Our mid-season finale is upon us! To date, we’ve had a stellar line-up of guests, from astrophysicist and author Dr Moiya McTier in The Milky Way, to Icahn School of Medicine medical illustrator Ni-ka Ford in our most recent episode, Storyteller. Our mid-season finale marks the start of our brief winter hiatus, and I am delighted to have spoken with science educator and Black In Neuro co-founder Lietsel Jones for our final episode of 2022. Our conversation was first sparked by the release of her candid essay titled Cut and run: my exodus from academia, wherein she shares the recent series of events that prompted her to leave her Biomedical Sciences PhD program. Though our conversation begins with her academic journey to present day, it ends with emphasizing the importance of life and love, urging listeners to create space for reevaluation, recalibration, and rebirth if one finds themselves unhappy and unfulfilled. We hope you enjoy Renaissance.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Lietsel Jones: It's okay to reevaluate your position and where you're at. It's a fallacy to think that you're going to have one thing that you dedicate your life to and that's it, and that works for everybody. I mean, it works for some people. Some people find their passions, the thing that they're good at at a young age, but that isn't necessarily the only path available for people to take.
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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Lietsel Jones, a middle school science teacher with a background in engineering and neuroscience. She previously completed her Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and her Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Central Florida. You may know Lietsel as 'Mother of Neurons' on social media, where she recently shared a candid blog post titled 'Cut and Run: My Exodus from Academia', which I'm very keen to dive into. I cannot wait to chat with Lietsel today about her new job and her foray into science communication, but let's start from the very beginning—Lietsel, what's your story?
LJ: It all began when I was a little girl on the tiniest island you could imagine, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. I would stare off at distant islands and think, 'What else is out there? And are there other little girls like me that are asking simple questions like, “Why does a bee sting really hurt so much? And why is it that even though I have no reason to be sad, I am sad? Why is it that cancer exists, and why have we lost people around us to such a terrible disease?”' Looking back on it now, I think I've just always had a curious mind and as introverted as I was, I just think it means that I spent more time thinking about the world around me than trying to insert myself into it. And so, it was sitting in science class in school that made me realize that the best source of answers come from science for all of the questions I was asking.
AB: So, engineering was the next logical step for you? Or was it... Did you have something else in mind that you thought would be your chosen degree or chosen profession? Why did you end up doing a Bachelor's in Engineering of all subjects?
LJ: I would say that my journey in STEM has been very non-linear. I wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember. My mom told me that when I had learned what cancer was, I had said that I wanted to cure it, and as ambitious as that is, I've always just wanted to help people. I think that's what it was, so I actually started off university as a... I'm trying to remember what it was... Oh, I was a pre-law major!
AB: <surprised> Oh, wow!
LJ: Yeah! When I was in high school, I had moved from St. Maarten to Florida and I had gone through a lot in that school. I didn't have a very good support system within the school. The guidance counselor was like, 'Oh, don't waste your time trying to pursue being a doctor. You're better off doing something like journalism or, you know, something easy.'
AB: <disappointed> Oh, wow.
LJ: Yeah, very gross. Unfortunately for me, I listened because you're at a young age. You're impressionable. These people are supposed to be the ones who know best, right? So I thought he was right... and it's not an easy career. Being a lawyer is difficult and being a journalist is difficult, but I think what it comes down to is that he made me not believe in myself and made me feel silly for wanting to do science. So, I looked for other alternatives that I could possibly enjoy. I decided to go with journalism because that was another way to ask questions, but then I was worried about job security because it's very difficult to get into journalism; that's why I settled on pre-law 'cause I figured, 'Oh, that's a solid career!'
That was actually my very first major, and I was taking a finite math course in my first semester of college. I remember that my professor was a Jamaican lady and she was just so fiercely confident and so badass. I just loved her so much.
LJ: <Laugh>, and it had been the first time since I was a little girl when I had a teacher who was also Black. It had been years since I had a role model who even looked remotely like me or who could even understand my background, my culture, and who I am as a person. I connected with her instantly and I just remember one day she asked to speak to me outside. I thought, 'Oh no! <Laugh> When a Caribbean lady wants to speak to you one-on-one, it's never a good sign!' <Laugh>
AB: <Laugh> I know!
