It’s Black History Month in the United States and Canada so for this month's episode, I’m delighted to share the story of a young woman who will likely be in our history books one day. Emmanuella Bassey is currently a final-year undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in French. She first fell in love with neuroscience as a high-school student participating in NeuroCamp, an outreach program run by Rice University's Neuroscience Society. Years later, Emmanuella is now preparing for the next step in her academic career, a two-year Master’s program in France, where she plans to study cancer biology. Afterwards, she will return to the US for medical school, with the hopes of specializing in pediatric neurology or a maternal-fetal medicine.
We decided to title this episode Faith for two reasons: 1) to acknowledge the pivotal role that her faith plays in her everyday life, and 2) to pay homage to the unshakeable faith that Emmanuella’s mentors and community have in her as she pursues her goals and dreams.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Emmanuella Bassey: As a scientist, something that I've learned is that you kind of have to roll with the punches in a sense, because 99.9% of the time, whatever you put your hand to, it might not work. It might not come to fruition. The important thing is that you go back, you troubleshoot, you say, 'Okay, what did I do? What can I learn from it and how can I take that into my future to be better for whatever it is I'm trying to accomplish?'
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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 Emmanuella Bassey, an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin currently completing her BSc in Neuroscience with a minor in French. Emmanuella is most famous for her role as the social media coordinator for Black In Neuro, a grassroots organization that fosters community and connection between Black neuroscientists around the world. She's also the President of BIPOC, Because Inquiry Propels Our Curiosity, which aims to support and celebrate scientists of color. I'm thrilled to be chatting with Emmanuella today about her ongoing research and her ongoing outreach projects, but let's start from the very beginning—Emmanuella, what's your story?
EB: Where do I begin? I think I'll take a little trip back in time to the summer of 2019. I had freshly graduated high school [and] was a bit on the fence on what my major should be for college. I came across this program at Rice that was giving high school graduates or people that were [still] in high school exposure to different fields of neuroscience. It was a three-day camp and I was like, 'Okay, I don't know what'll come of this, but let's just go.' And by the end of it, I kid you not, I was like, 'I have to study the brain. This is so cool!' I got to dissect a cow's eye, got to see what capsaicin tasted like and how that deals with our sensory receptors on the tongue. It was just such a myriad of wonderful experiences all encompassed into three days. I think that's where my love for neuroscience really blossomed and was birthed. Then going into college, I was like, 'Okay, I want to be pre-med because the ultimate goal is pursuing either an MD or an MD-PhD.' And I think at the beginning part of college, I don't think I was as outgoing or as explorative as I am now, I would say, but I got my first try at research through a program called the Freshman Research Initiative at my university. From there the sky was the limit and I've been doing research ever since, which was super cool.
Something I've really appreciated about all of the research experiences I've had up until now is how supportive everyone has been of me, in regards to my PIs (principal investigators) and other students I've learned from. I started off doing lots of electrophysiology data analysis for the Fmr1 knockout mouse model of autism we were working with at the time. And then that summer, wow, what a time, because that was the first time I got to do machine learning and behavior as well, since the lab is a neurodevelopmental lab specifically focusing on autism and how different social deficits and behavioral deficits can arise as a result of any genetic mutation or knockouts of the gene. The summer of 2021, I got to do corner social corner object assays, seeing if the mouse was attracted to either a novel mouse in its corner or a novel object, and then [I] subsequently helped out with establishing the pipeline of behavior in our lab, which meant going from the assays to analysis through either a software called EthoVision or DeepLabCut, which is a Python-based software we're trying to get up and running.
I would say it was a really interesting time because my PI is the kind of person that really wanted us to be able to take something tangible away from our experiences. And as a scientist, something that I've learned is that you kind of have to roll with the punches in a sense, because 99.9% of the time, whatever you put your hand to, it might not work. It might not come to fruition. The important thing is that you go back, you troubleshoot, you say, 'Okay, what did I do? What can I learn from it and how can I take that into my future to be better for whatever it is I'm trying to accomplish?' That was probably one of the most valuable lessons I learned that summer.
