12 Connections: Part I
I was delighted to speak with Simone Webb for two back-to-back episodes of Her Royal Science, with Connections: Part II coming out later this week.
One of the great joys of hosting this podcast is the ease with which interviewees become friends. Simone’s spirit is magnetic, and I found myself wanting to speak with her for hours, even though we had only connected via Twitter once before. I’m ecstatic to share with you, our lovely audience, my conversation with Simone. Here, we discuss her work—which uses bioinformatics to understand human immunology during development—and the importance of community.
TW: We also discuss the feelings of grief and mourning felt by the Black diaspora following the murder of George Floyd earlier this year.
The transcription of our conversation is below, with edits for clarity and brevity.
Simone Webb: Having a ‘Dr’ before my name isn't going to make somebody that looks at me in a shop not follow me around the shop. And I've recently shaved my head! It's not going to stop somebody from following me around a shop and – as has happened before, - assume I'm a Black man walking around the shop if I'm wearing a hoodie, just to get something real quick. I'm not able to quickly whip out my driver's license – which is a learner's driver's license, I can’t drive (laughter) – and say, 'actually, can't you see that it says Dr Simone?' That is not what's going through their heads, is it?
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we will be chatting with Simone Webb, a PhD researcher currently studying Bioinformatics and Immunology at Newcastle University. She's one of the co-founders of the upcoming Black in Data Week, which is due to take place between the 16th and the 21st of November. I hope to speak with her today about her journey in STEM as a Black woman, her research, and the necessity to create a supportive community. But let's start from the very beginning. Simone, what's your story?
SW: I guess, when I was up until the age of 15, I mainly thought I’d actually get into medicine. That was my big plan when I was younger.
I enjoyed all subjects! I was really into English and writing as well. And I wrote loads of poetry and I thought I'd be an author at some point.
AB: Wait, really? Same here!
SW: Yeah! So, that was my pre-15 life, but I just leant a little bit more towards science and experimentation, and things like that. And from my understanding, one of the main things I could do in science in a practical way was be a medic. That's what I [saw] as the possibility for me in science. I didn't really understand that you could do research, you could [work] within a science NGO or something like that. And then I started, at 15 or 16, realizing you could do other things outside of medicine within STEM. And that's when I started going to loads of Uni Open Days or Schemes, trying to figure stuff out from there. And that's when it changed, but I actually chose all of my A levels and my GCSEs with the intent of applying to medicine.
AB: Okay. And do you remember what it was that really opened your eyes to the hope of doing research, or the possibility of it?
SW: I [attended] Saturday schools at UCL, which is where I did my undergraduate degree later on, and it was there that I met some older Black students, that were doing things like Masters or PhD projects. So, I was 15, 16 speaking to people maybe 10 years older than me, that looked like me, describing that they were doing work in STEM that was not medical, that was still helping people. And that made me go, okay, I can help people in different ways. I [could] see what I could be and that was where it clicked for me.
SW: But I still went with the medical idea! I saw that and I thought, well, you should have done medicine, you made the wrong choice!
SW: I was still pretty set in my ideas about what was the right way to go or not. It was only later, during my A levels, when I realized, okay, I'm doing biology, chemistry, maths, all of these things, and the thing I'm really enjoying is biology. That's what I actually want to do. In my head I just thought, you're going to do biology at undergrad; you can just study biology and something is going to come up. Something will come through. Pharma companies exist. Research exists; you will land somewhere. I didn't really know clearly what the path [was] going to be at the end of it, and I still kind of don't now (chuckles) but I was just like, it’s okay, I'll figure it out.
AB: I was wondering – because I'm not familiar with bioinformatics, I don't actually know how your research is structured – what do you do? What is ‘a week in the life’ for you?
