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  • Writer's pictureDr A Bashir

03 Toni Morrison

For our third episode, I spoke with a budding neuroscientist at this year's National Neurotrauma Symposium. As your hear Sydney Vita's story, I’m certain you’ll admire her light, her heart, and her laugh. During our conversation, she speaks about her journey through childhood, the foster parents who nurtured her desire to stand up for others, and her recent experience of losing her PhD supervisor, Dr Raymond Grill (1966-2018), in the middle of her degree. While Sydney is still in the midst of her neuroscientific training at the University of Texas Health Science Center, she is already working towards empowering others, and that’s why this episode is called 'Toni Morrison.'

You'll find the audio version of this episode on our website, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and more.

The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.

Asma Bashir: This episode is dedicated to the legacy of Toni Morrison, a legendary author who passed away earlier this month. Toni Morrison used to say, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.'

Though that sentiment is the ever-present theme of Her Royal Science, it is particularly true for this episode, where we talk to a young neuroscientist whose journey has been nothing short of inspiring. Despite everything Sydney Vita has seen and experienced, her goal is to show others what is possible and uplift others in the process. That is why I've decided to call this episode 'Toni Morrison.' Beyond her unfathomable talents as a writer and speaker, her modus operandi was recognition and upliftment. She saw people, underrepresented people, and wrote about us, uplifting us in the process. What else can one say other than #goals? With that, I hope that wherever you go in life, you feel seen. Rest in power, Toni Morrison.

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AB: Today, we'll be speaking with an incredible woman. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, but finishing her studies at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. I met her a few years ago when I was doing a demo at the University of Mississippi and we've kept in touch ever since; welcome, Sydney Vita!

Sydney Vita: Hello!

AB: Welcome! We're so happy to have you here, but let's start from the very beginning. What's your story?

SV: Okay! Well, if we go David Copperfield route, I was born! <Chuckle> I think the early pertinent information was that I was a foster kid, which is really uncommon for someone in a PhD program. I learned when I was applying to these programs that only 4% of foster kids in the United States ever get a four-year college degree.

AB: Wow.

SV: And there are no stats on anything past that, so I'm definitely an outlier. I bounced around a lot between different foster homes, which is a pretty common story for kids in my position, but one of the unique things for me was that—I'm very white as you can see—I spent most of my time in homes with Black families, and it gave me kind of a cool perspective on race in America that not a lot of people get.

AB: Yeah, and it's almost a blessing in many respects.

SV: I think so. It's formed a lot of who I am. It might have been my first foster mama [who] had to explain race to me.

AB: And how old were you at the time?

SV: Nine, maybe? When you do the protective hair styling on Black girls, a lot of times you are putting hair extensions into the braids. I grew up really poor, so these were synthetic hair extensions that everyone was getting. All of these Black girls hated hair day 'cause [their] hair is getting pulled and there's all these heat instruments. It was all I wanted because, as a child, all I realized was I was being left out. But you know, here's these poor people who have never dealt with this white kid before, and they're like, 'I have to wash your hair every day!'

AB: I'm sure that was an adjustment, not only for you, but for them, right?

SV: Yeah, so they would tell me to go out and play with the boys, but I wanted hair day. One day I braided my hair in the bathroom and I took a match to seal the end.

AB: Oh no!

SV: <Laugh> And whoosh!

AB: Oh, my goodness, did you hurt yourself?

SV: I didn't, but that image is burned into my retinas! <Laugh> My poor foster mama who at the time was a grownup, but who was really a young woman, had to sit me down and have this conversation with me and it just always stuck. She started it off, 'Baby girl, you ain't different, but you different.' <Laugh>

AB: <Laugh> Should put that on a t-shirt!

SV: Right? But she explained—and this is when I was a child, this was before anybody was talking about privilege—she explained privilege to me during that conversation. She explained that there were differences in hair care, differences in skincare. Differences in... I got sunburn. <Laugh> So, she was explaining to me all these things, but she also explained to me that there were going to be times where I would be out with my friends—I was the only white kid in my neighborhood—and something might happen where I would have to stand up for them.

AB: Wow! So, that happened at nine?

