I needed to increase my attention to detail and improve my public speaking skills to become a great scientist. Throughout this process, I had support from a good friend, the people in my lab, and my mentors who was very supportive of my training and helped me gain confidence in my abilities as a scientist. I also experienced imposter syndrome which is very common among women or minorities in science, because the people we see that succeed among us do not look like us -- until you start thinking: even though nobody else like me has done it, I can be the first. This will give future students somebody that they can relate to. I think people are starting to realize that changes need to be made to overcome this shortcoming.

How did you decide on your current career path? 

KJ: I originally thought I would go straight into a teaching faculty position after graduate school. However, I wanted to continue doing research in academia. I did my post-doc at the University of Washington. While doing my post-doc, I thought about going into the pharmaceutical industry but wanted to keep both options open. One of the department chairs in the new School of Pharmacy at Lipscomb University reached out to me with a faculty position opening. Lipscomb University is a school that I was familiar with; they were trying to build a new Pharmaceutical Sciences Department. I got the position two years after I started my post-doc. This position gave me the opportunity to lead a research group where I mentored undergraduates and pharmacy students.

About two years ago I started the process of applying for a faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While in the process of applying for this position, I was thinking how much I enjoyed research, and I wanted to see how far I can go with this. I got great experience and training at Lipscomb University, but I wanted to take my research to the next level. I wanted to be in an environment that is research-intensive.  

SA: Since college, I have been interested in how can we use the science that a lot of people are not going to read to really affect people and improve their lives. In grad school, I wrote policy-focused articles for a trainee-run blog. I additionally volunteered for one day at a congressional briefing on genetics policy. These experiences helped me understand the landscape of how science policy looks and works. After graduate school, I worked for The International and American Associations for Dental Research as a Science Policy Analyst, and I was later promoted to Director of Science Policy and Government Affairs. During this time, I secured grant funding from the FDA and organized a one-day conference on the oral health effects of tobacco products.

I also co-authored an editorial about the conference and issues around tobacco regulation and served as guest editor for the proceedings. This experience is what got me interested in the FDA and tobacco regulation. 

NH: I knew I wanted to go to the NIH during my final year in my PhD program. On a visit and during my time at the NIH I learned about the different opportunities available following post-doctoral training. I was able to attend different seminars for technology transfer, project manager, being a principal investigator, and tenure-track paths offered at the NIH. Following my post-doctoral training, I decided to follow the path of becoming an independent researcher at the NIH.

I really enjoy mentoring trainees and hope that I am a good mentor, and I enjoy seeing people succeed. I see a lot of that at the NIH and that is what prompted me to want to stay here at the NIH.  

What advice would you give to other junior scientists? 

KJ: Do the best you can where you are, enjoy what you are doing, and see how it unfolds. I think it can unfold better than you could have planned it. Remember why you are doing what you are doing, what grounds you, and why you are excited about it. This will help propel you and give you some insights into what you want to do next. Stay open to the opportunities and follow your passion. People face challenges -- you are going to have to push through those challenges, but do not push through them alone. I would encourage people to find a good support network that works around you.

SA: Talk to people about your career and career interests. Look forward to a life after graduate school. After grad school, life gets a lot better. Understand what your priorities are and make a career decision based on that. During graduate school and early training find a group where you can make experiences less lonely, they can be supportive and informal mentorship can happen.

NH: Select a mentor that will support you in your career. A big part of your success is going to come from having a great mentor that is compatible with you, your career interest and training you to be successful. Additionally, invest time in building your network and developing good communication skills.

Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?

KJ: I see myself having tenure here at UNC; I would also like to be in a leadership position where I have the ability to open doors for other people. Specifically, I hope to grow as a leader and as a scientist.

SA: I want to enjoy what I do: a combination of sciences and regulatory policy. For now, I want to stay in my position and become very comfortable with that. I want to learn more about the job and advance not only my career but the regulatory mission.

NH: I would like to have my own lab as a tenured investigator within the NIH, training several post-bacs, post-docs and staff scientists. Eventually, I would like to be in an administrative position such as a scientific director position at the NIH or a position that has more involvement with diversity and inclusion. To me it is very important to make sure that people feel included and to have the best atmosphere so that everybody can have a chance at success.

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Last Updated: September 6, 2017

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