For our final episode of Season II, I spoke to analytical chemist Dr Elissia Franklin. Dr Franklin just finished a postdoctoral fellowship at Purdue University, where she was using mass spectrometry to study ion-ion reactions for lipid analysis. As I found out during our conversation, she just started an exciting new position in Dallas, Texas. She also hosts The Research Her, a podcast that is both informative and inspirational, spotlighting research that focusses on Black women’s health while celebrating Black women researchers across disciplines. As we ended off our conversation with the advice she would share with her 16-year-old self, she spoke about encouraging young Elissia to remain unapologetically and authentically herself. I couldn’t think of a better title for this episode—or a better way to end the season—other than ‘Authenticity’.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for our final episode of Season II. Today, we'll be chatting with Dr. Elissia Franklin, [former] postdoctoral research fellow at Purdue University studying the use of gas-phase ion/ion reactions for lipid analysis using mass spectrometry. She completed her Bachelor's in Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, followed by her PhD in Analytical Chemistry at Purdue. In addition to her academic endeavours, she is the founder and host of The Research Her podcast, and is also on the planning council of STEMNoire, a research conference and wellness retreat for women of the African diaspora in STEM, bringing together hundreds of Black women, and providing a sense of community to promote talent retention and success in STEM. I'm very excited to learn more about her research and her science communication endeavours, but let's start from the very beginning: Dr. Franklin, what's your story?
Dr Elissia Franklin: I've always been very interested in math and science. When I was starting in middle school, and throughout high school, I was always involved in some sort of summer program or winter program that involved STEM. I did engineering and pharmacy: I worked as a pharmacy tech when I was in high school.
AB: Oh, wow!
EF: Yeah! I got a little taste of the STEM world very early on, which I know is a privilege. Going to college, it was a no brainer that I was going to major in some sort of STEM field, and it ended up being me majoring in Chemistry. Towards the end of my Bachelor's degree, it was time for me to figure out what it is I was doing next, and I really thought I was going to go pursue a Master's, but when I went to talk to my research advisor—I was doing research in a lab at the time as an undergraduate research assistant—he told me I should not pursue a Master's, but instead pursue a PhD because even if I go and I don't complete the PhD, I will have been able to get a free Master's. If you enrol as a Master's student, more likely if you don't get any financial aid going in, you're paying for that degree [out of pocket]. So, he was just getting at the fact that with going and pursuing a PhD, if things didn't work out, then I didn't go into more student debt.
That was really what made me even feel like I was capable of pursuing a PhD because I didn't know that, at the time, I was ready, but [I had a] mentor tell me, ‘I really think that you can get into a school.’ I went to different conferences, [looked] at different universities, and Purdue ended up being the one I applied to. I graduated, analytical chemistry, and got a post-doc, then another post-doc, and I'm here today.
AB: That's amazing. Do you know what drew you to Purdue University? Was there a particular professor? Is it well reputed within the chemical field?
EF: Yeah, for analytical chemistry, it is the number one program and that's what really pulled me towards Purdue; and they have one of the most diverse Chemistry programs in the nation. I have yet to see a program that has as many students of colour [and] faculty who are women. I think we're ranked number two. Don't quite quote me, but I'm pretty certain that we are ranked number two in the percentage of women faculty in a department. I was just very drawn to being in a space where they are trying to fight against some of the social issues that are happening in this country and, mind you, I started my PhD in 2015. So, this is something Purdue has been trying to get at. Of course, they're not perfect. It's still a part of the academic Ivory Tower system, and it's a lot to fight against, but I'd say they're doing the best that they can, specifically in the chemistry department.
AB: That is amazing, and kudos to them for doing that. Could you tell me a little bit more about your current research? The way that I introduced it was quite complex (Laughter). [There were] a lot of words that I think a lot of our audience might not quite recognise, so please share that with our audience and with me as well.
EF: Yeah! I recently started a new position actually.
AB: Oh, did you?
EF: I mean, very recently. I recently started a new position where my research more so focuses on environmental health. My work is centred on looking at how the chemicals in the environment impact our health. I look at different biological samples such as urine or blood, and I determine what is your exposome. What an exposome is the chemical or chemicals that you have been exposed to throughout the duration of your life from the environment.
For instance, we are looking at phthalates, PFAS [perfluoroalkyl substances], or parabens and determining if there are certain groups [of people] that are more exposed than others, or just, what are you exposed to based on the personal care products that you use or your occupation? So, one of my projects involves looking at the biomatrices of nurses and firefighters and determining—compared to office workers—are they more exposed to any certain class or type of chemicals?
AB: That’s such amazing work, which also has such profound societal importance. Was that one of the reasons why you chose to pursue it?
