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Rukia @lifewithrukia

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by | Mar 14, 2019

Rukia @lifewithrukia was recently featured on @nina.draws.scientists “Top Ten Heroines in STEM” (check out Nina’s incredible illustration of her here) and this is when I first discovered her account. She is a force of nature and a strong advocate for representation in STEM. Her blog post “Where is the Color in STEM” is honest and harrowing: noting that only 1 in 10 WOC obtain their doctoral degrees in science and engineering. I also loved her recent blog post “Are Scientists Hiding the Cure for Cancer” which I thought was a brilliant response to this circulating myth and really leaves you with no doubt that no, they’re definitely not! Representation does matter and I think Rukia is doing an incredible job of tackling it head on.  

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Rukia Henry and I am a first year PhD Student at Rutgers University, New Brunswick in the Molecular Biosciences Graduate Program. My current research focus is Cancer Biology. As of now, I am still rotating and I haven’t chosen a thesis lab.


Where did it all start?

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a medical doctor. However, during my undergraduate career at Howard University, I was exposed to the world of scientific research I had no idea existed before. After conducting research at my school and subsequently participating in summer research internships and gaining more experience, I fell in love. I loved that I could, for the most part, fulfil my curiosity about ideas and topics especially in the medical field, and being a researcher gives me that opportunity.


Give us a snapshot of your day to day work?

As a first year PhD student, my days comprise of balancing class and lab work. Some days I have classes in the morning, so I would attend those first on another campus, and then journey to the lab I’m rotating in which is on another campus. In the lab I mainly conduct experiments, and days when I’m not conducting experiments, I’m either analyzing my data and planning for future experiments.


Is there someone that encouraged you to do this?

At first, I wasn’t sure if pursuing a PhD in STEM was the right thing for me. There weren’t a lot of women of color that I know obtaining their PhD, but I do believe that attending a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), and being surrounded by women with the same aspirations like me encouraged me to pursue my PhD. After seeing one of the students in my undergraduate lab be accepted to several PhD Neuroscience programs, I knew that it was something attainable.


What motivates you/what do you find motivating?

I initially wanted to become a medical doctor because growing up, I observed that there were some medical disparities in Guyana that I wanted to address. When I was introduced to the world of research, it became apparent that the things I wanted to fix, such as advocating for better diagnosis and treatment of diseases could not be effectively achieved unless I understood the etiology of those diseases and then strive to develop better treatment methods. I was especially inspired and motivated by my mother and her fight with breast cancer.


What advice do you have for people pursuing/aspiring to your career?

Experience! Experience! Experience! You have to be absolutely sure its what you want to do. Pursuing a PhD or wanting to be a scientist isn’t for everyone. There are days when it seems like nothing is working and it’s easy to want to give up. Gaining experience as an undergraduate and participating in summer research internships are great ways to determine if its right for you. Further, it is important to consider the type of reward that you are seeking. Even though being a scientific researcher affords me the opportunity to help others, there is the fact that with my line of work, there is delayed gratification. I will possibly be working on a project that will not have a translational effect or application perhaps 5 to 10 years. So if you prefer instant gratification, then you should consider that this might not be the best career for you


If you could go back in time, what is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself? (hindsight is a wonderful thing!)

For a long time, I wrestled with the idea of whether I was fit to be a scientific researcher. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the research experiences I had, but I felt that maybe it was not right for me. Part of this doubt stemmed from the lack of diversity in the sciences and not seeing a lot of women scientists who looked like me, and so I was afraid of pursuing a PhD and possibly failing because I did not belong there. But what I have realized is that no one is good at it. I have peers who I think are the best researchers who tell me they sometimes suck and also I’ve had advisors tell me how many times they’ve failed. So I would tell myself to be true to my convictions and just go for it, not letting my fear of failure cripple me.


Can your work be stressful? What do you do to manage stress? Do you have any helpful day to day practices?

Yes, being a student researcher is stressful. Sometimes its hard balancing having school work to do on top of having to conduct the actual research in the lab and trying to have a life outside of work. But I honestly try to take things one day at a time. I have been a huge advocate for balance and finding time to do things outside of my career that I enjoy but sometimes it’s impossible. There are days when all I want to do is just sleep for the entire day. I don’t have to have things in control all of the time. I also try to follow my do to list but it’s important to not beat up myself if I don’t get to accomplish everything. One thing I constantly remind myself is that I can do anything, but not everything


What is your favourite thing about your job? What excites you most?

Honestly just getting answers. The possibility of working towards something that can be meaningful and impactful in someone’s life is my driving force and motivation. But also learning! I learn so much every day that I am constantly amazed at how much we still don’t know but have the capacity to.


Fun questions!


What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I’ll be super honest and say my favourite pastime hobby is napping. Because of how demanding work can sometime’s be, you unconsciously sacrifice rest to get things done. So I enjoy being also to catch up on rest. However, I do enjoy brunching on the weekends and also cooking and experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen.


What’s your favourite color?

My favourite color is white, but I also love pastel pink and a bit of coral


What is your favourite film just now and why?

Truly I don’t know if I have a favorite film, however, I could never grow tired of watching Disney’s Mulan. There is just something badass about a woman fighting not only for her country, but to be recognized. I think this resonates with so many women today that even if you’re talented, you’ll always have to work twice as hard for recognition, especially WOC.


If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be and why? (from any time period!)

In all honesty, I would want to be my mother. She is currently fighting stage 4 breast cancer and it breaks my heart to see her endure so much pain. If I could just bare her pain for one day so that she could find some relief I would do it in a heartbeat.


Is there anything else you would like us to know?

You are enough!

Thank you for an inspiring and honest interview Rukia, your strength and passion really shine throughout and I will continue to watch your journey with awe and admiration!