19: Imposter Syndrome: just "anxiety with a different name" and making your female voice more powerful...without yelling

Imposter syndrome and mental health

Approximate Timestamps

1: She’s a Google Women Techmaker Scholar.

5: Still, she suffered/suffers from math anxiety because of a harsh teacher in middle school.

8: Having low confidence despite winning three hackathons

13: She shares experiences with academic and workplace harassment as a woman and minority in tech.

“Imposter’s syndrome—that’s anxiety; just with a different name.”

19: Developing the ability to advocate for yourself and using your voice as a woman to better advocate for yourself.

14: Talking to Mariam about clinical neuropsychology, mindfulness, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


(Approximate?) Timestamps:

13:00 Why did Mariam choose a PhD over a PsyD?

16:00 What drew Mariam to neuroscience?

20:00 I talk about the Gut-Brain link. And about a book about perfume and smell and how that drew me to the study of the brain (episode #001 explains the latter more).

24:00 I ask her about her involvement in a study that looked at stress in individuals whose cancer went into remission.

30:00 What is “mindfulness disposition?”

36:00 How many studies did she help conduct in undergrad and what was it about her lab experience that inspired her to pursue grad school?

39:00 What made it hard for me to figure out whether I wanted to be in medical school or graduate school.

42:00 I talked about when I shadowed a doctor and asked a Parkinson’s disease neurologist why she chose med school over a PhD. Also, I bring up the work-life balance conundrum that can manifest in academia versus industry.

45:00 I talk about my YouTube-binging videos about people who dropped out of grad school. I ask Mariam if she knows anyone who has.

47:00 I ask Mariam how important she thinks mentor-suitability is in grad school on a 1-10 scale.

51:00 I ask how one would find out who’d be more or less suitable as a mentor before deciding on a program. Exact or nearly exact question: “Is there a network or something?”

56:00 I ask about graduate school unions.

58:00 I ask Mariam whether graduate school has been harder than undergrad.

1:01 Has it been easier for Mariam to form networks and friendships in grad school versus undergrad?

1:09 I ask about her graduate school application process, specifically what she thinks the strongest and weakest points of her application were?

1:10 How long did I have to explicitly prepare for the GRE?

1:13 Are the mental health issues associated with grad school over-hyped?

1:15 Mariam’s professional ambitions?

1:17 Have her family and friends criticized her for being in grad school given the potential it has to restrict other parts of someone’s life, e.g. personal relationships?

1:21 I shout-out Muslim Women of Color Conquer Grad School, a group initiated, at least partly, by Amelia Noor-Oshiro.

1:22 Has being Muslim impacted her academic and professional life?

1:29 Mariam talks about working with veterans and having worked with active duty military personnel.

1:31 Mariam talks about operating as a therapist to veterans as part of her clinical neuropsychology program.

1:36 Therapy can be difficult for the patient, but has Mariam, as a therapist, experienced emotional suffering given the traumatic experiences she hears about?

12: A conversation with Jenna Chia about her going to America's top party school, why Finland is an education leader, the taboo topic that is college debt, and so much more

The Skiveo Podcast


We discuss why Jenna Chia attended UW Madison, America's top party school (as of 2017), the differences between education in Northern Europe and the US, why Finland is an education leader, cultural differences in workplace work ethics, the neurobiology of decision-making in humans on the verge of deciding whether or where to go to college (high school seniors), the personal reason behind my choice of Princeton, what some colleges neglect discussing on tours and visits, why college tuition in the U.S. is so high despite billions of dollars of state funding, the percentage of students that actually work in a job relevant to their college major, the taboo topic that is college debt, and so much more.

Approximate time stamps:

2:55 Jenna Chia, now in Norway, discusses how long it took her to graduate, what she double-majored in, the size of her school, UW-Madison in Wisconsin, and how it made her feel compared to high school. I talk about the size of Princeton and how I think it makes some or all Princetonians feel.

6:45 Expectations: we both took the traditional four-year college paths (even though it took me five years to graduate and Jenna, 3.5). We talk about who we were in high school and our college application process.

14:15 The academic atmosphere in Northern Europe.

19:30 Cultural differences in the perception of productivity.

23:00 Why each of us chose the colleges we attended.

28:00 Our dream schools, i.e. the colleges we didn't attend.

30:00 The neurobiology of decision-making and why it seems counterproductive to correctly deciding about college when you're a young adult.

37:00 We start a discussion about...debt.

45:00 Why exactly is college tuition so steep? What the research indicates.

48:00 Alternatives to starting college immediately after graduating high school.

51:00 What do you gain from college tours and visits?

54:00 Why did Jenna cancel every class except Calculus?

1:06 A second collaboration?

Some of what was mentioned:

Antonio Damasio's patient

Student transfer rate

Underdeveloped brain

State higher ed funding

2018 information on state higher ed funding

College graduation rate

James M. Lang on his daughter's college journey

Katherout on what some college YouTubers don't talk about

Sean Wes on his "no debt" policy

Percentage of college graduates with a major-relevant career

Michael Moore-documentary about the education in Finland

Apparent truth about the happiness-productivity relationship

Party school rankings

Princeton's financial aid

Dramatic drop in elite higher ed representation of latinos and blacks

Tim Ferriss' "The 4-Hour Work Week"

11: Interviewing Anna from Indiana: why men should care about sexism in STEM, the point of the Ivy League, the fallacies of AI, and interning at Amazon (Part 2/2)

10: Interviewing Anna from Indiana: Mental Health at Cornell and Princeton, TA-ing a weed-out computer science course, microaggressions, and why women are not intrinsically inept at STEM (Part 1/2)


Approximate timestamps:

4:30 The most important lesson Anna learned at Cornell?

6:23 What may have been the hardest time in Anna's life and what Anna and I have in common.

8:00 What would Anna call the worst aspect of Cornell?

9:30 I mention how that worst aspect has not been the case at Princeton.

16:00 What was Anna from Indiana's worst class at Cornell?

20:00 Anna explains teaching a CS (Computer Science) class at Cornell. 

25:00 Anna explains a sexist comment made by a female CS TA towards a female CS student.

28:00 How female competition could undermine the evolution of tech.

31:00 We discuss why the departure of women from tech and STEM is unrelated to the claim that women are intrinsically incapable of performing well in STEM. (Spoiler: I bring up actual research that shows our departure has zero relationship with innate dumbness.)



References (parts 1 and 2):

"How walking in nature changes the brain"

Nature and memory

Mahazarin Banaji on "diversity training"

"Racially diverse companies outperform industry norms by 35%"

Helping others helps you

"The Confidence Gap"

The Silent Rise of the Female Driven Economy

Men are perceived as more innovative (but in this study women actually are and across 8/8 measure of innovation)

"'Belonging' can help keep talented female students in STEM classes"

Inferior: How science got women wrong and the new research that's rewriting the story

Joy Buolamwini (author of "AI, ain't I a woman" mentioned in part 2)

"Amazon's facial recognition wrongly identifies 28 lawmakers, A.C.L.U says"

"Technology's Man Problem"

"Facial Recognition is accurate, if you're a white guy"

8: The economic advantage of women, interning at startups, the infamous "confidence gap," and female programmers ending World War II (Part 2/3)


A transcript may appear here. Follow @codingsisters on instagram! Trust me, it's worth it.