EF: Yeah. One of the things I'll say about the work that I'm doing now is I've never felt like I was doing more impactful work. This has made me realise why I went into the field. One of the challenges, though, that I have to speak on because it's been my experience: when you love something, but you don't feel like you're getting paid, what you're worth or what you deserve to be paid, it's really hard to enjoy it as much as you want to. And it's just the way the system is played. It's not my organisation; it’s not anything that my [workplace] is doing wrong. It's just the way that grants are put out and the way the government sets it. They put a cap on how much money you can make. And I just think when you do so much, when you get so much education—because I've been in school for the past 24, 25 years of my life; my mom put me in preschool really early—and you finally make it to the end of the road and you're like, ‘Okay, now let me do something that I'm passionate about,’ versus doing something [where] you make a lot of money. I could have gone and worked in industry or a pharmaceutical company and I would have easily started making six figures, or near six figures, but nothing about me wanted to be a part of the system that is the pharmaceutical industry, or even some of the industries that put out these chemicals that are not so great for our health.
Instead, I did what I'm more passionate about, but what that led to was me being in a space where now I'm not making the money that the people who also graduated with me are making; they're making double, if not triple the amount of money that I'm making, because they chose to go into industry. And academia is just behind. Academic spaces are just behind in that way. You just don't quite get the pay that the people who are in the pharmaceutical companies are getting.
That is one of the battles that I've been having with myself. I love what I do. I love everything about it. I love the people that I work with, but then it's like, if I would have chosen the other route, I would have been so much more financially stable! (Laughter)
AB: Yeah, it's an uncomfortable position that you have to choose. And I really don't think it's fair because, like you said, when you have decades of education under your belt, the reward should be—as an expert in the field—monetary compensation.
One of my guests, a couple of episodes ago did engineering. She was a mechanical engineer, and [studied that] for her PhD, and she was so torn in the same way that you're talking about. [She said], ‘if I go into industry, I feel like I'm actually going to be paid what I'm worth. But then, I really love the science, the nitty gritty engineering experiments that are for exploration's sake, for understanding sake,’ but that's not really what gets monetary compensation and I think that's a really disappointing.
EF: Yep, that's been my dilemma. I really wish that there was more conversation about this, so I don't feel the way I feel, which is alone. It's almost like you feel ungrateful, you know, like I shouldn't feel a way about where I am, but I do think there are other people who feel similar to me, and I've had conversations with a few people, but most people are like, ‘Oh yeah, it just kinda is what it is.’ Or they have to do things outside of their post-docs to then reach that next level of financial gain. So, you're not just a postdoc; you're a postdoc plus you run some organisation and the organisation is also paying you. And so now, you are in the bracket where you're making a lot of money, but also, you're doing triple, quadruple the work, versus I get to do my 9-5 and be off work.
One of my beliefs is that we should have time to rest, and what happens when you start taking on too many responsibilities is there is no off button. You're working around the clock, and when there isn't built in time for you to enjoy who you are, and what you enjoy doing outside of work, you just become this machine that is constantly producing more research or more mentorship. And mentorship is great, but you deserve time of absolute isolation or doing whatever you want to do outside of your professional life.
I really do believe that we can get caught in this cycle of productivity, productivity, productivity, just out of the fact of trying to 1) climb the academic ladder, then 2) in some cases, make the money that you deserve.
AB: Absolutely. Speaking of things that you do outside of work, I think that's actually perfect lead-in to your podcast. I don't know much about the origin story, but I'd love to hear more about The Research Her—love the name! I think that's so, so cool. How did it start? When did you start it, why did you start it?
EF: I started it when I was in China and quite frankly it was selfi... no, it wasn't just selfish reasons, but there were selfish reasons in there. I figured I'd have the opportunity to speak with amazing women, but it initially was a seed in my head where I wanted to do science communication, which I didn't know was a thing at the time. In my head, I was just like, I want to teach people how the things that they do in their everyday life impacts their health. That was what I told myself. I didn't at the time realise that that was science communication. Even though I probably told the story similarly before, [saying], ‘Oh, I want to be a science communicator,’ before I even knew it was a thing. I just knew that the concept was something that I wanted to do.
I started off on YouTube, and I think I was talking about how hard water impacts your hair. Then I realised, ‘maybe this isn't the best platform for the information that I am trying to give.’ And it evolved into me doing a podcast. [The Research Her] is essentially a podcast that talks about the research that is related to Black women's health. Also, I talk to Black women researchers at all different stages of their careers, so whether they're still working on their thesis, or they are full-time professors, or someone who did research in the past and they feel like their research is still important today, I really just like to learn about some of the topics that are out there.