SW: Bioinformatics is the side of science and research that I didn't anticipate those 10 years ago. When I'd been imagining people in a lab coat doing experiments, I was imagining wet-lab experimentalist scientists, right? I didn't realize that they were gathering a massive amount of data that then had to be analysed by people behind a computer, [who] were also scientists. Maybe at the time, if you'd asked me, I would have said, 'they're passing [the data] on to computer scientists or just computer people.' I wouldn't have classed them as scientists, but they are! The people that analyse that data from biological experiments are computational biologists or bioinformaticians. They're scientists in their own right; they work at that interface of analysing that data, but also wanting to understand a little bit about the biology of what they're looking at. So, bioinformaticians are on that interdisciplinary interface... oh, I did alliteration within there! (chuckles)
AB: (Laughter) That was good; snaps!
SW: (Laughter) Because I analyse data from the field of immunology – how our immune systems work and defend us – I'm in both Bioinformatics and Immunology. My research group is part of the Human Cell Atlas Project. It’s a massive project, like the 1000 Genomes Project, trying to map all of the cells in the human body. My supervisor [heads] the Human Development Cell Atlas. My PhD work is specifically looking at how your blood and immune cells form in your bone marrow while you're growing, and I analyse data to understand a little bit more about how our blood and immune cells form really early in life, during the second trimester.
In development, you first start off making stem cells, which then make all of the other cells of your body; you make them in your yolk sac and then in other small structures. And then it goes on to things like the liver, which is really dominant in making loads of cells during the first trimester. Then in the second trimester, it goes into your bone marrow. In your bone marrow, stem cells are making loads of blood and immune cells into infanthood and paediatric life, and adult life. Us today as adults, most of our blood immune cells are being replenished in our bone marrow.
SW: This idea of development and the formation of blood and immune cells, which is called ‘haematopoiesis’, in human development is across time, it's across space. If you're trying to analyse data to understand it fully, you’re going to need loads of labs, loads of people, people that are specialists in loads of different organs, right? You’ll need specialists in immunology, maybe there'll be hepatologists just looking at the liver as well, or maybe there'll be haematologists looking at blood. But then you'll need the bioinformaticians like me to analyse that data to understand what is actually present.
AB: I like that you mentioned the idea of the community [early on], the people that you met at UCL when you were still doing your GCSEs and your A-levels. I wanted to talk about the support communities that you're a part of right now, like the ACRC (African Caribbean Research Collective). And you have Black in Data Week coming up in November. Could you remind us of those dates, just to make sure people know when it is?
SW: Yeah! Black in Data Week is an online campaign, so it'll be mainly on Twitter from November the 16th to the 21st. I'm really looking forward to it. The committee and the group that I'm working with to pull this together [are] so understanding, supportive, and hardworking. And it's part of that thing where I said when I was 15, I saw people older than me doing work, and I [thought], oh, wow. I can do that. I'm still experiencing that now with the Black in Data Week committee. For example, when I'm hearing people say the kind of work that they're doing in industry, or outside of academia or even in academia; just being among those people is teaching me so much about what I could do as well, so it’s a really nice group to be a part of.
AB: Yeah, I can certainly imagine! How did you come to be a part of the ACRC? Was that recent?
SW: Semi-recent, yeah! Around a year ago, Leading Routes released a report called ‘The Broken Pipeline Report’. They essentially did quite a lot of Freedom of Information requests to different universities to see the PhD students that had been funded by their institutions and by UKRI (UK Research and Innovation). The proportion of students that were Black – and within that Black African, Black Caribbean, Black mixed or anything like that – [made up] only 1.2% of the students that were funded by UKRI, over a three-year period.
AB: That’s really devastating.
SW: And 30 of, I think, 20,000 students that were funded were Black Caribbean. I think it took a lot of people by shock or surprise, not necessarily, oh I didn't expect this, but like, Jesus, 30? It was a shocking figure to see a year ago. I think there was a little bit of a push on Twitter saying, who are these 30? Where are the rest of you?
So often in academia or in higher education, as a Black person or Black woman, you're the only one in the room or you’re the only one on the floor, or the institution even, or your department. It can be an isolating environment to be in, if you’re the only person who looks like you in a room. And it does lend itself to you feeling like you almost have to represent all of the Black diaspora within yourself.
