Over the past year, I have had the privilege of participating in multiple national scientific panels. These panels were organized to discuss the role of diversity in science and the experience of scientists of color. Many in the audience were unaware of the challenges that some people of color face even within the scientific community. So, I want to share my 17-year journey to become a scientist. You too may find the journey surprising.
Fourth Grade Scientist Demo
One day in fourth grade we had a very typical assembly in the cafeteria. We walked in a single-file line to our assigned section of the cafeteria to watch a boring presentation. Little did I know, I was getting ready to have my mind blown. The presenter was a scientist and he demonstrated many experiments including making clouds in a bottle. I was in awe of his ability to manipulate these invisible particles in a way that seemed magical. I left the cafeteria knowing I wanted to become a scientist. With this experience resonating in the back of my mind, I continued each semester looking forward to seeing what type of math and science I would get to learn in my pursuit to know how this scientist made clouds.
In 7th grade, I hit a rough patch in math. On my first quiz I received a “D.” I thought I would just try harder next time. Second quiz, D. Third quiz, D. After Ms. Reel handed me my third quiz she said reassuringly, “At least you are consistent!” I wondered, who wants to be consistent when doing poorly? However, after an enlightening conversation, I learned that through my consistency, she could tell what I was doing wrong in my approach to studying and we subsequently spent the remainder of the semester learning how to learn math effectively. By the eighth grade I was in the honors program where I remained until high school graduation. This occurred despite my honors Algebra teacher underestimating me when he announced in front of the class that he “had a feeling that I would be a problem.”
From high school to Purdue.
In 2008, I graduated from high school and went on to Purdue University where I majored in chemistry. Unknown to many of my closest friends at the time, my first semester did not go well. In fact, I had my worst semester ever. Just like seventh grade, my consistency revealed that again, I was not studying effectively. Towards the end of the first semester of my freshman year, my advisor told me: “You know that exhausted feeling you get after a long exam? That is how you should feel after studying.” I knew exactly what she meant.
By the end of sophomore year, I was on the Dean’s list, tutoring other college students and performing undergraduate research. I was completely focused on my goal of becoming a scientist. After a few semesters of undergraduate research, I knew I wanted to be an analytical chemist. I also knew I wanted to stay in school to attain a doctorate degree. The only obstacle blocking me from reaching the next level was one semester and a couple more growth moments.
I’m not invisible.
One day, I had just left my Analytical Instrumentation class and while walking down a long hallway in the chemistry building one of my classmates said, “Hey Chris, I can’t see you – oh there you are.” Initially I chuckled, mostly because I didn’t get the joke. Soon I realized that when I was walking in an area that was dimly lit, he would say “I can’t see you.” Then when I walked under a panel with lights, he could “see” me again. When I realized this, I naively thought it was a lighthearted joke and laughed it off. But when it continued, I went out of my way to either hang around after class or go the long way to my next class to avoid the microaggression. Some days I was successful, and other days I wasn’t.
Just trust me.
In my Advanced Inorganic Chemistry lab, the lab assistants paired us into groups of two. Unlike other lab classes where we were in groups of 3 or 4, now we needed to be very efficient with our time to complete the experiments. As we were working through the procedure, I kept sensing my partner did not believe I knew what I was talking about. For example, we would discuss the next steps in the procedure and figure out a strategy. However, instead of acting on it, he would go to the lab assistant for confirmation, until we had our first lecture exam…
In the lab after we got our grades back, the lab assistant asked if he could see my exam to see what the professor put on the test. I agreed. When I handed him my exam, I noticed my lab partner peaked at it as the lab assistant was acknowledging the 97%, I earned. He then asked me what the highest grade on the exam was and I told him 97%. After the conversation, my lab partner began actively asking for my input and trusting my judgements.
Not a scientist yet.
In 2012, I graduated with a BS in Chemistry. I also had a dual minor in Law and Society and Forensic Science. I decided to stay at Purdue to pursue my PhD. under the advisement of Prof. Graham Cooks, one of the foremost leaders in the field of mass spectrometry. I will talk more on mass spectrometry in a future post. Over the next five years, I would leverage this instrument for tracking the progress of chemical reactions, monitoring pesticide usage, quantifying sun exposure on skin, and even accelerating chemical reactions.
During my tenure as a graduate student, I had the pleasure of orally presenting my research at many of the top national and international mass spectrometry conferences. After my first big conference oral presentation, an older gentleman finds me in the hall and says, “Wow, you’re so articulate.” I replied, “Thanks” as I awkwardly walked off, wondering what he expected. I mean, I presented 20 minutes of cutting-edge science and I get a comment on my ability to speak professionally. Again, not deterred, I gave several more presentations, published over 20 peer-reviewed articles, and have been awarded four patents.
17 years later, I’m a scientist.
I successfully defended my thesis titled: “Mass Spectrometry Anywhere” in 2017 and am now a senior scientist at The Procter and Gamble Company. Here I leverage mass spectrometry and data science to solve many types of business problems. In the 17-year journey since the elementary cafeteria to receiving my PhD., I overcame many challenges. Yet, I never lost sight of the goal of becoming a scientist. I am a data point that continues to support that no matter what you look like, or what obstacles you face, you can become a scientist!
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