I look at myself as a research advocate, where I want people to know about all of these topics that are out there for them to pursue. You know, a lot of people don't understand what it's like to be a doctoral student, and they believe it looks like a certain thing. Some people believe you can only go to get a PhD in science, or you can only go into engineering. And there are all these different programs out there that are not these hardcore sciences. What I really like to do on the podcast is allow people the opportunity to learn more about what is out there, because at that time, what I didn't see was people doing this, specifically hearing the voices of underrepresented people.
I started it back in 2019, a little over two years ago, and that was when I was freshly in the STEM social media space. I [hadn’t] really formed any connections yet, but since 2019, the science girls and the engineering girls have really started, you know, making their voices on social media and it's evolved so much since I remember it. There's really been a huge inpouring of people and a community being built around this idea of being women in STEM and people wanting to be STEMinist. It's been a beautiful thing to see. Everyday, I find a new wonderful woman to follow on Instagram, so my community and networking has been off the chain—made so many connections, so many collaborations with people. It has been beautiful.
AB: I think ‘beautiful’ is the perfect word for it. I love that you're also spotlighting Black women. As a Black woman myself, I was searching for so long to see women like me who were prospering in research, and when I was looking around me while I was doing my PhD, that just was not the case. I thank you so much for doing this work. It is so, so powerful. For the audience that might not be familiar with some of the professional challenges that Black women face, especially within academia, what are some of those challenges that you're trying to eradicate, or you're passionate about eradicating when Black women are pursuing STEM careers? What are the things that really come to your mind that make you go, we need to change XYZ?
EF: There are a few things. I'm going to speak to two today. One of them being this idea of standing up for yourself, realising that people will gaslight you into believing that what you're feeling is not accurate or that they are right in their belief about you. You have that choice to not believe what other people are feeling towards you. It's a very painful experience when you are a Black woman and you see the way other Black women are being treated in the academic space. Then you have some type of, I don't know what it's called, but it's like the trauma that you get from seeing other people's pain. Essentially, you see someone else being mistreated and you feel their pain, you know? You see your Black sister being left out of spaces or being told she doesn't belong here, and she doesn't deserve that.
I specifically had an experience where I have a mentee and she got treated terribly throughout her PhD experience. What it did for me is it really created a lot of mental challenges or pain or hurt because you want to say something. You want to speak up, right? But in so many words, it's like, this is an adult woman who was already spoken up for herself. She's very much able to tell people what they will and will not say to her, and she's done it. But even the fact that you can see people truly believe in the words that [are] coming out of their mouth [about] her not deserving. Are you saying she doesn't deserve this because she's a Black woman? Are you saying she doesn't deserve this because of who she is? Either way it goes, you read it how you want to read it. And for me, it was like, they are saying this to her because she's a Black woman, because I can almost guarantee you if it was a white man, those same words wouldn’t have been used.
A few things that I really want to do is let people know that the trauma that you do experience, and any type of mental health issues that you experience as you journey through your PhD program, you are not alone. You are legitimate in those feelings. And a lot of people think that you shouldn't feel this way because you're pursuing higher education.
But honestly, academia is a space where I feel like we're gaslit into believing that we are in a collaborative space, but we are in a competitive space. They keep on telling us like, ‘Oh, we're so collaborative.’ No, you're making us compete with each other. And then when you're done with it, you don't even know how to turn that off. You don't know how to turn off this idea of not working. You don't know how to turn off that competitive spirit, and it takes so much hard work to do so. I guess where I am now is I want to allow people that feeling of, I am normal, and I'm not the only one who has experienced this, I am normal. And when I see this happening to someone; it is not fake. It is not made up in my head that I feel this way. It is a true feeling and no one can convince me otherwise.
I'm an advocate for getting the mental health care that you need, whether that be being admitted into a mental health care facility, whether that be getting a therapist before you get to the point of needing to go to a mental health facility. I know people who, now, it's becoming acceptable to take a mental health break that is outside of Saturday and Sunday. A lot of professors believe, ‘Oh, you have to work this day through this day.’ Don't go work for that professor. Even if you love their work, work for a professor that cares more about you than the work that you can produce. We live in 2021—a lot of those old practices that people believed in back then, professors [who] are still living in the sixties and the seventies or whatever, that's fine, [but] don't work for those people.