"Want a More Innovative Company? Simple: Hire A More Diverse Workforce"

"The Confidence Gap"

"The Silent Rise of the Female Driven Economy"

"Men are perceived as more innovative (but women actually are)"

"'Belonging' can help keep talented female students in STEM classes"

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy


7 not 6: The economic advantage of women, interning at startups, the infamous "confidence gap," and female programmers ending World War II

Guess which introvert had her first guests?!

Okay, obviously it was me.

A transcript may appear here. Follow @codingsisters on instagram! Trust me, it's worth it.

References (parts 1 and 2):

"Want a More Innovative Company? Simple: Hire A More Diverse Workforce"

"The Confidence Gap"

"The Silent Rise of the Female Driven Economy"

"Men are perceived as more innovative (but women actually are)"

"'Belonging' can help keep talented female students in STEM classes"

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy


5: Preprints, depression- and anxiety-causing gut bacteria, vegans, and comparing myself to Einstein

Show notes may potentially appear here and/or a more respectable bibliography.

a preprint getting Slavov a slew of potential jobs: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/09/are-preprints-future-biology-survival-guide-scientists

gluten and Alzheimer's:

Celiac disease: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/792544

gluten sensitivity: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2896%2990540-1/abstract

neurodegenerative disorders that present and don't typically present with olfactory dysfunction: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/mds.10379

PD = 2nd most prevalent neurodegenerative disease: https://parkinsonsnewstoday.com/parkinsons-disease-statistics/

Is PD an olfactory disease, not a motor one?: https://academic.oup.com/qjmed/article/92/8/473/1563212

denervation of dopaminergic SNc neurons in Parkinson's disease relatives: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ana.20160

paraquat-exposure and Parkinson's disease: https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/169/8/919/100368

depression and anxiety from bacteria in your gut: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00213-014-3810-0

vegans are in a better mood?: https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/1475-2891-11-9

~90% human serotonin made by gut bacteria: https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(15)00248-2

gut bacteria and anxiety in rodents: https://microbiomejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40168-017-0321-3

Seanwes' statement about repeating the last six months of your life: https://www.youtube.com/user/seanwestv/videos?view=0&sort=dd&shelf_id=10

Einstein working in the Swiss patent office when he came out with his relativity theory: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-einstein-discovered-general-relativity-amid-war-divorce-and-rivalry/


3: Central vs. peripheral olfaction and what I did after tasting rejection...

Show notes:

The fidelity of this transcript to the episode is not 100% but I’ve read it and the podcast should be as clear, if not clearer, in this written form.

The Skiveo Podcast

This is a podcast about a young female. This is a podcast about a young, black, Muslim female's journey from the world of humanities to the world of science at Princeton and beyond because I graduated already. So...


Central versus peripheral olfaction and what I did after tasting rejection my first year out of Princeton. Is that Ursinus minor? No, that's Urscience minority.


[00:01:22] Even after this junior paper, my thesis... my thesis was such that my professor, that same professor, he read some of it and he called me on my phone. Basically, he said, "can I give you a job. I read your thesis..." He did say that some of it was garbage. And honestly, I knew when I submitted it, some of it was garbage.


[00:01:54] So, my writing that thesis was about to not happen. So, I knew when I submitted it that a good amount of it was nonsense because what I even had to do was pad my thesis.


[00:02:14] I had to take large chunks of my junior paper and put them in my thesis and cite myself.


[00:02:24] I've never cited myself before. And you were allowed to do that but I won't say it was frowned upon but it was obvious to anyone looking at your thesis that "oh, some of this is not original." So, the parts that he was impressed with and thought was fantastic enough to give me a job before I even graduated and was even thinking of applying to any job...


I was not even looking for a job, interested in a job...


[00:02:55] The original parts of my thesis were the parts that he was impressed with and that's what prompted him to call me and offer me a job before I even graduated. And of course, I don't know if I said, "yes" immediately. But I think after speaking with my parents they were like (verbatim, at least in sentiment and yes, I love my parents) "what's wrong with you, accept it." So...


[00:03:17] And you even maybe thinking, "what's wrong with you?" "Why didn't you... why did you... what do you mean you don't think that you said 'yes' immediately."


[00:03:23] The reason would not have been that I was ungrateful. It would have been that I was not interested in doing work ever again.


Ok. I was so uninterested in working that I was about to not graduate Princeton.


[00:03:45] I was about to not get a degree because the thesis is required for you to graduate. And I was not doing it. Literally not even a paragraph...weeks after weeks, months after months. OK. You think I'm joking, I'm not joking. I was... It was my parents, Alhamdullilah (thanks  be to God), who were like (i.e. verbatim, at least in sentiment) "no, you came this far. You literally have three weeks to graduation...just write it." So, honestly if it weren't for them, if it were up to me, I 99% guarantee you that either it would have been complete nonsense or nothing would have been submitted.


I mean that's all I can say. Anyway... So again, that's a second example of how I strengthened this relationship with this professor...by producing work that interested him so much that he reached out to me.


[00:04:43] If you're an introvert what you want to attempt to do is get the professor to reach out to you. To get a professor... you know professors are busy and have other demands on their life that are not just from their students.


[00:04:56] You have to do something remarkable. Again, if you're an extrovert, the professor doesn't have to reach out to you. You're an extrovert. You're going to go reach out to them. You're going to go form that relationship. If you're an introvert or if you're someone who wants to go the extra mile and you don't want the standard "oh, yes this person got an A+ in my class" letter. Then, you need to do something that prompts them to reach out to you. This first recommender has given me so many recommendations. I've lost count (of) how many times I've asked him for a recommendation. (And) he just gave me support because he was someone involved in graduate school admissions. So, (he) gave me advice about that, which I can share.


[00:05:37] So, my second recommender... Really, my second and third recommenders are not from Princeton; they're from the University of Pennsylvania.


[00:05:49] UPenn. So, my second recommender, she was the professor of a summer class I took at Penn in their post-bacc (post-baccalaureate) pre-med program. But it's also pre-dental, pre-veterinary...So, it's not just pre-med.


[00:06:07] I'm not recommending it. I'm just telling you that it's not purely pre-med.


[00:06:11] I would recommend you going hard in your science classes the first time around.


I would not recommend doing a post-bacc. Obviously, if you graduated with a history degree and you realized, "oh, I need to help people who don't have sufficient access to medical care and I want to be THAT person."


Obviously, you're going to need to go do a post-bacc program. You don't have any prerequisites. But people who already know that they want to do science when they're in undergrad. Please, please, take your science classes as seriously as humanly possible.


[00:06:51] And here's a tip that a therapist. Build a habit. She didn't say "build a habit." But at least for me there were... I don't even know how many times where I didn't feel like studying for my biochemistry exam.


And so, I would watch TV. I would watch TV and not study for this exam. OK.


[00:07:20] If you knew me before Princeton, you know that I was someone that when there was something to study for you don't see me playing any games. It's not funny. I'm not laughing. I'm not smiling. You don't see me messing around.


[00:07:37] So, for me to tell you that it got to the point where I would watch TV... I wasn't even a TV person. When I was in high school...when I was young, I was a book person. That might explain why I got a perfect score on the SAT critical reading section and the SAT essay.


[00:08:00] I was someone who read books.