LJ: And she was like, 'I just wanted to speak to you because I noticed that you're excelling in my class, but I need you to challenge yourself. I need you to not be where you're at right now because you're gonna get bored and you're not gonna like where you end up.' I remember being very confused. I was like, 'Oh, I just enjoy your class. That's why I'm doing [it].' She was like, 'No, you're really, really good at math, which probably means you're good at, you know, other difficult things like science and engineering,' that kind of thing. 'You should really consider exploring those types of majors.' And so, she actually inspired me to switch my major to pre-med.
I was halfway through my pre-med major when I had a massive psychotic break, and this was back in 2012. I don't remember much from that time. I just remember it being a very dark time and I couldn't understand what was happening. My parents, being very worried, they immigrated to Florida around that time and they offered for me to move from Miami to Orlando to stay with them so that they could support me. And so, I left the university I was at and transferred to a local community college, and it was there when I sat with a guidance counselor trying to figure out what the next step would be. I was advised to go into engineering just because my math scores were really great. In retrospect, I don't know that that was advice I should have taken because of all the sciences, I've always struggled with physics. I did it! I... I struggled my way through an engineering degree and finally graduated with my Bachelor's from UCF (University of Central Florida). It took me a lot longer to get a Bachelor's than most of my peers, but I was just really happy to have done it.
AB: Could you tell me about what the early years of your PhD were like? Were they largely positive or was it constantly pegged with things that were less than ideal?
LJ: I think it started out positively. I started in the Fall of 2019 and having the kind of neurodivergence that I do have, any new experience, anything that's novel in my life is a rush of dopamine that I'm constantly craving, so any new experience, even if it's something I didn't want, I try to take it on as positively as I can. I have all of this energy and all of this steam to keep me powered through, so I think I was very hopeful at the very beginning. I felt like the research lab that I had joined and the work that we were doing, I felt like it was the best it was gonna get for me, if that makes sense.
AB: Were there certain elements of the PhD environment that were hardest, that were the most annoying to deal with? Was it solely the expectations of the everyday grind, the competitive nature? Was it the lack of guidance that, sometimes, a lot of trainees feel? Or rather, did you have a supervisor or PI (principal investigator) who was a little bit too much of a helicopter PI, if you will? What was it specifically about your experience that made you go, 'Yeah, I don't know if I want to do this'?
LJ: I think it was a combination of things. In, I think, Summer of 2021—so just last year—I got my ADHD diagnosis, and I also have Bipolar Type 1. Learning more about how my own brain works, I started to realize how incompatible that kind of environment was for me. I realize that I thrive under conditions where I have structure, but if I have a supervisor that I report to that is a helicopter PI, I have a very difficult time relinquishing control and allowing myself to be micromanaged. And I take things entirely too personal! <Laugh>
While I was working on the hair and EEG project in my lab, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated because as wonderful as it was that it got attention from our field and people were sharing our work, as great as that was—it was the goal—what was frustrating was just this summer, right before quitting, I'd gone to a conference with my lab that just focused on EEG. I had a poster presentation, all of my lab mates had a poster presentation, and my PI was invited to speak about our lab's work as a keynote. She spoke about all of our work, not just mine, but all of our work, but I remember sitting in the audience while she was talking about my work, and don't get me wrong, her intentions were really great and she funded the project, the project wouldn't have existed without her support. But I just remember thinking, 'I feel like this issue is not something that you can sugar coat for the audience because they're not going to take it seriously.' And because of the tone of the presentation when talking about that project, just as I expected, there were people in the audience asking really ignorant questions and making ignorant comments. Now, there were only two Black people, period. Not even students, just period, at this conference: myself and another student from a different group. I remember sitting there and feeling an intense anger and I was shaking and I wanted to cry. I remember texting my partner saying I wanted to scream, and it was so visceral. It was something I cared about so much, and I had put all of this time and effort into it, and I felt like it was watered down for the audience, and then it provided that opportunity for ignorant people to say the things that they did. Instead of it being a teaching moment for other neuroscientists that really needed to hear hard truths, it was an opportunity for them to say really awful things. I just realized at that point that it was becoming harder and harder for me to separate my identity from my work.