SV: Yeah!

AB: That is so incredible.

SV: Right? I mean, looking back, I just think, 'How forward thinking was this woman?' No one was talking about this when we were children, but you know, she explained to me that I was going to be treated differently sometimes and I would see other people treated differently. Part of my job as their friend and sister was to help them, and it's something that's really stuck with me, and it's gotten stronger as I've gotten older. When I was a child, even when somebody gives you this talk, you still see yourself as exactly the same as everybody else, [but] I did do more to get us out of trouble. I was also kind of the trouble maker! <Laugh>

AB: <Laugh>

SV: I had a lot of the bad ideas...

AB: Oh dear. <Laugh>

SV: But I did get us out of trouble because people did think that I looked innocent or whatever. And I am lucky that I am a smart person and had intellectual abilities, you know, that are maybe of above average. That sounds really braggy, but—

AB: It's not. I was just having this conversation yesterday—sorry for the bit of a tangent—but I think it is okay to acknowledge things that you are good at, no matter who you are. And I think women especially, for some reason, like to go, 'Oh, I'm supposed to be humble. I'm not supposed to acknowledge that I'm good at this thing or good at these many things.' No, own it. You're a smart person. You're doing your PhD. You're at a conference presenting really cool research. That means that you can tick off that box of being smart, at least with respect to academic capabilities.

SV: Yeah, and I think it is academic because there are so many things that these people are a million times better at than me.

AB: Yeah, intelligence comes in different forms, of course.

SV: But talking us out of trouble, I was pretty good at that. As I've gotten older, when I kind of started realizing, 'Oh my gosh, I'm an adult,' which hits us later than you would think it does, but I've started realizing, 'Oh, I'm an adult white lady. I can battle the Karens!' <Laugh>

AB: Yes, you can!

SV: And it's something that, you know, it's not just a race thing. If I see someone who is treating the cashier poorly, I will be really rude to her and make a scene, because I can. <Laugh>

AB: That's a thing that I think a lot of people don't quite get. Thinking back, I had a very similar conversation with my mom—or rather my mom had a similar conversation with me—of 'If you see injustice, if you see anybody, no matter who they are, what they look like, what they believe in, how they live their lives, you stand up for that person.' But there was always an added portion of that sentence, 'Something might happen to you. If you do, you might not come home that day. You might get hurt. I might have to bail you out of jail, but you have to stand up for what's right, and you have to stand up for people's rights.' It's really nice to know that you had that too. The presentation might be a little bit different, but the core message is exactly the same, which is something that I noticed about you immediately.

We were talking about this just yesterday; one thing that I really admired about you, when you were walking into your workplace, is you acknowledged the janitor, the custodial staff, just as much as you acknowledged the professors, the research associates, and the technicians, and they know you just as well. It's absolutely insane to see that because a lot of people disregard people. They go, 'I don't have to care about you. I don't have to know who you are. I don't need to know your story'—almost neglecting their own humanity. But that's something that I thought was remarkable about you, and it seems like it started early. It seems like it's something that has been fostered within you for the last, I guess, almost 20 years.

SV: Yeah, my [whole] life. And you know, it's funny 'cause the cleaning staff at the university, I always felt like they were more my people than the research staff, because that's who I grew up with. They reminded me of my aunties, and I grew up in a neighborhood where it was completely Black when I was growing up; everybody in the neighborhood was your auntie, your grandma, your uncle, whoever. And if they saw you doing something, they were gonna smack you first and then tell your mama.

AB: Yes, because I think that notion of 'it taking a village' is so true in a lot of communities like ours, right? 'It doesn't matter whose baby you are. I'm gonna check you because you are representing me too—'

SV: Yeah!

AB: '—because when they take you down to the police station, you could be my child, so I'm gonna make sure you know that you messed up and I'm also going to make an example [of you] so that my kid who's growing up in my home knows this is how I feel about the situation,' and kind of lay down the law there.

SV: Yeah, and I was the really easy one to spot! Even if a whole group of us ran away, they knew that the white kid— <Laugh>

AB: Yeah, if anyone needed to round people up, they're like, 'Ah, yeah, her! That's it!' I guess that also adds into why you were so good at getting outta trouble. You needed that! <Laugh>.