I don't even know the number of hours a day I would spend reading books. But that was my thing. My thing wasn't TV. When I was young (I'm 25 now), iPads, iPhones, laptops... The technology that we have now that didn't exist when I was 6, 7, 8, 9, (or) 10 years old.


[00:08:20] And so, there wasn't even an opportunity for me to become obsessed with that stuff. The thing that we had when I was young was TV. But even that I would do like as a treat (none of this was parent-enforced). It wasn't something that was my go-to.


So, for me to tell you that I had a biochemistry exam and I'm watching TV instead of studying. You know that someone whose previous behavior was such that they didn't even...they weren't even a TV watcher. They (I) got into Princeton. They (I) got into every college they applied to, except Harvard where they were wait-listed. That's a shift in behavior...This is what you've got to do.


[00:09:05] You're never going to feel like studying for that exam. You're never going to feel like doing X. You just have to start doing it.


[00:09:15] Just go start. Just pick up the pen. Open the book. Get the practice problems. Get the pencil. Get the notebook. Just start writing.


Just start doing it.


[00:09:30] So that's my advice for people who are still in college and like hate their science classes, their STEM classes and are maybe suffering from disorders that make it harder for them to feel motivated and pay attention and grind.


[00:09:51] Just start doing it. I've found--just from my own experiences in life and I'm not even... I sound like I'm 80 years old but I'm not--


[00:10:08] If you just form the habit of doing something. You just show up. You just show up. You show up to a certain place in the library with your biochemistry book even when you don't feel like it and you commit to staying there for at least one hour before giving up and going back to your dorm and you do that every Tuesday, Thursday, (and) Sunday (and) you do that for the entire semester, you'll find that even on the Tuesday when you don't feel like going to the library you're prepared to go to the library. If you just build the habit, it can take the place of willpower. Having a habit can substitute for willpower. If you're depressed, you probably don't have willpower. You need to go build the habit. If you're someone who procrastinates like crazy, build the habit of showing up. There's a book by Charles Duhigg called "The Power of Habit."


So that's my recommendation.


[00:11:06] But my second recommender... So, I took her summer course, and this was an online course.


And I got an A in this class. This was the way that I got my foot in the door...


When I asked her, "oh, could you write me a strong letter of recommendation?" (Not exactly in that way.)


So, she said (verbatim in sentiment at least), "okay, let's meet."


[00:11:25] So, I met with her and she was one of the few people who, after I asked them for a letter of recommendation, didn't just say "yes" knowing in their mind, I'm just going to write a standard letter. I'm just going to write the letter that I write for everyone else.


[00:11:42] She really was genuinely interested and committed to writing a letter that was unique to me. And I think that's why she wanted to meet with me.


[00:11:50] The first letter I wanted was for a science apprenticeship program at Monell (Monell Chemical Senses Center) in Philadelphia. Monell is the Smell and Taste Institute in Philadelphia.


[00:12:06] Basically, the way I strengthened this relationship... it was through these meetings I had with her because I went back to her again for another letter of recommendation for a scholarship. Then I went to her again for a letter of recommendation for another program. I had to meet with her multiple times and each time I met with her (the relationship became stronger). And my meeting with her was non-negotiable. When she said (verbatim in sentiment), "okay, meet with me." She didn't mean it (as) a suggestion. She meant it (as) "I have to meet with you." Because I replied one time saying (figuratively saying), "oh... well... blah blah blah blah blah blah" (to weasel my way out of a novel social interaction). Because I would...do something stupid like that. But then she responded (not verbatim), "no... let's figure something out."


[00:12:42] So. that's how I strengthened my relationship with this professor, which is the conventional way that I kind of belittled... (...(couldn't figure out the appropriate word choice), let's just say belittled, at the beginning of this...


[00:12:53] But the thing that's unique is that I didn't have to say "oh, can we set up a meeting." Because (as) I said, I'm deeply shy. She was the one who reached out to me because she was genuinely interested in writing a serious letter of recommendation and not just the standard letter that some professors will write for you, if you just got a high grade in their class. So, it was through these meetings that she learned more about me and gained more material to use to flush out the letters that she wrote for me.


[00:13:25] So, my advice: The lesson I draw from this is that if you have a STEM professor who's very willing to meet with you one or more times to learn about you for one recommendation letter, that's a good sign that that person wants to write you a strong letter of recommendation. So, basically try to learn whether that professor is someone who would write you a serious letter of recommendation. What I learned when I was in Princeton is that it's not enough to ask a professor, "oh, can you write me a letter of recommendation."


[00:13:55] I mean it is, if you don't care what they write. But I learned that the better question to ask is, can you write me a strong letter of recommendation. Because if someone knows already "oh, I don't know you that well" or "I'm not going to have a lot of time to get to know you," they're not going to reply, "yes, I can write you a strong letter."


They know from the e-mail that you're looking for someone legit.


So, I feel like decent people won't say yes "I'm going to write you a strong letter" when they know already that they're not going to take any extra steps to make sure your letter is unique or especially powerful.


[00:14:38] But if you say, "oh, can you write me a letter of recommendation?"


[00:14:42] Pretty much any professor will say "yes" to that because that doesn't require a lot from them. Maybe they wrote a letter for someone two days ago and they are going to take that letter and stick your name in it and hand that in and be like "yep, I wrote you a letter of recommendation."


[00:14:57] You don't know. I'm not saying that professors do that. I'm just saying theoretically they could just go off of a form that they have. They could just have a template. They could just not put in any unique effort for you because you just asked the basic question:


"Can you write me a letter of recommendation?"


[00:15:20] So, my third recommender: The lessons I draw from this, I think are going to be more useful. So, I need to first start with how we even came into contact with one another because technically it wasn't supposed to happen.


[00:15:53] Now, in this post-bacc program I needed a class that was a specialized science class because I already had the pre-med requirements.


[00:16:08] And when you're in this program, you either go one of two routes: the basic science route or the specialized studies route. The point is that the basic science route is for people who have never taken any pre-med requirements so they just need to take all the prerequisites whereas the specialized studies route is for people who took the prerequisites and maybe they need to repeat one or two, but the bulk of their courses are going to be new science courses to show, "oh, I can do science. I can think like a scientist or I can think like a veterinarian." And this route is for people who need a stronger science GPA. Because (they) didn't do so hot in all of their pre-med requirements. So, their science GPA is lower than they want. They need it to be more competitive.


So, I'm looking for a specialized science class to take and there's restrictions for people in the post-bacc program. It counts as an undergrad program, but you're not given preference (over the traditional undergrads). There's only certain departments whose classes you can definitely enroll in.


[00:17:24] But if you wanted to do a class in a department that they don't normally let post-bacc students take classes in (in which they don't normally let post-bacc students take classes), you would have to fill out a form to submit to the director of the post-bacc program and maybe she would say "yes," (i.e. agree, not literally say, "yes") to your request. You have to have a compelling reason (to add to your form). I found this computational biology class. The compelling reason that I had was that because I was a molecular biology major at Princeton (and) because I had already taken my pre-med requirements, the science classes that they were offering to the post-bacc students were not really different from what I had already learned as a Molecular Biology major. And so, my argument was that it doesn't make sense for me to take a Genetics class or a Genetics-related class again. What they were providing to me as a post-bacc student was not unique. If I wanted to apply to a program after them and that program looked at my post-bacc courses and my undergrad courses, they would just be like "oh, why are you repeating so many things?"