Then, another thing that really frustrated me is I was also working on a manuscript on that project and having conversations with my PI, checking in on the work and progress. When I was discussing results, she was saying, 'Oh, you know, you have to make sure that you're remaining unbiased and not taking these things too personally.' And I was like, 'Okay, yes, I get that, but it's that kind of attitude in science that has led to this problem existing in the first place.' We're people, we're not robots. There are people doing the science. You cannot separate my humanity from the work that I'm doing. And I couldn't do it. I was so angry, and it wasn't her fault. I think it's an academia thing. It's a culture, what feels like an unbreakable culture. It's something that's being stubborn and not wanting to change. And I felt like I was constantly fighting and fighting something bigger than myself, and it wasn't even a fight I wanted in the first place. I felt so worn down and burnt out.
AB: Yeah. There's a lack of recognition of that reality for a lot of us minoritized scientists, so I want to commend you for sharing your story, not only here, but also in the forum of the blogposts that you share with all of us on your website.
I know that COVID also played a role in the decision that you made to kind of part ways with this space, and I'd love for you to be able to tell that story however you want to, but I do know the pandemic did play a role, and COVID in your own home also played a role.
LJ: Oh, yeah. I think that was definitely the straw that broke the camel's back. Up until COVID, I had been secretly working a part-time job at a restaurant because we had financial needs in our household. My partner was the sole breadwinner, given that I was only being paid 20K a year, and I had started going on more conferences since <sarcastic> people were under this impression that COVID just disappeared and the pandemic was over, so let's do in-person conferences again! <Normal> I was racking up debt. My car had broken down. I didn't have a vehicle anymore, so I was working a part-time job at a restaurant that paid pretty decently to try to supplement some of our income, some of my financial needs, and to save up for a car.
It was at this job when I was exposed to COVID, and it happened so quickly. I had been working this job at that point for almost eight months, and that was the first time I was exposed. I worked a double shift on, I think it was a Tuesday when I had nothing else scheduled research-wise. I came home, I remember feeling exhausted, which is, you know, a typical feeling that you would feel after working a double at a restaurant, but I remember waking up the next morning feeling the most awful I had ever felt, and I was a very sick kid growing up with asthma. I thought that I had felt the most sick before. No, this was awful. And let's not forget the fact that during shutdown and lockdown, we were all indoors. And then for a while, everyone was masking at some point, so exposure to viruses like colds [and] flus didn't happen. I was not sick for two and a half years <laugh> which is a record. And so, I was like, 'Oh no, sore throat? And this is a really bad one...' So I panicked. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, do I even have any COVID tests left?' Working in a restaurant, living with someone who is immunocompromised, and myself having asthma, both of us were really paranoid about COVID. My partner has to travel a lot for work, so we were really nervous that one of us was going to expose the other. We were constantly rapid testing at home.
Luckily, I had one test left in our closet, so I took the rapid test and it turned positive almost within seconds. I... I called out from work and it all went downhill from there. I tried to isolate from my partner, but given that my partner is a simp for me and just wanted to take care of me, they took care of me up until the point their immune system could not hold up against it. They fell ill three days later, unfortunately experiencing the worst of the symptoms.
There was this one day after us being sick for two weeks. We have a cat and a dog and both of us are struggling to breathe, so I was like, 'Okay, I feel a little bit better, so maybe I'll get up and attempt to clean the house to get rid of allergens, anything that could exacerbate my partner's cough.' I remember it took longer for me to clean just because of how exhausted I felt. I kept having to take a break, so it took me seven hours to clean a very tiny house. Because it took me so long, I had been out of the bedroom and I couldn't hear my partner having this cough attack. It got so bad that they threw a box of highlighters that was right next to the bed at the door to get my attention. I ran into the bedroom and they were fighting to breathe and I panicked. I called the Teledoc and they put on the webcam, took one look at my partner and said, 'Go to the ER, immediately.' So, we both went to the ER and it was a very long night, but they were able to stabilize my partner and prescribed steroids and all of this other stuff to control the cough and make it easier for them to breathe.