SV: <Laugh>

AB: I mean, you have an incredible story, but what's your science story? How did you really fall in love with the sciences? You're a neuroscientist now; that doesn't often happen by accident.

SV: Well, it did!

AB: Did it? That's awesome!

SV: Initially, I was a sign language interpreter—ASL interpretation and deaf education—and I did medical interpreting for a while and then I did educational. And while I loved working with children, it was kind of hard for me because I'm really sensitive to children. I had a hard childhood, and it didn't feel like a hard childhood at the time, but I was always kind of the protector of the other kids.

AB: I can see that.

SV: So, it's something that I've kind of held with me, and anytime the kids were upset or if I felt like a child was being treated less than they should have been, there's only so much you can do as an outside adult. I felt that I was going to be likely to overstep my bounds, and that's not fair to anyone. It puts parents, teachers, and the child, as well as myself, in a not so great position.

I stopped doing that and I decided I would go to school for Psychology. I was really fascinated with gender nonconforming children because it's something that is really, just in the past few years, starting to get attention. Before this, people just had no understanding of it. I saw a documentary on these kids who, at two and three, got it. They knew that what they were presenting wasn't who they were. There was a beautiful line—I wish I could remember the name of the documentary, but there was this beautiful line—one of the mothers was talking about her child who was assigned female at birth, and she was going for a haircut and the mom was like, 'Okay, how do you want it?' [The child] keeps moving her hand up, from her shoulders, and she's like, 'do you want it here?' And the kid is just sitting there, eyes wide, expressionless, kind of afraid. And she's like, 'How about here?' Moves her hands up and keeps moving her hand up. And once she was like, 'Do you want it really short?' This kid got this huge grin and was really excited. They had a conversation, I think, and the child kind of explained that in some way. It's been a while since I've seen it, but the mom finally understood the child did not want to present as female anymore, so she gets this buzz cut for her kid.

One night a few weeks later, the mom was sitting alone, crying, and the kid gets up. For parents, it's hard, even when you're really accepting, because this is a change. So, she was crying because she felt like maybe she'd been forcing these things on her kid for years, and also, she in her head was sort of maybe losing a daughter. The child comes out and is like, 'Are you sad? Do you think I'm different now?' And the mom was like, 'No, no, that's not it.' And the line that stands out for me is the child said, 'Good, because if you were crying because you were sad, it would mean that you missed my hair.'

AB: Yeah.

SV: Because, you know, as far as the kid was concerned, that was all that changed.

AB: Oh, wow.

SV: So, I really loved that and I wanted to study that, but as I did a year, as I went on through the first year, I was like, 'This is going right back to me [thinking] I shouldn't work with kids!' <Laugh>

AB: Yeah, you build these connections and you're gonna again see parents who are not as accepting, right? Or who are really awful to their kids and act like they're accepting, and then you have to navigate through that entire world.

SV: Or even dealing with children who are being bullied in school or the things that they are going through themselves. I was trying to figure out how I was going to change and for the Psychology program at the University of Colorado in Denver, one of the requirements is that you take a class called 'The Biological Basis of Behavior,' and it's basically an intro neuroscience class. At the same time I took an elective of Neuropsychology. Between those two classes, it was like something just went off and everything made sense, and I was super excited about it. A couple weeks into that semester, I approached my neuropsychology professor and was like, 'Please, can I work in your lab? Is there something I could do?' I just felt like he knew everything because every question I asked him, he had an answer to. And that's really when I decided, 'Okay, so what do I do now? If I wanna do this science, how do I do this?' Until then I thought I was bad at math and science!

AB: Really?

SV: I'm a girl! <Laugh> But it opened this door for me, and I was so focused on grad school, talking to people, I was in everybody's office hours all the time, talking to them about 'How do I apply? What am I gonna need?' I got into the Honors program, and I just couldn't wait. I started looking at grad schools pretty early. I had applied... I had all my applications in for grad school by October of my fourth year.