This past semester, in the fall, I got to complete a portion of my individual project and that was super cool because seeing what you're doing in the physical come to life data-wise, that wasn't something I'd gone through the entirety of doing. I'd always had little exposures and bits and tastes of what it was to produce a research project through different summer research internships I had done. I think it was really cool to see it all come together over the course of that semester and then be able to present it at SfN (the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting) in front of loads of people, was incredibly wild. Very grateful to have gotten the opportunity to do so.
AB: There's a lot that I want to ask you about the organizations that you're a part of [since] that's also another element to the work that you do. Before we do that, I don't know if you'll feel comfortable talking about this, but I also know that your faith is also really important to you.
AB: Can we talk about that, the role that your faith plays in your everyday life, keeping you grounded and keeping you whole and filled?
EB: Yeah, of course! Oh man, where do I begin? I just have to say it flat out: if it was not for God, I would not be where I am today. In every situation, everything that I end up going through in my life, He's always there. I'm never by myself. I'm always equipped. My name, Emmanuella, means 'God with us', so even if I do feel alone in a place, God is there. I'm never sent into a place without what I need.
I would say my faith and religion has really kept me grounded because when I think about the way the world is now and things that are happening, it's so easy to just get lost in the worrisome-ness of it, how things are happening left and right and it's like, 'How do I just be me in this world when I don't know what's gonna happen tomorrow?'
Here in college specifically, I'm a part of an organization known as Koinonia which is Greek for 'friendship' or 'fellowship'. I didn't start going to their services until my sophomore year because during COVID I just stayed inside and I was at home for a little bit, so it was just myself and my family praying at home, listening to YouTube sermons, just trying to keep our faith balanced in that respect without physically being in a church—I don't think you have to physically be in a church to feel the presence of God, but that's a whole other topic for another day. With Koinonia, [it's] having that accountability and that reference of what it means to live Christian life. The way they live their lives, it's still blows my mind to this day, and seeing the way that they really live out their faith unashamed for Christ is something that inspires me and just makes me want to keep going further. Of course, things that you're never prepared for in life come your way. They can catch you unaware but it's like, 'Okay, what am I going to hold onto now? Am I gonna hold onto the truth of Christ or am I going to let this situation completely overwhelm me and then not allow me to be who I'm called to be, the vessel I'm called to be, to be able to fulfill the will of God in my life?' I think that's pretty much the role.
It plays a pretty big role in my life. Every day when I wake up [I ask], 'How am I interacting with people? How am I taking on this thing? Have I talked to God about it?' I talk to God like He's physically next to me sometimes. I'll just be doing things and I'm like, 'God, man, honestly I don't know why I did that or how I should have responded to that, but you know, it's okay because you see and you're not blind.'
Something that I carry with me verse-wise: I really love Psalms a lot, a lot, a lot. A Psalm that recently I keep in my heart a lot.... Well, there's multiple. Ooh, let's see if I can choose <laugh>. I think I would choose Psalm 18. Oh, Psalm 46! Yeah, Psalm 46, Verse 10, which says, 'Be still and know that I am God.' The beginning of it says that God is an ever-present refuge, a place of refuge in time of trouble. That keeps me grounded. When I know the storms of life have come my way and I'm like, <sigh> 'What do I do?' Sometimes my first line of defense and my first reaction when things go awry or don't go how I would've envisioned them to go [is to] get anxious, I could get worried, but it's like, no, don't do that because God has already foresaw... Foreseen! Ooh, English. Foreseen <laugh> that event. And it just keeps me sane. I'm just like, 'You know what? I'm here. I'm God's vessel. Use me how you need to,' and I just continually pray that His will is being fulfilled in my life and every endeavor I put my hand into.
AB: That's beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing. I wasn't sure how deep you wanted to go but I know that it's something that's so important to you and you can see that light in your life in everything that you do.
EB: Thank you, wow!
AB: Oh, absolutely. I think anyone, anyone who meets you can attest to that. One of the themes that I was picking up on was community, in the group that you meet with, and also, I know family's really important to you as well. I think that's the perfect segue to talk about the two really amazing organizations that I know you're a part of. We can start with BIN (Black In Neuro). I love seeing the BIN team come together. I want to know what your experiences have been, especially as an undergraduate student, having this at your disposal. You have Black in Neuro right at the beginning of your illustrious career. Tell me about that!