SW: There's so much nuance to me and nuance to our people and I am one. But whenever a conversation comes up about race, you're the one turned to; it's tough to be in that environment.
When that report was released, there was a big scramble of, we're in an isolated environment within our own institutions, where are the rest of us? And De-Shaine Murray was really pivotal in gathering everybody and saying, 'look, we need to speak, we need to talk to each other and support each other; let's all form a central group.' A few months after that, we sort of christened ourselves 'the ACRC'. That was toward the end of last year. Well, it was actually a year ago, we had our [one] year anniversary, I think it was a week or two ago, which was sweet.
AB: Yes, I did see that on Twitter! Congratulations!
SW: Yeah! So we formed, and over lockdown, Samantha Rennalls – well, Dr Samantha Rennalls, she's on her second doctorate right now –
AB: Oh, wow! Good for her!
SW: Yeah, she's amazing. She put forward the idea at beginning of lockdown in the UK – so in March this year – that we should meet on Zoom once a week, just to get to know each other because even though we'd formed, life gets busy. It was really difficult to catch everybody face-to-face. So, we maybe caught each other very briefly at Black in Academia events, led by Leading Routes again. I think those weekly Zoom meetings we started in March were really good in solidifying our group and getting us to really meet each other and learn about each other and know each other. And then after George Floyd was murdered in late May this year, those weekly meetings became so important, just in terms of having a space where you didn't have to explain yourself.
SW: You didn't have to explain why you were just tired, or crying in front of people's faces on Zoom. You could just be. And during that time, the ability to just be around people... it was so valuable.
This group is full of amazing people that are doing PhDs in the UK. And, it's been it's been a definite source of solace, at loads of times. They’re definitely my adopted academic family. We are all so far away from each other; no one in the ACRC is at Newcastle Uni, but they are for sure my academic family.
AB: I did want to ask about your family [as well]. Are they nearby? Are they also in Newcastle?
SW: No, I did my undergraduate in biology at UCL, which is where I felt most at home because I'd been going there since I was a teenager. It felt a comfortable space to be. I was in my hometown of London for my undergrad. I did run away for a little bit; in the third year of my degree, I went to the University of Queensland in Australia, in Brisbane, so that was really nice. Well... [it was] really up and down, but generally nice. It was really good to see the coral and to meet loads of nice people. And then I came back to my hometown. I lived in East London – Hackney – which was a bit different because I grew up in South London.
It was after my degree finished that I then had the capacity to start thinking about what was coming next, because final year was a bit hectic for loads of reasons.
AB: Okay. Reasons you would like to go into or no?
SW: Oh, we can for sure. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in the final year of my degree. So, I didn't have [the] capacity to be thinking about what comes next. My main focus at that time was, I need to finish this degree because I'm a second away from quitting it. [I thought], I cannot not do this. So much of myself had been poured into that degree and I was just at that point where I was like, can I do this? Can I even finish this?
Thinking about what was going to come next was the lowest priority, you can imagine. It was only when I had graduated [and] I'd gotten my certificate that I then looked into PhDs and things. That's why I'm in Newcastle now, because I was looking into PhDs, [and] there were quite a few up here; my partner was up here at the time as well. So, it just worked. It just clicked. And luckily, I got a spot for a funded PhD in the Haniffa lab. [And] it sort of anchored me because it gave me a bit of stability after that year, like I said, that was a bit up and down.
AB: Ah, I see. And how have you transitioned into being a little bit further away from family at this point, especially because we're now dealing with the pandemic?
SW: Yeah, I don't think I have transitioned into it. (Laughter) I don't think I've accepted that I'm far from home.
In the first year or two of my degree, I was getting trains down to London every month. Every month I would come down for a weekend. I'd stay with my sister and my grandma and have a great time. [I’d] see my cats, catch up, run around Saturday evening trying to meet with loads of different friendship groups for an hour at a time... which is ridiculous! Everyone knows that when Simone comes to London, it's going to be a mess.