AB: You were keen! <Laugh>

SV: Yeah! <Laugh>

AB: And then how did you end up in Mississippi? Was it just one of the choices that you wanted to explore? You'd never lived in Mississippi at that point?

SV: I had not. I grew up in Louisiana and then I went off to Colorado for college... And everybody tells you your whole life: 'It's not the heat. It's the humidity.' It turns out I need humidity.

AB: You're one of those rare people! <Laugh>

SV: My skin was bad. My hair was bad. I had a sore throat and bloody noses all the time. I wanted to get back to humidity, so I only applied to schools in the Southeast.

AB: So, I guess Florida was included in that as well?

SV: I did not apply in Florida. I applied to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and I think that was [it]. Oh, and I applied to Vanderbilt as my Woo! school. <Laugh> I got three offers and I was hoping that I would not get extra offers, because my biggest fear was that I would choose poorly and that I would spend time being like, 'Oh God, if only I would've gone to...'

I ended up choosing Mississippi specifically to work with someone, and it was close to home. It was a three-hour drive, so that was exciting after being far away for years. I got there and the two people that I really wanted to work with did not get their funding renewed for the first time in 17 and 20 years, respectively.

AB: Oh, my goodness.

SV: And I was in a total panic! <Laugh>

AB: I can imagine. Did you think, 'Okay, this was not gonna work out after all. I made the wrong choice in picking Mississippi'?

SV: Oh, it went through my head. We had a couple weeks before we started rotations and I was coming from a dry lab—I'd never worked with animals before—I'd worked in hospitals and seen a lot of procedures. I was kind of concerned on how I was going to deal with animal research. You read about it in books, which make it seem so much worse. So, I got into my first rotation, which I didn't choose 'cause it ended up being a primate lab. That was really getting tossed into the deep end. I told them ahead of time and they were really great. It turns out this couple—it's a married couple of scientists—they're like my adopted parents in Mississippi and I stay with them when I go back. It ended up being this great experience, and while I was in that rotation, we had journal club, and our journal clubs were set up so that whenever the guest speaker would come in, someone would present that person's research the day before [the guest] would speak. You would get your toes in the water.

AB: That makes sense.

SV: One of the first journal clubs was a paper by Dash [Dr Promod Dash], who is my current PI, and it was sponsored by Ray Grill, who had just gotten to the university.

AB: Where did he come from?

SV: He came from the University of Texas Health Science Center, and he'd been there for 16 years. He had been a very close friend and collaborator of Dash, so when he was asked to have somebody out, he was like, 'Oh, invite my best buddy, this brilliant scientist.'

No one at the time was doing TBI [traumatic brain injury] in Mississippi and all the other programs I had applied to were TBI programs. I got really excited because here's this TBI paper; I read the paper and I sent Ray a hundred questions in an email, and he was really excited. And he was like, 'These are great questions. Feel free to come by my office whenever. The door is always open.' Sure enough, the next morning—I'm a morning person—

AB: No, no, you're an early morning person! You're up at five and six in the morning at the lab, that's the bit that gets me. You're working at six! <Laugh>

SV: <Laugh> Yes, and most scientists, not so much. The lab I was rotating [in], they were like crawling in around 9:00, 9:30, but I'd still be there in the building with no keys, just wandering around. It turns out that Ray was also a morning person, so one morning, [I'm] wandering around, waiting for somebody to come in, unlock the lab, and he's in there. I run in and I'm talking to him about science, and he is just the most encouraging human being in the history of the world. And I was like, 'I have to work with this guy. He's really cool.' A week or so later, this was really when it was solidified for me, I was getting off the elevator—the lab I was rotating in was four doors down from his—he's walking down the hall, he sees me and he is like, 'Syd, have you seen Army of Darkness?' I hold up my thermos of coffee and I point to one of the 10,000 stickers on it, which is a sticker of Ash Williams, and I'm like, 'Hail to the king, baby.' And he throws his arms up. He is like, 'Yes!' Apparently he'd been quoting the movie for weeks and no one got his reference.

AB: Oh, I mean, it was fate. <Laugh>

SV: It really was!

AB: It was meant to be in so many respects, and you and I have talked about this so much. You have and had such a special relationship with him.