It took about two to three weeks for me to finally hear their voice again, because the coughing finally had gone down. Then there was, you know, the post COVID medication interacting with existing disability that my partner had. So, you know, it was battling that, and then the newer limitations on our bodies after COVID that made it so difficult. Both of us having the virus, I think it was day four for me and day two or day one for my partner, both laying in bed, drenched in and sweat, barely able to keep our eyes open, barely able to breathe. I remember just looking over and I started sobbing because <voice crack> my partner... oh my gosh, I'm gonna cry... My partner was in so much pain and I could not help but think, this is my fault. If it weren't for the fact that I forced myself to pursue this PhD out of what I felt at the time was necessity, had I not done that, I don't think I would've been placed in a position where I would've exposed us like that, especially since my partner had to give up so much career-wise and their manufacturing engineering career just to stay with me while I finished my PhD, just to financially support me while I finished. And it all boiled down to what happened.
I couldn't help but think it wasn't worth it. I had... We had wasted two and a half years being married while I was getting this PhD that I didn't want. We could have been spending that time enjoying being newlyweds. We could have spent that time together, savoring every single day. But instead, I spent it in a state of heightened anxiety and exacerbating my mental issues, having it impact my personal life and my marriage, and I just... It just wasn't worth it. I just looked over into my partner's eyes and all I could think of was, 'If we don't make it through this, I think the very last thing that I would think before lights out would be “I cannot believe I wasted my time doing something I wasn't passionate about, wasted so much of our life doing something that I didn't want to do.”' But it's a very complicated relationship I have with science, and I think it's really important for people to understand that when they interact with me online. I need people to understand that, you know, not everybody who is doing a PhD wants it. Sometimes it's out of necessity, and we may be passionate about the subject matter, but it doesn't mean that we think the rigors of academia and all of the things that minoritized scholars can experience is worth it. We don't think it's worth it. I have a complicated relationship with it. I love neuroscience <laugh>, I love talking about the brain. I love writing about the brain. I love teaching others about the brain. I did not enjoy just being in that kind of situation and environment, but luckily my partner and I pulled through.
AB: I'm so happy to hear that both of you are doing better. I think the first thing I should actually say is thank you for sharing your story so candidly with me here today, and also for writing the blog post that you shared not too long ago. What you wrote, I think it was towards the end of your post—I have it written here—captures basically everything that you've said here so far. You said, "Why was I missing out on life for something that didn't make me happy?"
AB: You continue, "I don't know. I didn't have a good reason. I looked over at my partner as we laid in puddles of sweat, and it was through COVID eyes I saw that I'd been living for reasons that meant nothing to me: a degree, a title, a job title. All of it pales in comparison to the love that we have, our precious health, and the precarity of life itself."
I think there are a lot of people who are dealing with the uncertainty of their position in this space. This is not to discourage anyone from pursuing academic careers, of course, but I think it is important and it is... It's beyond important. It could be life-saving for someone to hear your story. I imagine you've gained so much wisdom over the last little while especially, about what you could pass along to other people who might be in the academic space, who are thinking about their place in that space. What would you tell young you, maybe you from five years ago about the future?
LJ: Oh, I think the biggest thing would be, it's okay to reevaluate your position and where you're at. I think that it's a fallacy to think that you're going to have one thing that you dedicate your life to, that's it, and that works for everybody. I mean, it works for some people. Some people find their passions, the thing that they're good at at a young age. They pursue that one path. They get really successful and they just do that until they retire, and that's great.
AB: Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>.
LJ: But that isn't necessarily the only path available for people to take, so if you find yourself in a situation where you need to reevaluate where you're at—if you're not happy, if something isn't serving you anymore, if you thought that this was the place for you and when you got to that place and you’re like, 'Oh, just kidding! It's not for me'— that's okay!
AB: It is.
LJ: Don't be so hard on yourself! I think I really beat myself up all of these years for not finding a shoe that would fit me, and there was no reason for me to be so cruel to myself, so just be gentle with yourself. Trust the process and trust your gut because your gut knows what's best for you before you will know it.
AB: That's perfect. Thank you so much. I cannot say thank you enough for this conversation, and for the blogpost that even created the space for this conversation. I thank you for being so vulnerable and so transparent with your story. Thank you so much, Lietsel.
LJ: Thank you for giving me a platform and the space to be so open. It's been a very special time to talk about it, and somewhat healing. I feel... I feel like my heart is becoming whole day by day having walked away from the PhD, but I think being able to talk through it too, with someone who understands, is always very... I dunno… nice.
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