You have to work for people who live in the times where we realise that, ‘Oh, the way we were doing things back then was actually detrimental to people's mental health. How about we fix it and do better?’ But there are some people who want to live in those times. Why? Because those were times where people care more about producing literature and being this huge name. That's fine, but I'm choosing me so I'm not gonna go that route. I could speak to some of the traumas that academia kind of puts on you, but I'm still honestly working through a lot of what my experiences are. I've learned that it's a lot of complex trauma. It was small things over a longer period of time: having some of my peers tell me, ‘I'm not sure that your project is worthy of this particular group’ or whatever. Who are you to tell me what's worthy and what's not worthy of being presented?
If I'm telling you this is what I'm doing, either you're going to edit it or you're not gonna edit it. You're not going to tell me what I should and should not do. I will say this though: I did pick a really good research advisor. It was my peers. It was that feeling of, they wanted to pretend like they were these kind beings that didn't see that I was a Black woman, but baby, you see this. You see all this beautiful melanin.
AB: Yeay! Is that one of the reasons why you chose to be a part of STEMNoire, which I think is absolutely beautiful as well—also celebrating melanin?
EF: I saw STEMNoire and honestly, I fell in love with the mission, and I did what I could to end up being a part of it. We are preparing for our conference coming up in June. If anyone wants to learn more about the conference, go to STEMNoire.org. It is a holistic retreat and research conference for Black women, and we have a nice line-up that we're preparing. It's virtual this year, just because we’re still in these COVID streets, and we want to keep everyone safe because we do realise that by June, everyone will not be vaccinated. We just don't know what things will look like. But I became a part of it just because the mission as a whole, which is being a whole human while being in STEM was just something that really spoke to me.
I appreciated the women; the women that are part of the planning committee are the most phenomenal women I've ever met in my life. They've introduced me to so much, they've been patient with me, helped me through some of the toughest times I've had. I've struggled very, very much with depression and anxiety, and this year has been the best year for my experience, as far as my experience with depression and anxiety, because I didn't have any major signs for the first time in about 5-7 years.
EF: Yeah! And I really attribute it to some of the people that I've connected with who understood what it felt like and feels like to navigate these spaces. You just get into this cycle of, because there aren't very many people around me who come from where I come from and have similar experiences as me, they can't really tell me that how I'm feeling and what I'm experiencing is okay. You always feel wrong because you have people around you who you love to death, who are in your family, or your friends who you met before you pursued a PhD, who just don't understand your experience. You can't really talk about these things because you just don't feel like it's relatable, you know? I ended up feeling very alone and what STEMNoire had allowed for me to be is in a space full of people who understand and have experienced what I’ve been through.
AB: I have a question about how it was received by those family members and friends when you started talking about your depression and anxiety. I'm wondering if there was a learning curve for the people that you did speak to—if you did speak to people outside of the STEMNoire board, or the women that you had come in contact with, who could really understand the experiences that you were going through.
EF: Yeah, I feel like my experiences weren't validated until I had a major episode. I had a huge episode that involved me being hospitalised. After that, I feel like people began to really see that, no, this is a serious issue and it's not a phase. It's not something that we're just gonna pray away. It's not something that we're just going to say, ‘Oh, it's okay. It'll get better. No worries;you're just sad, everyone gets sad.’ When it was something where I no longer had control over my belief that I deserved to be here on earth, just because I hadn't taken care of myself in so long, I believe at that point, that was when I needed a more intense help. And then after that, I just felt like I got way more support because people understood that this was not something that I was just like, I'm just not feeling it today. It was like, no, there's something serious going on, and I really need to begin this process of taking care of myself.
AB: And of healing, of trying to make sure that the feelings that you had were dealt with in a healthy manner, and you could get to a space where you were feeling okay, and you're feeling good. And are you feeling good these days?
EF: Yeah. I mean, I just recently moved. I moved from the Midwest to the Dallas area.
AB: I used to live in Dallas! How is it?
EF: I love it so far. It's been great. Way more sunlight; well, today it is a big gloomy, but overall, there's a lot more sunlight. The people are nicer, better food!
I'm from Chicago, but I was in Lafayette, Indiana, so it's been a great transition and I'm around family. I haven't lived in the same city or within an hour’s reach of a large amount of my family for over 10 years now. Going from living in a college town to a big city has also been very exciting, very exciting.
AB: I do love that you're back near family and I think that's a lovely lead into my next question about what role you think, your background, your city, your family, your culture had in who you are today.
EF: I'm from the Southside of Chicago, which I love to talk about! I'm very much, Southside girl, through and through. I say, it's been a beautiful thing, being able to 1) represent my city in such a positive light and, 2) show the younger girls who are from where I'm from.
I'm not from a terrible neighbourhood in Chicago. Like there weren’t, you know, too many killings in my neighbourhood. They did rob, they did break into your car, things like that, but my neighbourhood was never too bad. I lived in the suburbs for a while, the South suburbs for a while as well. They would rob us or whatever, they would come in and take our things out of our house, but it wasn't terrible. You know, some people, they coming in and they killing people.