[00:18:37] And the goal of this program was to get you into a school.


So, I got the approval for this class, that was honestly outside of my comfort zone because it combined math and biology. But I knew that computational biology was the future or is the future of medicine and science because of the breadth of data that exists in these fields.


You need a computer. A human being is not sufficient to make sense of all of it.

So, that's why I wanted to take this class. But the class was full and when I somehow was able to get into a class despite it being full, I was surprised. But then I knew, "OK. I already missed a week."


[00:19:40] Now, you know if you already missed a week... I may have even missed up to two weeks. So, I emailed the professor.


[00:19:51] And (I should note) there were other classes that I was considering because I didn't know for sure if I would be able to do this Computational Biology class.


(So, I had I had contacted other professors. The professor of this computational biology class was the only one who responded but maybe the others had legitimate reasons for not responding.)


[00:20:12] We scheduled a meeting so that he could tell me what I missed. I remember my dad drove me to Philadelphia (and) dropped me off in front of his building. (He and I were sharing a car.) It was September, but the building was locked because you need a card, a student ID card to enter the building. And because I was a post-bacc student and the semester had just started and my only class in the program was an online class at that point, I didn't have a student card. I never went to the student card-making office to get a student ID card. So, basically as a hijabi and a black woman, I had to ask random people (verbatim at least in sentiment), "can you get me into this building?" I found someone who was smoking near the building. For some reason, it looked like he was someone who had access to the building. And so, I asked him (the same or a similar question) and he let me in. I went to the professor's room but there was a sign saying that something had come up and he couldn't meet with me until an hour later. So, basically, I'm walking around this lab... not a particular person's lab. The building was a building for laboratories. So, each floor had however many labs and there were common areas where you could sit on a couch, use a microwave, go to the water cooler... I found one common area and set up my stuff (and) my laptop. I got out my notes because I was trying to understand the notes that this professor put up for the first week of class. And I was just... (It was very clear that I was in a different territory.) I mean the notes were making sense, but I could tell that it was very very very very very possible that I would not be able to do this class because the notes were so technical... You know how classes that are technical... At the beginning, it seems like "oh, OK, I can handle this" but because they're so technical and it's its own field, you know that as you progress in this class, it's possible it will become more and more difficult just because for any technical field at the very beginning it will seem simple because they're not trying to inundate you with every single detail but obviously as you progress, more and more details are coming at you that you need to know to build a foundation of knowledge on which you add more things that you need to know.


[00:23:26] That's the impression I was getting from these notes. (The impression) was "OK, I'm understanding it now but it's possible that I'm not going to understand future notes." So, however long a period of time passes...


[00:23:40] People may assume that when you're wearing hijab, you're comfortable wearing it and it's not that I wasn't comfortable. It's just that I still very much had anxiety about interacting with people in it. Because you just never know. If you're a hijabi, you just don't know, especially if you're meeting someone for the first time. Self-talk that never consciously took place: OK, I have to wear this hijab and I'm not wearing it for people. At the same time...


[00:24:28] So, I met with this professor in his office. And one of the first questions he asked me, if not the first question... And I should note that this (interaction went) the second way. This went the way of "oh, your hijab doesn't bother me." It was almost as if he didn't recognize that it was hijab or that I was Muslim. It seemed to me that he thought oh I'm just wearing this. And as a black hijabi...if there's any black hijabis out there, do you ever feel like your Muslim identity is not as obvious. I feel like it takes longer for people to deeply understand that I'm Muslim.


[00:25:27] It's almost as if (the combination of my hijab with) my blackness is disarming. I was reading a book because I took a social psychology class at Princeton because for a moment there I was considering majoring in Psychology. (I laugh.) I'm not laughing because that's a bad idea. I'm just laughing because if you listened to me up until this point, you're probably thinking "dang, this girl was considering pre-med and then she was like 'no, I don't want to be a pre-med.' And then she was like 'I want to be a writer. I want to be a journalist.'" And now she's talking about Psychology and she's talking about Comparative Literature and she's talking about English and she's talking about Mol Bio (Molecular Biology) and then she's talking about grad school..." So, that's why I'm laughing.


[00:26:04] Anyway, one of the books I had to read for this class, "Whistling Vivaldi." V-I-V-A-L-D-I. And it's called "Whistling Vivaldi" because there was a moment in the book where a person was walking down the street. There was this elderly white couple walking near him and he could feel... he could feel them becoming nervous because he was black.


[00:26:34] And so what he did (was) he started whistling Vivaldi--Vivaldi is a classical composer (no, I don't listen to music)--to send the signal to them that he's educated, he's not threatening. (Whistling) to send the message (that) I'm not violent. I'm not going to hurt you because I'm black. I speak the language that you speak.


[00:26:55] That's why it's weird for me (as a black hijabi). You would think being black would not be something that disarms people. Some people get nervous or violent or ignorant or implicitly racist.


[00:27:35] One of the first questions he asked me was (verbatim at least in sentiment) "how did you get into this class. It was closed." And we basically were almost laughing (i.e. were really amused; I chuckled, and he was smiling, if not also chuckling) about this because to this day I still don't understand. This class was closed. And he's a computer person. So, if anyone you know between the two of us could have come up with an idea for how that happened, I feel like it would have been him.


[00:28:01] Then he wanted to know about me because he learned that I was in the post-bacc program (so) I wasn't in the regular undergraduate program. I told him I graduated from Princeton at that time around two years ago and I went into more detail about my intellectual journey (to neuroscience). And I remember I was describing central olfaction. And central olfaction is different from peripheral olfaction because peripheral olfaction involves the odorant receptors in the nasal neuroepithelium. That part of olfaction you would call peripheral olfaction because it involves neurons that are peripheral to the central nervous system, which consists of your brain and your spinal cord. Central olfaction... So, I'm not going to get into a long explanation.


[00:28:57] The neurons in the neuroepithelium or I guess neuroepithelial  cells in the neuroepithelium of your nose that hold the odorant receptors, the proteins that recognize odorants (their) axons "impinge on" either a mitral cell or a tufted cell. These cells, they're not cells, they're neurons, exist in this structure called the olfactory bulb.


If you take your middle finger and your index finger over your nose on your eyebrows, your olfactory bulbs are there; and your olfactory bulb is a part of your brain.


It's not exposed to the external world like (the) neuroepithelial cells in your nose are. And so that's what I mean (or anyone means) when I (they) say central olfaction.


[00:29:51] So, I was describing something that had to do with central olfaction. And then he said (verbatim at least in sentiment), "oh, don't you mean..." He thought (that) what I was describing (that) I got it wrong, (that) the correct context of what I was describing was peripheral olfaction but because I did all this work I knew that it was in the context of central olfaction. So, I had to clarify (it) to him (verbatim, at least in sentiment), "no, peripheral olfaction is a separate system." And he was not offended by this clarification. It seemed as if he was impressed on some level that I even had the knowledge to correct him.


[00:30:35] I (also) told him about how I decided to apply to the post-bacc program. And why I decided to apply was because... Ironically, I was someone who got into every college/university I applied to when I was in high school, except Harvard where I was wait-listed, but was rejected from every graduate school I applied to from undergrad. So...