SW: I'm trying to run around, like 'Oh, I'll meet you for coffee. Oh, I’ll meet you for drinks!' And my stomach's sad with me because I'm giving it caffeine and then alcohol and then water and then there's loads of food and cheese and back to coffee.
SW: That was a big thing though, making sure I came back home and saw my family every month. Obviously with lockdown since March, that hasn't been the case. I can't just jump on a train and be like, yes, it's fine. Or it's safe. Particularly because of my condition, I take immunosuppressive medication. I do two injections every week myself, to make sure that my immune system isn't going too wild on my joints and attacking my joints too much. Because of that, my immune system is suppressed. Obviously, there's a lot of anxiety and concern around [my] heightened risk of getting COVID as well. I know that my body is not necessarily up for that fight. I know that Black people are more likely to die from this thing, for an array of causes, one of which will 100% be racism.
And that means thinking about traveling at this time is just something I can’t... it's so hard to entertain something like that, when you see this massive list of things. It's been really hard to feel connected because I know that traveling isn't such an easy decision to make for me.
I did quickly go down for three days in August, because I was just [at] a breaking point. I was like, I need to see my grandma. I just need to hug my grandma, but I stayed away from her quite a bit, actually. I kept on saying I need to hug her and then I got there and I thought, Oh my gosh, I don't feel comfortable hugging her now. (Laughter) So that was weird.
It hasn't necessarily been the monthly train trip but [I’m] just trying to keep up. I was on the phone with my sister quite a bit this morning, so [I’m] just trying to keep up with all of the technology that you can. Although the technology that you see often doesn't show you the best thing. So, that's also a tightrope to walk.
AB: Oh. Please elaborate!
SW: As in, the news isn't great consumption for people and for Black people in general.
SW: Sometimes technology is a double-edged sword. We're in lockdown. A lot of us cannot travel outside freely or without concern and then you turn to your phone and it's supposed to be this beacon of light that allows you to FaceTime with your sister so you can see your cats and your grandma in the background. Okay, that's very specific to me, but other people might also want to FaceTime with their sister to see their cats and their grandma in the background. I'm sure someone can relate to that specific situation!
AB: (Laughter) I’m sure!
SW: You want it to be there, but then maybe you're scrolling on Twitter and then you just see some horrible things to do with police brutality. Well, I did not need that visual in my head right now; that was really hard for me to process right now. My mood is completely changed right now. Okay, I'm now thinking quite a lot about police brutality and race.
And then it's 6:30 on a Wednesday and you just want to relax but all of these things are being delivered to you instantly by something that is supposed to be making you feel connected, part of a community, and not isolated at this time. So, technology has been such a double-edged sword for those reasons. Some of my friends have gone one way and just completely avoided it, which obviously means that the isolation is compounded, because you’re not able to access your friends and your family. Or people have gone the complete other way and [are] just doom-scrolling on Twitter, on everything, reading all of the news and in that way, it’s damaging because you’re so traumatised. I guess you're traumatized in either way, so it's a really difficult thing to balance.
I've been trying to keep up with my friends and family life as much as I can, through tech, but I definitely don't think I'm walking that tightrope the best I could be, but I don't know who is.
AB: I was going to say, I don't think anyone, that I know at least, feels like they are managing it very well. Everything that you were saying, I was nodding vigorously; I know you can't see me right now. Everything [you said] is just spot on, because I’ve done that. I've gone back and forth and I go, Okay, I'm not going to go on Twitter – even though I do find a lot of really joyous, happy, connecting moments on Twitter, but there's no disclaimer. There's nothing that says ‘what you're about to see...’ And I do have those settings that prevent you from seeing really awful things, but sometimes it's not a video. Sometimes it's just someone writing a tweet to inform people of what's been going on and it changes the entire nature of your day.
SW: And you want people to understand [and be informed]...
AB: Of course.