SV: Yes.

AB: He unfortunately has since passed away, which was devastating to everyone who heard the news. I can only imagine what that was like for you. If you are comfortable doing so, would you mind speaking about how you were able to put the pieces back together?

SV: Part of the reason that he and I were so close is because the second semester of my first year in grad school, I had a surgery—pretty routine surgery—and I ended up with post-surgical sepsis. I was in a coma for a week. I was in the hospital for about a month. But he was there with me every day. He would come in with me and just watch movies and, you know, bring me comic books. He was really like family. He didn't have any family in the state. I don't have any family, so we got closer than most PIs and grad students get. We volunteered together. We did a lot of stuff like that. When he passed away, it was really, really unexpected. It was very difficult.

I was the only person that he had in the state, so I made end of life decisions for him. I helped... I was the one who contacted his family. I helped clear out his house and his office. But I was keeping myself so busy that I told myself I didn't have time to breakdown. I had already lost the whole semester when I was sick, and now I was losing the whole summer. He passed away at the end of May last year, and I was lucky that within days of him passing away, I got a phone call from Dash. He called me and offered me a position in his lab. Like I said, no one else in Mississippi was studying TBI. I did have a few people there who were awesome and offered to take me on. One of the positions would have meant me not changing my thesis, but A) I needed to get out of that building, and I knew it because he passed away at work, and B) I felt that being with Dash, who he collaborated with and who was one of his closest friends would just be better for me. So, I had to finish packing up all of his things, finish packing up all of my things, and move to Houston.

It wasn't until I was there for a while that anything really hit me. And then I started crying lot! <Laugh>

AB: Yeah, which was necessary because you had put a pause on it, and you weren't opening that vessel probably because it was too hard.

SV: Yeah.

AB: It was painful. It was raw. I mean, [you] can speak to this experience so much better than I can, but seeing [you] together could bring tears to your eyes. It really could, because [you] had such a pure, honest, loving parent-child relationship. You said he was like family: he was family. You could see that instantly, so my heart went out to you more than anybody, knowing his own family and the distance that he had there. I knew you would be the most affected, and I was worried for a really long time because every time I checked in on you, you were like, 'Oh my God, things are just so busy and I'm doing this and I'm doing this and I'm doing this.' And I'm like, 'Okay, cool. Let's rest now? Let's think about what's happened. It's okay to mourn.' And I think you got to that point in your own time.

SV: Yeah.

AB: And I suppose that was when you were in Houston.

SV: Yeah, I'd been there for a while and that was the other thing that's great about being there, is he worked there for 16 years. Everyone knew him, everyone loved him. He was just one of the kindest human beings in the world.

AB: He was.

SV: So, I had all these people approaching me and telling me, 'If there's anything we can do...' But there's pieces of him all over the building, because he collaborated with my current lab so much; his office number is still on the number list in my lab. It was little things like that. I would see his name on something and that would be the thing that set me off, and I would just start to cry. Or somebody brought me... They framed a picture of him for the memorial that we had in Houston and somebody brought me the picture, and it's up in my lab. That's been great because I talk to it every morning, 'cause I get to work hours before the rest of my lab. I talk to him when I plan out my experiments.

I think the thing that kind of made me realize, 'Okay, I do need to do something about this,' was I had to go back to Mississippi for a committee meeting and I just started to cry. The poor, poor people in my lab who are used to me [being happy]—I'm generally a happy person, I smile and laugh a lot, I'm usually pretty high energy—all of a sudden, they're helping me with my presentation for my committee, I'm crying, and they're like, 'We're not... You did great!' But I suddenly realized, you know, it's not... I like getting a critiques! I want somebody to tell me what I'm doing wrong or ask me a question so that I can go fix it. I think that's important as a scientist. But they were thinking they were upsetting me, and I was like, 'No, no, I clearly just don't wanna go back to Mississippi.' And it was really clear to me. And that's when I realized, I think this is PTSD.

AB: That's exactly what it was.

SV: I went to go see my psychologist—I have ADHD, so that's who I have to prescribe [my] medication—and I mentioned it to her and she was like, 'You think?' <Laugh>

AB: Yeah.