[00:31:06] My professor or my supervisor, (my) adviser (who was) mentioned at the beginning (of this episode), he thought that the reason for this rejection or these rejections was the fact that my lab experience, my bench experience was minimal. Very minimal.


[00:31:27] And it's not that I didn't believe him because from stalking forums or groups online, I learned that's a good number of people (who were) applying to graduate school (at the same time as me), if not everyone whose stats I read, had dope bench experience. They were not playing around. But, I thought to myself, "oh, I have these really excellent ideas. I came up with these original models..." I mean I thought that would be sufficient, not sufficient but I thought that they (admissions committees) would appreciate the intellectual curiosity and power that I demonstrated as an undergraduate student and the lab experience that I didn't have wouldn't be that huge a factor or be that big a point against me. And in my mind, I was thinking "oh, it's graduate school. Don't I go to graduate school to get lab experience." But for anyone who is not near that applying to graduate school stage, it's not like that. You need to have that experience. First of all, from a pragmatic point of view, if you don't know if you like or can hack long-term lab projects, it doesn't make sense, to me at least, to commit to graduate school because graduate school is 6, 7, 5, (and maybe even) 8 years. It's a long time. So, if you just apply and you don't even know if you're someone who has the fortitude or desire to commit to projects that may not necessarily be in line with what you want to ultimately do, you are at a disadvantage compared to someone who has had a year or two of experience and has learned that they can tolerate being lowly paid labor for someone else's professional and/or academic ambitions.


[00:33:51] So, he thought it was because I didn't have...really any serious lab experience. That's what my professor or supervisor thought. I thought it was that and also the fact that my GPA, especially my science GPA was not nearly as strong as some of the people who I saw applying to either similar or the same exact programs as me. I thought (at least verbatim in sentiment), "okay, I need to go take more science classes." So, that's how my applying to the post-bacc program happened. And also, I thought (verbatim at least in sentiment),"there's professors there. There's a biology department there. It's the University of Pennsylvania, which has such a strong medicine and science-driven academic environment. In fact, the friend (not like that) I mentioned whose graduating GPA was a 3.99. He had to apply to 70 or around 70 positions until he finally got word back from two places. And one of them was UPenn; (he received an offer for) a lab tech position at UPenn. Yes, to me also, it was crazy that someone with that high a GPA and with the credentials that he had had to look for so long for one position.


So, that's why I even applied to this program (because of those rejections). So, I was explaining to this professor that one of the things I wanted to do to get into graduate school or an MD./Ph.D program was to join a lab so that I could gain experience.


[00:35:42] And then he asked (verbatim in sentiment), "oh, have (you) had any luck?"


And I basically said, which is true, that it was hard to find a position (because) anyone knows that if you don't have any experience (some groups are extremely reluctant to become the first place you gain experience).


[00:35:55] So, the response of this professor was (verbatim in sentiment at least), "OK. If you still can't find a position, drop me a note (meaning send him an email) and I can give you a spot in my lab." (The "drop me a note" was verbatim because I never heard anyone talk about email in those terms before, so the phrase stuck with me.) And (then) he was explaining (the caveat) that the work his lab focuses on is different from what I want to do. (The position was wonderful; and I still reminisce about it but it was not paid. However, in another episode I plan/want to discuss the importance of unpaid work.) Then eventually we did talk about the week or so that I had missed already and whether I thought, based on the notes that I started reading, I could catch up or even stay in this class. He (explained) that it's not an easy class (but he made it seem doable).


[00:36:38] (After the meeting,) I went back out to the lounge area open to the hallway. The problem was that... Isa G's "Going Home" plays: "...looking for happiness and losing it to feeling lost. So, I'm walking on the path..."


2: The advantage of being black and useless in the lab

Show notes:

The fidelity of this transcript to the audio is not 100%. The podcast should be as clear, if not clearer, in this written form, excluding small parts not transcribed from the audio.

The Skiveo Podcast

Episode 3: The advantage of being black and useless in that lab.

Teaser: And so, I went home, and I searched, I think, on Pubmed. Or Google. Because...let's be real.

This is a podcast about a young female. This is a podcast about a young black Muslim females journey from the world to humanities to the world of science at Princeton and beyond. Because I graduated already. So, yeah...


[00:01:28] For some reason, I was blessed with a number of incredibly strong recommenders despite two obstacles. I think the lessons I've learned from building these relationships will be helpful. So, the two obstacles. The first one is that like I said before it was never my plan in life to even entertain the possibility of being even remotely involved in a STEM field. And yes in high school you have to take the standard mandatory biology and chemistry classes but that was the extent of my... OK. Also, I was in (the) science league and math club. So, my interaction with STEM before college was not purely academic. But honestly I joined them for reasons that did not have to do with a passion for science or math which I know sounds insane but I'm not going to waste time explaining why I was in those clubs.


[00:02:46] I'm just saying that even though technically I was involved in STEM beyond academics that participation (in STEM) wasn't from some intrinsic motivation to one day become a scientist or have a career in a STEM field.


[00:03:11] So the first obstacle is the fact that my lifelong goal was to become a writer, maybe a journalist. And it was only literally up until the time that I had to decide what department I wanted to enter at Princeton. (I was) debating between English and Comparative Literature. It was freshman spring where I learned that oh maybe I want to do science because as I said earlier...


[00:03:37] I was in this mandatory writing seminar. Our final paper gave us the license to write about essentially anything. Somehow, I stumbled upon fragrance and then from there I stumbled upon the science of smell. And then from there I stumbled upon molecular...the molecular biophysics the biophysics of olfaction, the sense of smell. From that book, I became inspired to consider pursuing science, but it wasn't as if that book completely changed my mind.

I still applied for journalism classes taught by renowned journalists.


[00:04:15] That was the first obstacle. Say someone came to Princeton and they knew before they even applied that their goal in life was to become a doctor who serves underserved communities and they knew I need a bachelor's obviously to get into medical school, so I need to build strong relationships with doctors that I shadow and science professors or STEM professors so that I can get into medical school. Right. That person already --regardless of whether they want to interact with different professors in different contexts--they know that it's not a matter of wanting to, they just have to do it. Whereas with me, I because I was so uncommitted, procrastinated. The second obstacle was the fact that even before the word introvert became a thing, became a buzzword, I already knew that I was someone way way way before Princeton that my preference was to withdraw from social settings, not be in them. You may be thinking "oh, well maybe you're just incredibly shy. Maybe you're not an introvert." No, I'm not introvert and I'm shy. Some people are introverts, but their level of shyness is not nearly as deep as mine. And introversion is on a spectrum. You could be 60:40 introvert: extrovert or 90:10 introvert: extrovert and I think I'm 99:1.


[00:05:52] 99.99:0.01. Pondering about the world, looking within myself, considering the future...


[00:06:08] All of those intellectual activities were just my refuge. My refuge wasn't other people.


[00:06:18] And so, if you're someone who's like a deep deeply shy person you may not necessarily have a high level of introversion but that would mean that for you to make that initial meeting with a professor to start to build that relationship might be harder for you than someone who likes socializing with new people. And I knew even before I applied to Princeton and even after being accepted and considering matriculating there I don't know why I'm saying considering like I was really... Well no, there was a point where I was torn. But I knew even after being accepted and even after matriculating there that even though Princeton was a great place and is a great place to connect with people and network, I knew even back then that (and this is 2010 that I started) ...