SW: But even just a simple fact... I think I was scrolling on my phone yesterday and it said something like Black women are five times as likely to die in childbirth and that's another fact that I was just feeling a little bit bad about sharing with you, because that's stressful and I hope that doesn't stress out your day, but it's just simple things like that. I'm scrolling and I see that and I go, Okay, do I feel safe right now? Do I feel valued right now? Do I feel like institutions value my life right now? Do I feel safe within planning for a family right now? I wasn't even thinking about that a minute ago, I was reading a paper. I was on my phone messaging my sister and now my brain is in that frame of mind. It’s tough.
AB: Yeah, I've come across that same statistic and it really hit me that there was a difference in how Black women were treated with relation to medicine and pregnancy specifically because the two biggest superstars of the world, Serena Williams and Beyoncé, both had awful delivery stories. There is a problem here. When people know your name, that doesn't even take away that feeling of, Oh, she's overreacting, or we don't believe what she's saying. So how about me? How are they going to feel when they see me?
I'm honestly petrified of going to the doctor for that reason. Not even just because of the [Black] women dying in childbirth stat – that's one element of it. But I'm at the point where I figured out – sorry for [going] into a tangential, unrelated thing...
SW: It's not unrelated though! It's not unrelated.
AB: It feels weird to talk about it, but it is something that I do want to mention just because we are now talking about the medical space. I don't go to the doctor until I take my partner with me, who is [what] I call ‘white-passing’. I mean, he technically is white, but he's an immigrant from Russia, so there are a lot of things that he has in common with me, but when we go to the doctor, he's a white man.
AB: When I'm talking about something that's bothering me, they’ll belittle it – in front of both of us – and then he’ll [say] 'no, it's serious. She can't get out of bed for XYZ reasons and she's in this kind of pain.' And they go, 'Oh, I guess it is serious. Let's go ahead and run some tests.'
It annoys me that I know I have to bring [him] to my doctor's appointments for that reason. But we both know it! If I say I'm going to the doctor, he's like, 'Okay, let me make time for it.' He knows that could be a life or death decision for me.
AB: They could make a mistake and they could be like, 'Well, it happens. Statistics, whatever, we didn't know what we were looking for.'
SW: That’s the thing. The statistics are people, with people that care for them.
SW: And people that care for other people, and had plans. Had things written in their diaries for the week after. And it's so often that our brains are so used to seeing ourselves as [just being] in that statistic. I’m in that five-times more likely to die in childbirth. I'm always thrust into those statistics in a negative way. And it's dehumanizing to always see that, you know I mean?
AB: Oh, for sure.
SW: Or maybe it's a realization of how dehumanized you are in loads of aspects. Or, how close to death [you are]. The realization that as a Black person, so much of what you go through is defined or is affected by your proximity to death.
The fact that the global Black diaspora was mourning for George Floyd in May, that was us realizing and feeling the fact that we're in close proximity to death in so many structures and at so many points in time and that's why it hurts so much.
SW: So much. And it’s seeing those stats all the time and – whether I'm in a good frame of mind or a frame of mind that is ready to accept that, that doesn't often matter. It just happens, you know?
Asma. Yeah. I had to write that down, because that was so hauntingly worded. That is so true, because it was hard for people to really understand why we were all in mourning...
SW: Yeah, like, ‘you’re in the UK! What’s that got to do with you?’
AB: emphatic Yes! People didn’t understand it. They couldn’t fathom that there was this connection between all of us of, could’ve been me, could’ve been my brother.
SW: Yeah, that’s the first thing. You look at it and go, could’ve been me. That’s me. That could’ve been me, that could’ve been my brother. And it's that thing you mentioned before about Serena Williams and Beyoncé having really difficult pregnancies: your status or your socioeconomic status doesn't often protect you in these circumstances. And in a similar way, when it comes to academia, your titles will not protect you, do you know what I mean?
AB: emphatic Yes!
SW: I will hopefully become a doctor in two years’ time or sometime like that. And having a 'Dr' before my name isn't going to make somebody that looks at me in a shop not follow me around the shop.
SW: And I've recently shaved my head! It's not going to stop somebody from following me around a shop and – as has happened before – assume I'm a Black man walking around this shop if I'm wearing a hoodie, just to get something real quick. That’s not protecting me. I'm not able to quickly whip out my driver's license – which is a learner's driver's license, I can’t drive (laughter) – and say, 'actually, can't you see that it says Dr Simone?' That is not what's going through their heads, is it?