SV: I started doing trauma therapy. Just the first session I was like, 'Wow, I have an awful lot pent up in there.' But that's when the cloud started lifting. I have to say that the first bit of time I was in Texas, I got there and I stayed with a friend in Houston before I could move into an apartment, and I started working in the lab the minute I got there; my things weren't in the state yet. I just wanted to be back in the lab and have something feel normal, so I didn't give myself time. I'm still not unpacked a year later, but I just really wanted to be like, 'Okay, science! Gotta do science. Gotta the stuff for Ray!'

AB: In that moment, you were just trying to feel him a little bit longer. Is that what it was? You were trying to do the thing that bonded you in an attempt to feel his energy because in the lab, in that lab specifically, his spirit was in the walls, in the pipettes, in the solutions, in the blots, in the ELISAs, and in everything that you were doing because he had had such a close hand in that.

SV: Yeah! I mean, he was always at the bench with you, you know? He loved bench work just like I do. Yeah, it was partly that, and it was also partly... <voice break> I am his legacy now. He has... He had one other grad student, Jen Dulan, who is an amazing scientist at Texas A&M, and then he had me, so I really wanted to make sure, 'Okay. I can't disappoint. Jen is amazing. He is amazing. I need to be extra amazing.' <Laugh>

AB: Oh, my goodness. That's a lot of pressure.

SV: Yeah, but it's nice because where I am now, it's a really big lab. Almost everybody in the lab knew him, loved him, and was good friends with him. And they've all gone a really long way to make sure I had the help that I need.

AB: Shout out to them! They sound like the most amazing crew.

SV: Oh, absolutely. They're fantastic!

AB: And then Dr Dash is just a ball of light, literally light escapes his body, being so genuine and sweet. I just met him for the first time at this conference, and he's everything that Dr Grill said he was, because he even brought him up when I was there.

SV: Dash is fantastic and I am so honored to get to work with him and work under him. And he's really encouraging and makes me laugh every day. Everybody in the lab gets along. There's 12 of us, and we all have lunch together every day.

AB: Do you understand how envious you're making people? <Laugh>

SV: Isn't that crazy?

AB: It is!

SV: I was trying to finish up part of an assay the other day; I was getting ready to do a Western and I just wanted to get my protein into the heat so I could denature it. I have to denature it for 30 minutes and I figured, 'Okay, I'll get it in there and then I'll go eat lunch.' Dash came looking for me like, 'Aren't you eating today? What are you doing?' 'Oh, I'll be there in 10 minutes!'

AB: I think that's something that we all need.

SV: Yeah!

AB: We all need that to feel like someone has our backs in such a present way. Not, 'Oh, when things fall apart, I'll be there.' Even in the little moments of, 'Are you hungry? Did you eat? Are you tired? Did you sleep well?' Those little questions tell you how much someone genuinely cares and you can definitely [tell they care]. You got so lucky with all your PIs!

SV: I really did! <Laugh>

AB: You've had quite the life. What do you want your legacy to be? When someone says your name, even when you're not here anymore, and they think of what you did and who you were—you're gonna make me cry, just asking this question!

SV: So... What I wanna do with my PhD... I like bench work. I hate writing.

AB: <Laugh> That's an interesting little conundrum you have as a scientist!

SV: Right? For me, it's a necessary evil and something I'm gonna have to do, but I really want to be able to stay at the bench as much as possible. I really enjoy doing outreach. Both universities that I've been at have done kids' nights at the children's museum, and I've really enjoyed that. I would like to be able to do some kind of outreach, work with kids in areas that don't have a lot of advantages, where I can tell them, 'Yeah, you can be a scientist. You can do this. If I can do this, you can do this. You don't wanna be a scientist—cool. What do you wanna do, because you can do that.' I'm sure that there are programs like this that exist; I know as a grad student, you know, our free time is not really in existence.

AB: No, it's few and far between, and once it's there, you wanna take a nap!

SV: Right? So, it's something that I am making a very conscious effort not to let myself look into right now. Every time I pick up my phone or my iPad to Google it, like 'No, step away,' because then I'm gonna wanna do it, and I can't right now.