EB: Yeah, it's so wild because I remember being on Twitter one day and then my PI [said to] me, 'Black in Neuroscience is an organization I think you should look into,' and I was like, 'Okay, cool!' I'd been following them for a while, and then I remember seeing a post about a call for organizers, 'join the team' and stuff. At the time I was serving as publicity officer for an organization known as UT Flo our UT First-year Leadership Organization, just doing social media stuff for them, posting on our Insta, letting the kids know when we have meetings and stuff like that. But I was like, 'I kind of want to continue doing publicity stuff.' I was going into my sophomore year at the time, taking things like O Chem, Genetics, Stats and I was like, 'I need a bit of a stress reliever in some way, shape, or form.'
For me at the time, I really liked using Canva—whoever made Canva, God bless them, <laugh>, they're doing the Lord's work in regards to making things accessible for people. But anyway, I wanted to make sure I still had a hand in the social media realm for a bit. I applied, got an interview. I was like, 'What the mess? Why did...? Who said yes to me?' <Laugh> Then I remember interviewing with Clíona (Kelly) and being so nervous, but she was so sweet and so awesome. And I felt like they all, upon entering the team, took me under their wing. Having not even met them in person, I felt so connected to the people they were and how real and authentic they were. I'd be laughing so hard during meetings, people were cracking jokes, sending memes, but we're all here to get the job done, which is creating space for Black excellence and the celebration of it in neuroscience.
AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.
EB: I think that's something that's been really awesome. Also, something that made me latch onto BIN was the fact that my university, the University of Texas at Austin, is a predominantly white institution. It's a PWI. Walking around, I don't see a lot of people that look like me. If I do, they're sometimes not students. Either they're working, doing professorship or doing something outside the realm of education. It's hard to find people that look like you and can understand the Black experience in academia and institutions. When I saw that there's a whole organization of people that look like me that also study neuroscience, that also want to make sure that neuroscience is accessible, I was like, 'Why am I not a part of this? Why am I not here?' And I've been with them ever since.
AB: And you're also a part of BIPOC, which I hadn't heard of until fairly recently. Please just tell me everything about it!
EB: BIPOC, we started up in May of 2021 and more officially in Fall 2021, and that's an organization especially geared towards creating research opportunities and accessibility to research opportunities for students on campus that identify as either Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Myself and the two under undergrads I founded it with, Marissa Marquez and Samantha Jackson—shout out to you guys, you guys are awesome—we realized that it's really hard finding research opportunities as an undergrad. Either you have to know someone or you have to have a sibling that tells you, 'Hey, make sure you go to this professor,' or 'go to this meeting' or 'join this org so you can get connected to the community in certain respects,' but no one just gives it to you for free, if that makes sense; it's not easily accessible. We identified the need for that, and [now] we have group chats where we send out resources for our members and then we also hold biweekly meetings that'll either be centered on personal statements, resume workshops, or how we [got] into research.
I think one of my favorite aspects of our organization in general is how we can pull from people that were with us from before, in regards to people that are doing things that we would've wanted to do or we want to do after finishing undergrad. Sometimes we'll have a panel or we'll have undergrads who are doing research speak, and then we'll have a postbacc, or a professor at UT come speak about their experiences and how they got into research. And PhD students of course, just having representation across the board. I think students really enjoy that because it shows that it is possible to have a career in research, and it is possible to be able to do this alongside your studies and your academics. It's really just a space for people to get plugged in and connected and get information they otherwise wouldn't have gotten if they had to go ask someone or seek it out from a professor or by any other means.
AB: I love that you're a part of paying it forward so soon. You're still at the very beginning—I shouldn't say very beginning. You're closer to the beginning than the end of your career <laugh> and you're already so conscious and aware that the next generation and the kids coming up after you will need all the support that you've gotten and that I've gotten. I think that's beautiful. I do want to ask a question about your future. What excites you most about your future?