[00:07:16] I knew even then that it would be hard for me to do that.


[00:07:19] And so that was the second obstacle to me finding even one even (one). That was the obstacle to me finding even one strong reference.


[00:07:30] When I tell you how I got how I got such strong references. If you're anything like me. If you're a deeply shy person, extremely introverted, someone who switched her major and their previous major had nothing to do with the sciences...


[00:07:52] You may want to keep listening. This even... What I'm about to explain applies to people who have graduated already and are looking for a job in a more progressive lab that leverages alternatives to animal testing (excuse the moral plug, or don't). Isa G's "Going Home" plays again.


[00:08:20] My first strong reference. Let me rewind a little bit.


[00:08:24] But not that much because I don't want to waste your time.


[00:08:29] When I left Princeton for a year...When I came back my junior spring... At Princeton (it wasn't the case at Harvard but at Princeton) it was mandatory for you to submit a senior thesis (depending on when you read this, the thesis requirements for Harvard and Princeton may have changed) and the precursor to that was junior independent work which was also mandatory, and you needed to find a professor to supervise this work.


[00:08:57] When I came back I emailed so many professors in my departments and without my department. I went to the Chemistry department. I think I went to the Geosciences department. I'm not even interested in geology.


[00:09:10] My friend who didn't graduate with me-- because when you take a year's leave your entering class becomes different from your graduating class and so he was in my entering class--his GPA at the time, this was a time where Princeton had grade deflation--they stopped grade deflation after he graduated--his graduating GPA was 3.99 at a place that had grade deflation. And he majored in Psychology.


[00:09:46] And beyond that he was a premed. If you went to Princeton or know about Princeton, you know at least at the time that I was there that the premed requirements and the requirements to be in the Molecular Biology department, the department I graduated...from which I graduated are almost 100 percent overlapping. In fact, some people would major in Molecular Biology because they knew "I'm a premed student. It wouldn't be that much more work for me to major in Molecular Biology and premed classes are already difficult enough (so) do I really want to be in a major where there's not some relationship to these premed classes I'm taking." I went to him because it got so bad I was getting rejection after rejection from these professors, professors within my own department, without my departments. And junior independent work is mandatory, so I was like (i.e. verbatim, at least in sentiment) "how am I going to find a professor?"


[00:10:42] The person assigned to me at Wilson college. Princeton has different colleges: Wilson College, Butler college. She was my dean there and she knew that she knew that professors kept rejecting me and that the independent work is mandatory right. And she was supportive. I'm not saying she knew this and didn't care and was like "sucks for you." She was behind me, not penalizing me for the fact that there was no independent work happening because I couldn't find a professor. And so, I went to him and to ask him what professors he knew would be open to taking another student because the reason that a lot of them, if not all of them, gave for rejecting me was that their labs were full and every time I (heard this) I just got... I won't say I got angry, but I was just thinking to myself but how full could a lab be that you can't accommodate one more human being. It's Princeton (University)...


[00:11:48] I'm over it and this is such a first world problem. I don't even know why I'm like expressing any anger at all. So, I went to him and I was like (i.e. verbatim, at least in sentiment) "oh, do you know of any professors who would be open to taking me."


[00:12:01] One of them (the professors he suggested) was a Nobel Prize winner and he told me, straight up, (how smart) this person (was). You know some people are so intelligent that if you know already you have nothing to offer them, you shouldn't even waste their time...they're just occupying a different level of thought than X number of people. I'm not going to say the majority of people because I don't know the majority of people. I'm not going to make that generalization. But even I, saying about himself and he's like a 4.0 student--his highest GPA at Princeton was a 4.0. I know that for sure and his graduating was a 3.99--and he was saying (not verbatim) "I didn't even bother with that professor." So, I didn't know what I was going to do. And even my friends at the time were (almost) laughing at me, (almost mockingly saying) (verbatim, at least in sentiment), "don't you need a professor..."


[00:12:49] I think this was literally the last week of my junior year when people were moving out.


[00:12:58] And my other friend, who was also in my entering class, I went to her dorm room in Butler. She was telling me about two professors that she knew had openings or that she believed had openings because they only had one or two people in their labs and one or both of those people were graduating with her.


[00:13:22] And so I was like (i.e. not verbatim) "oh, okay thanks." And then she gave me the deets about these professors.


[00:13:31] So you know, as you can imagine at this point I need a Professor. I have to...


[00:13:39] I don't know that the second person, the female professor, is going to say yes to me.


[00:13:44] Because I think in her e-mail she said that she had space, but I knew from looking up their profiles on the department website that her area of expertise, the goals of her lab were more different from what I wanted to do.


[00:14:05] I had the meeting with him (the other professor) and then he said (verbatim, at least in sentiment) "yes, I'll take you." The meeting with the second person never happened, which I was fine with.


[00:14:49] This meant that over the summer I had to do my junior independent work. Everyone else had already submitted theirs, okay. Because I didn't have a professor the entire semester...


[00:15:03] I had to stay at Princeton over the summer to do my independent work.


[00:15:09] And I couldn't get out of that because I lived and still live 20...30 minutes, around 30 minutes, away from Princeton.


[00:15:21] So it's not even as if I could say "oh, I have to go back to Oregon."


[00:15:25] No, I live in New Jersey. And the molecular biology department they have this program in the summer, at least when I was there (I graduated in 2015), where you could work in a lab the entire summer and gain lab experience that way and also get to work on your senior thesis. Of course, for me it wasn't so much getting to work on my senior thesis as it was doing the independent work that everyone else had already handed in.


[00:15:58] In my meeting with him I discussed my interest in olfaction.


[00:16:06] I learned through this book, "The Emperor of Scent" that the mechanism of how we smell, of how the odorant-odorant receptor recognition is translated to us now is still unknown. And this fascinated me to the point that I considered dropping my plans to become an English major and started considering science more seriously.


[00:16:37] So, he found this interesting and he was saying that the work in his lab...what I could do for my junior independent paper is I could follow in the footsteps of someone who just graduated, for my own independent work, or I could work on olfaction. In the meeting...


[00:16:57] It wasn't clear what the link between olfaction and the subject of his lab, neuroprotection and Parkinson's disease, would be with olfaction but for some reason this fire was ignited in my brain and I thought to myself (not literally) "oh, what if there is a connection." And so, I went home and I searched I think on Pubmed or Google because...let's be real.


[00:17:31] And I found that Parkinson's disease and other diseases, Alzheimer's, Huntington's disease, manifest olfactory dysfunction. And olfactory dysfunction basically means that people with these disorders manifest a decreased sense of smell.


[00:17:53] So, I found this interesting and I went back to him and I was like (i.e. not verbatim) "OK, that's what I want to write about. I want to write about this connection." Obviously, it was more involved than that because somehow, I learned...Now, for my junior independent work. This is the part of the story that's actually relevant to those who heard the beginning of the podcast and were like "oh, I need help finding references" because I think I've wasted your time up until now. The program started in June and it ended in August.


[00:18:32] They had guest lecturers. They had lunches, not every day of the program, but I think at least every week. One other professor in the department, who's now at the NIH (as of June 2018), she explained how to write a compelling graduate school statement. She also had a panel with different graduates from the molecular biology department who had already become established in life. And basically, they described their experiences after graduating and we had the opportunity to ask them questions. This entire summer...