And it’s also the realization that racism is not these evil bogeyman and racist acts done by specific individuals that are bad, so therefore, everyone is absolved of responsibility because they don’t think in a super racist or biased way. It’s about the structures as well. Having that Black person coming in to interview and then having those things in your head that are making you act a certain way toward this candidate and then developing your whole higher education institutions around those biases, and then everyone just [doesn't take] responsibility: well, I'm not racist. Well, I lead a research group; I'm not racist. I just haven't had good candidates come around.
How have you written your job application? What have you asked for? Have you asked for that first-class degree? Have you considered the fact that there's, I think, a 30%-point difference between Black and white students getting a first in higher education? There is a difference, and if you don't think that difference is some inherent thing to do with their blackness and them being not as smart or intelligent, then you're saying that there's something wrong with the scoring system. And then you're saying there is a flawed scoring system, but it seems like it's impartial. It seems like, all I'm asking for is smart students. All I’m asking for is a first! That’s not racist
Fine, I’m not saying that you actually are actively doing a racist act by putting that into your job application, but I'm just saying a lot of things that are set up in a structure like that, where you think you’re being unbiased and you're not a racist individual, could be doing things like disproportionately affecting people.
SW: Or disproportionately assigning opportunities or access to opportunities. And that's something that people need to check as well. It’s not about these bogeymen. It's not about these bad people in the shop that are viewing me in a certain way. It's, you know, complex.
AB: Very much so. And I don't think, probably until this year, people realized how complex it in fact was. And it really hurt me recently, when I had pointed out that, at the Dementia Research Institute, the vast majority of people who are group leaders were white men. I said, ‘oh, it's kind of sad because it's a very new institute, so you’d think they at least would be close to parity on the man-woman line. But also, [I hoped] there'd be a lot more racial diversity, ethnic diversity, cultural diversity. Someone that I looked up to said, ‘well, first of all, don't you think they just pick the best people for the job? And if the people were available, I'm sure they'd get chosen,’ like you were just saying! It frustrated me so much, and my voice was gone. I was speechless. I couldn't even say anything. I wish I came up with a good, strong, logical argument like the one that you just presented, but I was almost... hurt that someone couldn't see the inequalities and the structural – I don't want to say brokenness, because it was built that way and it works that way; it's not broken.
SW: It’s functioning for a specific purpose. And if it's just the best person for the job, just on a fundamental level of that phrase; is that phrase saying that by thinking about diversity you’re lowering standards?
AB: emphatic Yup!
SW: And what are your standards? So, if you're saying it's just the best person for the job, why is that defending a white person taking that space? I mean it's just, what are you actually actually saying?
AB: Yes! And then I thought maybe I was looking into it [too much]. I thought, maybe I'm just a little too sensitive and it’s been a tough year... but I think my response was valid. Me being taken aback by that statement... I'm okay with it now. I think what that person, that again I looked up to, was saying was obviously people who are more ‘diverse’, whatever that term means, are not meeting our standards and we're not going to lower our standards to make people happy. And in fact, she followed up with saying, ‘Well, I don't think quotas should exist because then everyone is going to think that you're there only because you were gifted the spot.’ .
SW: But also, I feel like that's such a false point to make, like, oh, then people will think this... Do you realize how much I deal with people thinking about me already?
AB: Thank you!
SW: Is that seriously your biggest concern? You're so worried for me and my realization of what people think about me; is that seriously the biggest barrier in this whole situation? Is that what you're worried about, that I'll be upset about how people view me? I've heard how people view me – in front of my face, behind my back – that’s the least of my worries right now.
AB: Yeah. Facts!
SW: That’s so small! Do you actually think I’m going to be hurt? Stop it! Please, don't worry about me.
Her Royal Science jingle
Be sure to tune in later this week for Connections: Part II, where I continue my conversation with Simone, discussing the realities of living with a chronic illness.