EB: Ah, man. I think the thing that excites me most is that I'm getting to do what I want to do and do something I enjoy. I feel like in the past, when I've chosen academic endeavors, sometimes it's something I'm tangentially interested in, but no, I genuinely enjoy what I'm on my way to doing and it's like, 'Wow, I get to immerse myself in a whole new space, a whole new world essentially and just see how I blossom and grow from there.' Since I'm not immediately going to med school and stuff, knowing that the world is my oyster, and then getting to grow and sharpen from there is so exciting. And then the fact that I get to improve from my French, that's super cool! <Laugh>
AB: Let's talk about that! We haven't actually spoken about what you're going to be doing in between graduation and at school. Let's dive right into that. What is your plan?
EB: Yeah, absolutely. So, [I’m] getting my degree from UT in T minus three months, which is pretty crazy. Right after that, I'm going to start a Master's program in cancer biology in France, and do that for two years. After finishing that program, I plan on returning to the US and then applying for med school or MD-PhD programs, so still teeter tottering between that, and then hopefully being on track to being either a pediatric neurologist or a maternal-fetal medicine doctor.
AB: Okay, I have a somewhat big question...
EB: Yeah, <laugh>.
AB: If you could talk to the you that existed 10 years ago and tell her about all the things that you've accomplished, what do you think she would be most surprised to learn about you in 2023?
EB: Whoa. Who was she? <Laugh> She was a fifth grader at Jenkins Elementary. I think she'd be most surprised at how versatile who she is now is, if that makes sense. I never would've imagined myself in the spaces that I'm in today and I keep trickling back to language, but my parents, growing up, they'd speak English and Yoruba to us, but I could never reproduce Yoruba, so I was always just at the level of being able to understand but not contribute to conversation. Realizing now that languages are bridges to people and means of connecting and meeting people where they are, and the fact that I can communicate for the most part in a language that wasn't maternal to me, that's so mind blowing.
AB: That's amazing.
EB: Having exposure to languages at a young age is such a cool thing that I want to make sure is present for my kids and their kids. After giving the gift of God and the Gospel to one's kid, I feel like language, that's number two. You're equipping your kid to basically be a world citizen. Who else wouldn't like that, you know? So yeah, she'd be most surprised [that] I can speak and communicate [in French] and that she's lived in a foreign country before. Like, what? Who? What do you mean? This was someone whose parents did not think she'd be able to drive. They tell me every day, 'We didn't think that you could go from Point A to Point B on your own because you'd be scared of reversing.' Look at us now! We can go from city to city! <Laugh>
So yeah, she'd just be really surprised at how much she's broken out of her shell and just been so open to opportunities and things that come across her path.
AB: Aww! Alright, are you ready for my final question of the day?
AB: It's a bit of a big question as well; might as well go out strong, right? Who inspires you?
EB: Wow. There is definitely a myriad of people that inspire me. I would have to start with my family, just seeing their ability to remain grounded in the face of anything, and then simultaneously remain connected no matter the distance and be there for one another in every way, shape, and form is something that just keeps me going and makes me want to make sure I can be that kind of anchor within my family for the future. More specifically, my siblings and my parents. On that front... Man, my siblings, they're the funniest people you'll ever meet, but yet they continue to strive, achieve, surpass any expectations and silence their naysayers. And I'm like, 'Wow, I wanna be like them when I grow up' even though two of them are younger than me, and one of them is older than me. They're such cool people. Samuella, Miracle, Odudu, love you guys, seriously. They're such incredible people. My parents, also. They came from Nigeria in the late nineties and the way they've built up a life for themselves, apart from family, apart from connections, just from scratch, from the bottom, that inspires me to make sure I can give back to them one day and say thank you because they've invested so much into me and my siblings in total. There's four of us, and there's not one day that passes where my parents aren't like, 'Are you guys okay? Are you guys doing good?' It's just incredible. I'm very grateful for the people they are and the person they've raised me into being, because I don't think I would be the way I am without them.
Then segueing into another facet of those that inspire me. My mentors, I cannot not mention my mentors: people like you, Dr Marguerite Matthews, shout out to her!