[00:19:09] They let you dorm at Princeton and they also gave you a stipend of four thousand dollars.


[00:19:20] And because I already was living so close to Princeton and was a driver, I would stay in the dorm to eat lunch but...just never felt the need to stay overnight there.


[00:19:39] So what I would do (is) I would show up at the lab and I had my laptop. I was either writing or researching and by researching, I mean reviewing the literature relating to what I wanted to write about for this independent work. But in my mind, I was thinking "oh, I can write on my laptop and search for information on my laptop at home. Why am I in the lab?"


[00:20:08] I was not ever given bench work to do so my being in the lab was a weird experience because there was another student there whose thesis required him to do bench work. And so, he and the lab manager and the graduate students, all three of them, would be standing up near me doing physical work. And I'm sitting there typing or not typing because I'm reading.


[00:20:37] Why am I undergoing this lonely experience when I can just be lonely doing the exact same thing in the comfort of my home.


[00:20:51] And so I would just leave the lab early and I would keep doing this.


[00:20:55] And he caught on. And he was like (not verbatim, at least not completely) "we're paying you a stipend. You can't keep leaving in the middle of the day. You have to be here."


[00:21:07] And so I was like (verbatim at least with respect to sentiment) "oh." Whenever he did show up when I was there it looked like... (I was) just sitting behind a computer screen. Not that it didn't look like I was doing anything. If you were a fly on the wall of that lab you would have seen...


[00:21:24] I think the majority of the time that there are three people, strong physically capable people, two of them women, one of them, the student, was male, working at the bench, working at the bench, moving around, collaborating. And then you would see a fourth person sitting down behind a laptop. And so even if that fourth person was doing work, they were seriously paying attention to the work they were doing...


[00:21:55] If you were just walking by... Because that's what he would do. He would have to walk by this scene to enter his office. If you were just walking by, I could understand how it would look like I wasn't doing anything, if you're comparing me to these two people who are always doing something and always are looking productive. So, that's basically how it looked the whole summer it looked like (no one said this) "wow, this person leaves early so doesn't really even want to be here. And then when I do see her here it doesn't even look like she's really doing anything because there's all these people around her who are doing things." And his lab wasn't the only group. The three people and myself, they weren't the only people in that physical space. There was a second lab or second group that shared the same lab with us and they were also very physical. So, you can imagine walking through a lab where (someone is) supposed to be doing something on (their) feet, at least some of the time. And I was never that person.


[00:23:11] So, come the end of the summer, I hand in my paper and he calls me in for a meeting because he knows I'm local. And he is just astonished, completely impressed, and taken aback. The way that he was impressed with the work that I submitted was almost as if he was looking at me like... I don't want to say it was as if he was looking at me like he thought I didn't do it.


[00:23:48] But it was as if he was looking at me like he thought "how could this person have produced this." That's like how...


[00:24:04] The look wasn't a look of "oh, I don't believe that you did this" because academic integrity is no joke. But it was a look of incredulity.


[00:24:23] And I just did the best work that I could do. I wasn't looking for praise. I wasn't even expecting praise.


[00:24:32] And so for me to go from someone that he regarded in that way to someone who, in one paper, in one fell swoop, became someone that he looked at with different eyes...


[00:24:48] He even told me that one of the professors--the focus of her lab directly aligned of all the labs at Princeton with what I wanted to do in life.


[00:24:57] Even she...


[00:24:57] Because you need your professor (your adviser) and you need an objective person (another professor) to read your paper and grade it. And so, she was the objective person because she was the only one person who would know what I was talking about. And she even asked him excitedly (verbatim, at least in sentiment), "oh are you guys actually going to do this." My paper... basically, part of it was a literature review but part of it was an experimental proposal. She was a professor in the neuroscience institute and he told me this later after the meeting... I think he also asked me questions about some of what I wrote. I don't know if it was to test me to see if I was the one who actually wrote this (paper). But if you were there and you heard my responses you could tell I was the one who actually wrote this and I knew what I was talking about. I don't think anyone had ever been more impressed with me in my life.


[00:25:55] And I'm someone who was admitted to Princeton at a school where no one even applied or if they did they were not admitted for years back in the history of the school.


[00:26:16] So, basically after this interaction his attitude towards me changed. This was the beginning of the relationship that led to him becoming such a strong reference. So, this is my first lesson. If you're someone who is very introverted and very shy, if you're someone who switched majors, if you could somehow--and I know this is easier said than done--but STEM is a field where innovation is very possible--produce some original piece of work or an original idea, do it. When you're taking your classes, the opportunities you have to seriously impress your professor outside of what's required from you... I don't know how many opportunities those are.


[00:27:13] I know in classes where there's participation, if you're someone who can form really intelligent questions you could make an impression on the professor that way. But again, this advice is for introverts and for deeply shy people. I had a class where participation was, I think, 25 percent of the grade at least and I had the TA for this class tell me (not verbatim) in an email based on the quality of what you said, whenever you raised your hands to participate, I would give you a higher participation score. But because participation in that class was based on quantity... I think you had to say something 10 times per class. This was a three-hour class. For someone who doesn't like talking, 10 times is a lot.


[00:28:04] There were someone in this class who...had something to say so many times. I think part of the reason was the fact that he was someone who gained a lot of knowledge from being in whatever lab he was in and so he was able to leverage that to always find something to offer.


[00:28:28] I think the other part of that was that he was someone who he didn't have that barrier or as high a barrier between thinking something and wanting to say it. I'm someone who has a very high barrier between thinking something and wanting to say it. And I know some people would argue, "oh, that's good. You have a filter." But in a class that has a participation grade of 25 percent or more, that's not good.


[00:28:58] So, that's why I say this advice is for introverts. If you get a grade for a science class, a stem class, that's in the first quarter of grades for that class, that would be enough to get you a letter of recommendation. But there's other people who also scored really high and who are probably applying to the same spots.


[00:29:22] So, getting a very very high grade in the class... I personally don't think it's enough to differentiate you.


[00:29:28] People know or, I hope, know that even graduate programs are extremely competitive. My first piece of advice based on that first strong recommender I obtained would be to produce a fantastic piece of work or a fantastic idea. Maybe your professor is writing a grant or about to write a grant or maybe your professor is at a dead end and doesn't know what new hypothesis they should formulates to bring some life back into their lab. I have no idea. But you could be the person who provides that for them. Even after this junior paper, my thesis...my thesis was such that my professor, that same professor...He read some of it and he called me on my phone. He called me on my cell phone and asked me...


[00:30:26] Isa G's "Going Home" plays: "...Siratul Mustaqeem. The right path is with our..."




1: A $225,000 fragrance turned me onto STEM | the irony of initially rejecting the idea of becoming a doctor

Show notes

The fidelity of this transcript to the audio may not be 100%. This episode should be as clear, if not clearer, in this written form, excluding small parts not transcribed from the audio.

Episode 2: $A 225,000 fragrance turned me onto STEM slash the irony of initially rejecting instructions to become a doctor

Is that Ursinus Minor? No, that’s Urscience Minority.

