Interviews with Scientists: Jazmine I. Benjamin
Jazmine I. Benjamin is a Biomedical Sciences PhD candidate in the Division of Nephrology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama, USA. She is a passionate science communicator and a staunch advocate for representation in STEM.
We spoke to Jazmine about her PhD research, her thoughts on diversity in science and the importance of good science communication to help combat misinformation online.
Thanks for speaking with us, Jazmine! Firstly, please tell us a bit more about your current role...
I am a graduate student in a Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program. My area of research is renal physiology (how the kidney functions).
What is the focus of your PhD research?
My project is focused on the relationship between the time of day that we eat and kidney function. In people who do shift work (nurses, pilots, warehouse workers, etc.), there’s a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, which includes kidney disease and high blood pressure. I became really interested in how eating food outside of the time that we would normally eat contributes to kidney injury and high blood pressure.
What do you enjoy most about working in STEM?
I’ve always been curious. As a kid, I was always pushed to research answers to my questions in books or on the internet before asking my parents. I also love taking things apart and figuring out how they work. For me, working in STEM caters to that curiosity in a way that is beneficial for the public.
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so, why?
I think I’ve always been destined to work in science, but I didn’t want to when I was younger. I first wanted to be an astronaut, then a veterinarian, then a fashion/interior designer, interestingly. I was a really creative person but I also loved helping others. I didn’t realize that I really loved and wanted a career in science until my sophomore year of college, but I was all in after that.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists today?
Definitely misinformation. The rapid spread of opinions as facts and the poor communication of scientific findings by the media have made it really difficult to share findings and peer-reviewed research without a lot of kickback from people with little scientific knowledge.
Women and people of color remain underrepresented in all fields of STEM. What can be done to improve diversity in science?
I think that a lot of people often say recruiting more diverse people into STEM would address the lack of diversity in STEM, but I think that retention is just as if not more important. As a graduate student, I’ve faced a number of crossroads in which it would have been much simpler for me to leave my program and do something else. It’s incredibly important that there is a framework for supporting and retaining diverse individuals at all levels of STEM. I don’t think there’s any reason to recruit people if you aren’t doing the work to keep them and ensure their success.
Who has been your greatest role model, and why?
I’m really fortunate to have found a fantastic group of scientists when I entered grad school. I think of all of my friends as my role models because they’re all brilliant and ambitious and driven. Each of them inspire me in their own way and play a critical role as part of my support system that got me this far. Sade, Tayleur, Amber, Margaret, Zoya, Maigen…I love each and every one of you!
You are passionate about science communication. Why is this so important to you?
My research is funded by federal dollars, which come in part from taxpayers. I originally got into science communication because I felt an obligation to let those who pay for my research know what their money is paying for. I also wanted to communicate to those younger than me that being a scientist is possible and that scientists are regular people. As I got interested in science policy, I realized that science communication is incredibly important in terms of educating politicians (many of whom have little to no scientific knowledge) on how their decisions can directly affect those doing research and providing healthcare to the public. It’s also important nowadays when there’s a wealth of misinformation being spread on social media and in the news. Being a researcher and having the ability to understand and communicate peer-reviewed publications goes a long way in terms of combatting that misinformation that can sometimes be fatal.
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
The most important thing that I’ve learned is that I have to advocate for myself. I’ve learned that if I’m not keeping my goals and best interests in mind, I can’t fault others for doing the same. Speaking up and asking for experiences or opportunities has been endlessly valuable for me thus far in my career.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work/research?
We ramped down research for a few months at the start of the pandemic. I also switched research labs around the same time, so I had to essentially jump into the deep end in a new lab. I spent about 2 weeks poking around cabinets and drawers to find the things that I needed for experiments because no one else was around. I’ve definitely found that COVID-19 has slowed things a little for me, particularly in terms of playing it safe and staying home when having potential symptoms or getting tested after being around others who may have been exposed. There are still a lot of colleagues that I’m meeting in person for the first time because we’ve only ever seen each other on Zoom.
Are there any aspects of the pandemic that have been unexpectedly positive for your life/career?
Changing my work schedule has been the absolute best part of the pandemic. I’ve been fortunate to be able to go to a 4-day (in person) work week for myself. I get to spend every Monday catching up on emails, reading, and data analysis, which minimizes distractions for me during the rest of the week while I run experiments.
How do you see your career developing, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m starting to pivot my professional development toward a career in science policy. Next year, I’m applying for the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. I’m hoping that I can ultimately secure a job working as a policy analyst or a director for communications and outreach for a non-governmental organization. I’d really love to focus on policies relating to STEM education at all levels to make science more equitable and engaging for all.
Are there any other issues in life science that you are particularly passionate about?
I’ve been keeping a keen eye on the story of Henrietta Lacks’ family suing a biotechnology company for profiting from her stolen cells. Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. In the laboratory, it was found that her cells had the ability to reproduce and were immortal. Her (HeLa) cells were shared with other scientists and are now a workhorse for cell and molecular biological research. You can purchase a vial of HeLa cells for anywhere from ~$500 to thousands of dollars. Biotech firms make millions from selling her cells, yet her family has yet to see anything in terms of reparations or any form of compensation for that profit. I’m very interested to see how this case plays out and I’m hoping that her family receives the financial compensation that they more than deserve.
Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most?
I’m really into cooking. I like to try new recipes and come up with random things to make. I think of it as low stakes science. I’ve also recently picked up running again and am currently training for a half-marathon. Outside of that, I’m usually reading, playing with my dog, or taking a nap if I’m not working.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
I’m a little biased because it’s directly related to my research, but I think that the discovery of the circadian rhythm is the coolest thing ever. From the 1700s when Jean Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan observed the unfolding of his plant’s leaves based on the time of day to the discovery of the molecular mechanism of circadian rhythm that received the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine… it’s such a cool research timeline to follow. It’s definitely one of the most important scientific discoveries for organisms here on earth.
And finally… what’s your favorite science joke?
What do you call it when a biologist takes a photo of himself? A cell-fie!
Thank you so much for a fantastic interview, Jazmine! We wish you all the best with your PhD and your future research. Connect with Jazmine:
- Website: www.jazmineibenjamin.com
- Twitter: @J_I_Benjamin
- Instagram: @jibenjamin
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