I would really like to do that. I would like to be a foster parent, and I really just want to be someone that kids can look up to and see that whatever they want is possible. I want to be able to help them find their way. Yesterday, I probably talked to half a dozen undergraduate students who are local to Pittsburgh, volunteering at this event, and I was talking to them about, 'Okay, what do you wanna do? Cool, how do you wanna do it?' And giving them advice. I was telling them, 'You've got a room full of neuroscientists right now. If you are even thinking in three years, you might wanna apply to grad school, walk up to these people and introduce yourself right now, because no, they won't remember you when you email them in three years, but you'll be able to say, we met. I talked to you at Neurotrauma.' Anything gets you in the door.

I really like bridging the gaps because I didn't have anyone to bridge those gaps for me, and I didn't think that grad school was possible. I didn't know that you get a stipend in grad school. I couldn't imagine how I was gonna be able to pay for grad school, and I've already got a bajillion dollars in student loans from undergrad.

I would like to be able to do something where I can do my research. I love being at the bench. I love being the first person to see data. That was something that Ray really impressed on me. The first time I came running to his office with significant data, I had this huge smile on my face, and he was like, 'Wait, sit down'—and I'm like shaking—he's like, 'Before you tell me, I want you to realize you are the only person in the world that knows something right now. You know a fact that no one else knows. You just increased the amount of information in the world.'

AB: Wow!

SV: And so, that's something I really enjoy even [now]. 90% of your experiments fail. To me, that's still kind of fun. I wanna do that, but I want to show kids that that's okay too. Failing is fine!

AB: You have everything [it takes] to be an incredible human being. You already are, and I cannot wait to see who and what you become in the future. I will end with a quote that I thought of a couple of days ago. It's something that I'm taking from someone else, obviously, but it reminded me of you. When the actress Madeline Cahn passed away, they did a [TV] special about her. This was in, I think, 2000. I was a little kid, but I saw rerun of the special when I was a little older, and Phylicia Rashad was talking about her. She said, 'Madeline Cahn was light. It doesn't weigh anything, but boy does it fill the space?'

SV: Oh, thank you!

AB: You fill a space like no other human being I probably have ever met.

SV: I'm very loud! <Laugh>

AB: <Laugh> That's okay. We both have pretty loud laughs, so I think it works out pretty nicely. But you just have an energy that is not heavy. It's not a burden. It's just... It's light.

SV: I'm so touched.

AB: Honestly again, you're gonna make me cry because I just think you're so incredibly sweet. My whole family knows about you. I probably made them sick talking about you. I was so excited to see you coming here. Thank you. Thank you for doing this. You are the epitome of why I do this.

SV: Oh, thank you so much.

AB: You literally are, because everything that you've just said in the last five minutes is what I want. I want kids, teenagers, to see us <voice break> and know what's possible.

Her Royal Science jingle

AB: I'd like to leave you with one final story. I first learned of Toni Morrison when I was seven. The Oprah Winfrey Show was on and my mother was watching intently. I was seven, so I wasn't paying much attention. But later that evening, my mother asks me, 'Asma does my face light up when you walk in the room?' A little puzzled, I thought about that question with my seven year old brain and hugged my mother saying 'Yes.' I thought, 'But of course, she's always happy to see me.' Many years later, a re-run of the Oprah Show comes on and Toni Morrison was on. She very profoundly says 'When a child walks in a room, your child or anybody else's child, does your face light up? 'Cause that's what they're looking for.' For the first time, I connected the dots and finally understood why my mother had asked me that question.

I was and still am an emotional person, so a lump emerged in my throat and I went to go find my mother. When I finally did, I asked, 'Mama, do you remember asking me if your face lights up when I walk in the room?' My mother—who literally remembers everything—stopped what she was doing and said, 'Yes, I do.' With tears in my eyes, I said, 'Mama, your face, doesn't just light up. Fireworks go off.' Little did Toni know, she solidified an already strong bond between a mother and child simply by speaking her truth. With that, I say thank you to her. And of course thank you to the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, for their funding support. Peace and blessings.


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