AB: Eyyy! [claps]
EB: My PI, Dr Audrey Brumback, all my past PIs, I'm gonna name them: Dr Autumn Ivy, Dr Jaime De Juan-Sanz. And then my research educator, Dr Soo Hyun Yang, literally such great people that every day, every time, every interaction I have with them, I just think about how they are each reflections of who I want to be in the future. Also, Anjali Amrapali, Dr Mackenzie Howard, and my friends. They're [all] pieces of the puzzle that make up and encompass who I am in this very moment. From the various things I've learned from them, various exchanges we've had, thinking back I'm like, wow, I'm not just lucky, but I'm very blessed and grateful to have been able to cross paths with people like that because finding people that are on your team and want to make sure you get to the finish line of your life journey in regards to career aspirations, that's so cool and so unique to be able to say that one has. I really appreciate them all. I wish I could give all of you hugs right now.
I would say for the last leg of people that inspire me, I keep tying it back to language, but language learners— oh man! Recently, I met someone at the French language circle that I'm a part of that speaks three languages: French, English and Japanese, and is currently trying to learn Spanish. And I'm like, 'How is your brain keeping all of this compartmentalized and in check? How are you getting the motivation to continue? How do you get past fatigue of learning or demotivation from learning?' That just motivates me to keep going because I'm in the process of trying to master my second language, but there's people out here with five languages under their belt. That's so cool, because that means that in certain spaces you're in, you're able to understand why people act the way they do, what makes them smile, what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, and you're able to insert yourself into conversation in a way and see people for who they are. That just constantly inspires me to just keep going.
Fingers crossed, after I've quote unquote "mastered French"—whatever that means—I want to go into learning either Spanish because Spanish is a very prevalent language here in Texas, in the US, and in medicine. And then this is the ultimate goal: Japanese, even though it's a language based on characters. There's nothing that I put my mind to that God has not equipped me to be able to do. And if I could speak one language in this amount of time, why not try others? Even if I fail, at least I'll know phrases.
Being able to cross worlds through the bridges that languages are is something that I wanna be able to do more of in the future.
AB: I think that's one of the main things that you'll be able to accomplish very quickly in your time in France. I feel like within the first six months you're going to be so beyond fluent, you won't even believe it yourself! You'll just be like, 'Who is this woman?'
EB: <laugh> Fingers crossed!
AB: I think it's going to be a wonderful experience for you. I'm so honored that you would even consider me one of your mentors! On behalf of your mentors, I just want to say we pour into you because of how amazing you are at the start. You alone are enough, right? And you're spectacular. We want to just be a small part of your journey into wherever you go next. We know that it's going to be amazing. We just want to make sure that we can hold your hand if you ever need it to get to that point in time. We adore you, we appreciate you, and we see you for exactly who you are. And I just want to say thank you for chatting with me.
EB: Thank you for welcoming me with such open arms. Something I forgot to touch on was meeting you for the first time: that's a core memory! Please know that is a core memory. I remember it was the diversity poster session at SfN this past year, and we were walking around. I think I was walking with Clíona and then I see you from across the room. And I was like, 'Oh my gosh, is that who I think it is?' I kind of made another lap around the posters because I was like, 'I don't know if I have the courage to walk up to you yet.' And then afterwards, I think you were talking with Dr Matthews.
AB: I was!
EB: And <laugh> I went up to and you're like, 'Do you know who I am?' I was like, 'Do I? Do I?!' It was so great, oh man. Remember the Brain Observatory we got to go to and just see various facets of neuroscience art? Like, can you imagine stuff like that's in existence? Such a great day.
AB: It was! And then following up with the Black in Neuro social, which was... It was one of those things that you just carry with you beyond that week, beyond that month. It was a beacon of light. If you're ever feeling down and you're like, 'Wait, do I have people? Do I have someone? Yeah, I do have people.' And that feels amazing.
Thank you; I won't keep you any longer than necessary because I know you're a busy, busy woman!
EB: Thank you, Dr Bashir! Aww, I'm gonna go cry about this later because this was so wholesome and sweet.
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