Super lost because as some of you know, after you a graduate a job isn’t guaranteed. Looking for a job is…I don’t want to say a reason to cry yourself to sleep at night.

This is a podcast about a young female. This is a podcast about a young, black, Muslim female’s journey (laugh) from the world of humanities to the world of science at Princeton and beyond cuz I graduated already so yeah.

Isa G’s “Going Home” returns: “looking for happiness and losing it to feeling lost. So, I’m walking on the path…”

Teaser: I searched in the Princeton University website either smell or fragrance or something to that effect because I’m basic...what back flips am I gonna do.

“…Quran my GPS. Waiting to go home. Allah help me SOS…”


It was never my plan to major in any science. My career goal in life up until the time I had to choose my major at Princeton was to become a writer, maybe a journalist, so I had no designs to enter any STEM field. In fact, STEM was almost anathema to me. And despite this, I… I mean I did waffle but ultimately decided to begin the premed track my freshman year.

I let fear get the best of me. I thought writing was not a serious professional path. So, ironically my reason for wanting to pursue neuroscience and major in Molecular biology and essentially drop writing…drop my plan to major in English or Comparative Literature. Because even when I wrote the application to Princeton my main thing was I want to become a writer, I want to major in English.

So, my first year I was told that every freshman had to take a writing seminar. And I didn’t want to because my ego got the better of me and I felt like I’m good at writing. Why do I need to take a writing seminar? And not in an obnoxious way. Just… I just felt that because that was a skill that I had spent so many hours honing over the course of my...essentially my entire life. It just seemed unnecessary to me. Um so, I waited until the last semester I could take it, which was freshman spring.

The generosity of Princeton was that they at least let you pick from a range of topics. The one I chose was called “Accounting for Taste.” Taste as in what you deem to be good or beautiful when assessing material goods. So, for the final paper for this class we had license to write about anything that could fit within the confines of the subject of the seminar.

I was just confused like oh what am I going to write about. I have other finals to consider.

Somehow, I thought of fragrance. Honestly, even back then I was never a fragrance person. Like I never bought perfume, sought perfume. Um soap was enough fragrance for me. Thinking of fragrance was not from direct experience.

Then I also remembered a theory we covered in class called Veblen’s theory of Conspicuous Consumption. And Veblen, he’s a social theorist. Basically, it says that luxury items are consumed for the purpose of demonstrating your economic prowess.

I did some preliminary research and I learned that the fragrance industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

And so, I thought to myself doesn’t that contradict Veblen’s theory because fragrance is unseen. You can’t show off to someone that… There’s a fragrance called uh “Imperial Majesty” by Clive Christian. It costs $225,000. That’s almost a quarter of a million dollars for a 16.9-ounce bottle. Imagine those Poland Spring water bottles. That’s how much this fragrance costs. If you spritz that on yourself and walk outside no one will know that you dropped almost a quarter of a million dollars to smell like that. Ok. And there’s only ten collector’s edition bottles in the entire world. So, it’s not even a fragrance that is so ubiquitous in society that even someone who can’t afford to buy that fragrance would recognize it. Right. It’s not Axe. (not directed against users of Axe) like… So, in my mind, this was the perfect argument for my paper. Right. The fragrance industry and any fragrance, theoretically, complicates Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption because you can’t see fragrance. It’s invisible. The only people who would see the actual bottle containing the fragrance would be people that you show it to. But honestly, that bottle is probably in your room at home. It’s not something you carry with you outside. Like who’s gonna carry a $225,000 bottle with them outside. And bring it out of whatever place they’re keeping it and show it off to people. Why? Why?

So, this was basically the argument for my final paper. Now, the place I learned about this Imperial Majesty, this fragrance, was online. It was a forbes.com article. I couldn’t limit myself to internet articles. So, I had to go to the library.

Before I went to the library, I searched in the Princeton University website either smell or fragrance or something to that effect because I’m basic like (laugh) uh you know what back flips am I gonna do. I just need to write this paper and focus on this MOL 214 class that honestly, I didn’t go to a number of times because it was at 8:30 am in the morning and I just could not. I just could not. I just could not do it.

And the place where they had this class. The lecture hall was so dimly lit and so warm that even when I could get up to go to class that early in the morning... it was the perfect environment for sleeping, ok. My attention span at the hours of the day when I’m even awake and the caffeine has reached its peak plasma concentration, my attention span is weak then. So, can you imagine for an 8:30 am class.

So, I went to Firestone and–that’s a library at Princeton—I checked out these two books that came up on my search. And they were both by the same author (Chandler Burr). One of them was called “The Perfect Scent” and the other was called “The Emperor of Scent.” And so for “The Emperor of Scent,” he was describing the journey of this scientist and the science of the smell and the world of science regarding smell, the people. And in the Perfect Scent it was more about the fragrance industry, how fragrances are brought to market.

So, in “the Emperor of scent, he was basically saying that we know how sight works and we know how hearing works, but we still don’t know how smell works. And he was saying that smell is remarkable because it should be impossible for us to even smell. Right. And you may be thinking, I can smell. What do you mean by it should be impossible for me to smell? The thing is that they way every other system in our body works, smell is different from it.

The other part of the reason it should be impossible is that theoretically a human being can smell any smell, can do instantaneously. Imagine if you could learn anything in an instant, without buying the textbook, without going to lecture, a YouTube video. Imagine if you could just encounter it and then know it as soon as you encountered it and then do that for anything in the universe.

So, that’s why he was saying it should be impossible for the human being. And he compared it to two systems in our body. I won’t go into each topic he covered in that book. I will go into at least this one. So, take digestion, take immunity. Obviously, both are critical.  You need to be able to digest food and you need to be able to defend your body. These are non-negotiable. Your immune system is such that it can respond to a broad repertoire of inputs, of invaders, of antigens but it needs time to create that response, to create the antibody to destroy those antigens. And I should note that these antigens can come from within your own self. Right. Autoimmune disorders.

If you give your body enough time, it can create the response. The digestive system is such that it doesn’t need a week, two weeks, three weeks to respond to an input but it has a limited number of inputs to which it can respond. That’s why you can’t digest cellulose. When you eat celery--The other component of celery is cellulose. You can’t digest that. Dogs can’t—the example that Chandler Burr gave, the author—they can’t digest chocolate.

Smell is interesting because it has somehow combined the best of your immune system and the best of your ability to digest food. Ok. It can respond immediately to an input. It doesn’t need one, two, three, four, five weeks to smell. And it can respond—even one paper in 2014, in the journal Nature, the lead author was Bushdid, estimated that we can detect a minimum of one trillion odorants. An odorant is a molecule. A volatile molecule. And a volatile molecule is just a molecule that exists in the, Chandler Burr called it “the smellable size range.” A molecule has to be a certain size for you to be able to smell it. It can’t be humongous. It has to be in a certain range of sizes. And She was estimating that humans being can detect a minimum of a trillion odorants. What other system in our body do you know that has a lower limit of a trillion inputs.

Now a paper later came out by Gerkin and Castro and basically, they were saying the model that Bushdid and her colleagues used in that paper (is incorrect); if you interpret it correctly, a trillion would not be a lower limit, it would be an upper limit. But that’s besides the point. The point is that…Not “besides the point.” I’m not trying to throw shade at them. The point is that theoretically a human being can smell any input. That’s the remarkable part.