Growing up in Turkey as a Muslim with Turkish origins, I didn’t know what it felt like to be different. But, that changed when I moved to the U.S. to pursue higher education.
Here, I am a foreigner. Even after spending half of my life in this country, when I open my mouth to speak, people still hear an accent and ask where I am from. When I talk about the religion I feel culturally affiliated with, I hear an eerie silence. Even though my race — like the rest of the people from the Middle East — falls in the ‘White’ category according to the U.S. Census, in reality, I feel different.
This feeling of difference has been with me not only in my personal life but also in my academic life. The first thing I had noticed when I started grad school was the lack of diversity in it. Even though most of the students and postdocs in my department were women, almost all the professors were white and male.
I remember a particular incident as a student, which nearly broke me, made me reconsider my career path.
I was leaving my lab late one night and saw light coming out of an assistant professor’s window. Once we said hello to each other - both startled to see someone else in the lab that late - he told me that he barely made it home those days working hard to get tenure. When I asked him about his young children at home, he said that his wife had to sacrifice her career and stay home so that he could move ahead with his. “It is a woman’s duty to do so after all,” was his response.
When I asked him about his young children at home, he said that his wife had to sacrifice her career and stay home so that he could move ahead with his. “It is a woman’s duty to do so after all,” was his response.
This was the first time I had felt that my contributions and efforts might not be valued in the scientific community because of my gender. It made me question why I should even strive to move forward if I am expected to leave science to attend to my “duties” at one point or another.
Then, I met a neuroscientist in her 70s who changed my mind and showed me that it was possible to be different and still succeed. Her name was Dr. Vernice Jackson-Lewis.
Vernice and I worked in the same lab. Even though our research projects never coincided, we shared many meals together and formed a special bond. With her four decades of research experience and hundreds of articles that have been cited by thousands of scientists, she had a career that would make even the most prolific scientists jealous.
Her experience of getting there, however, had been far from easy. It had required a lot of resilience, persistence, and hard work.
Born in Center City, Philadelphia, Vernice was the kind of child who brought home every sick animal she encountered. Her dream from a young age was to become a veterinarian. In college, she had completed all the prerequisites necessary to get into veterinary schools with top grades. By the time she had received acceptance letters from these schools, however, she had found herself to be a single mom to a baby girl. Her husband had walked out saying that he did not want to be married to “a dog doctor.” Not knowing that she could save her spot at a school for up to two years, she ended up pursuing a doctorate degree in neuroscience instead - all the while taking care of her daughter.
This was not the only hardship Vernice had to endure. As a Black woman scientist in a field dominated by white male colleagues, she had to stand up for herself many times. From being told that she would not be promoted higher than a staff associate by a former advisor to being mistaken for a custodian at her animal facility because of the color of her skin, she had to fight prejudice on many occasions. When one of her colleagues subtly suggested that her role was “given” to her because of the way she looked, she told him off saying that nothing was given to her. From surgery to immunostaining, whatever she had to learn to get ahead, she did. And that made her one of the most versatile and irreplaceable scientists in our department.
From being told that she would not be promoted higher than a staff associate by a former advisor to being mistaken for a custodian at her animal facility because of the color of her skin, [Vernice Jackson-Lewis] had to fight prejudice on many occasions.
When I asked her what the key to her success was, she said that it was her “stick to it” attitude. No matter what came on her way, she managed to plant her feet on the floor and keep going.
Beyond a colleague, Vernice was a mentor, an inspiration, and a role model to me. Whenever I struggled with negative results of an experiment or a certain attitude from a professor, she would repeat to me this mantra: “you have to lick your wounds and get back up tomorrow,” reminding me that giving up was not an option.
Her support and mentorship helped me feel less alone in my struggles. Seeing her succeed - despite the challenges she had faced - made me believe that there was a place for me in this profession.
“No matter what you look like,” she always said, “if you stick to a goal and work hard, there is nothing that can stop you.”