It's funny how some people probably are gonna listen to this like, ‘what do you mean, there were only robberies?!’ (Laughter)
This is all to say, I'm very privileged in that although I'm from the Southside, also South suburbs, there was so much privilege in my experiences. I did have a mother who pursued higher education and pursued her doctorate while I was in high school. So, I had a mom who was a school counsellor, so she was connected throughout the throughout the Chicago public school system. She was aware of things. She knew my school counsellor. A lot of the opportunities that were presented to me were because my teachers saw something in me and they were like, ‘Hey, I know that this may be a good opportunity for you.’ But also, when it came to certain things like the FAFSA when it was time to go to college, I never had, I never struggled with filling out a FAFSA. Why? Because I had a mother who filled that out for me; that is privilege. That is something that [for] a lot of people that is their bottleneck in getting into college, or getting financial coverage to go to college. And that was something I never had to deal with throughout my academic career, because when I became a PhD student, you don't fill out a FAFSA because they pay you. They pay you to go to school when you're getting your pursuing a chemistry PhD.
That was something that I bit the bullet, but I think I tried very much to kind of hide who I was throughout my doctoral pursuits, because I thought I needed to look a certain way.
I remember when I was in college and I was told that I was, what did they say? This was when I was on a cheerleading team. I was told that I was pretty much too aggressive, that's what they said. I was on a very much white cheerleading team, and I remember the girls coming together and telling our coach that I was too aggressive. It led to me kind of tiptoeing off of the cheerleading team, because I just felt, ‘I don't belong here. They think I'm too aggressive.’ And I think that that was the beginning of my struggle or my beginning of suppressing who I am and really [suppressing] my character. You know, I just thought I needed to be as white cultured as possible. I think when I went into my PhD, I got more and more silent, and I think that is why I struggled so much with my mental health, because I felt like I had to play pretend, like I was someone that I wasn't, just to be accepted in these spaces.
It wasn't until I really started being myself where that was when I was the happiest; when I stepped outside of being this person who wanted to kind of fit in. When I went back to truly standing in who I am, that's when I enjoyed my research much more. And that's when I actually pursued a position that I wanted to pursue because I enjoy the work. I was more confident and I was able to stand in that. I'm not about to code-switch all the time at work. I’m still very much a professional, but I do show parts of me that, had I been in the beginning of my PhD, I wouldn't have [shown], because I have these people in the back of my mind telling me ‘you're too aggressive.’ When you tell someone that, you're saying you don't belong here as you are.
AB: Mhmm, and that word [aggressive] has been weaponised against Black women. I'm sorry that you went through that period of time where you were not yourself, your authentic self. I kind of want to end off with a question about retrospect: if you could go back and talk to that 16-year-old Elissia, from Dr. Franklin today, what would you tell her?
EF: I would say continue being you unapologetically. You are going to run into people who are going to try and suppress you, trying to tell you who you ought to be, and it's going to be for their own comfort. But what's going to end up happening, if you do not remain true to who you are is you'll be uncomfortable and everyone else will be happy except you. You cannot compromise your happiness for the sake of other people. You can find a nice middle, but they have to find their nice middle as well. In order for you to truly embrace the journey that you're on, you have to be able to do it as you are, or else a lot of the experience that you'll have, you probably won't remember because what we don't talk about is when you are in a depressive state of mind, your memory can be foggy, so you won't be able to truly experience the journey.
As a 16-year-old, you are living unapologetically and do not allow that spirit to fade away.
AB: Beautiful; I love that. Thank you so, so much for joining me today. Are there any final words you'd like to share with our audience?
EF: If you want to connect with me, I am @ElissiaPhD. If you want to connect with the podcast, we are @TheResearchHer on all the socials and at TheResearchHer.com.
AB: Awesome. And remind us what the website for the STEMNoire is as well.
EF: It is STEMNoire.org.
Her Royal Science jingle
AB: We at Her Royal Science would like to end our season finale expressing our solidarity with and sympathy for members of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Over the past 12 months, occurrences of anti-Asian and anti-Pacific Islander hate have skyrocketed, leaving communities fearful for their own safety. We at Her Sci are heartbroken by these acts of bigotry, and we pledge to continue to educate ourselves about the xenophobia directed at our brethren, also striving to create safe spaces for all minoritised individuals.
If you have the ability to do so, please donate to your local organisations that advocate for the protection of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, organisations like Stop AAPI Hate which advocates for local state and national policies that reinforce human and civil rights within the United States.