It does not take long for anyone to realize that they have certain interests in specific subject areas and to learn that careers exist in these fields that will allow you to pursue and achieve your professional and personal goals. It takes an even shorter amount of time to learn about the socioeconomic benefits associated with these positions and the potential acclaim that you may garner from family, peers, and the academic and research communities.
What is not always clear from the beginning, and may not be presented to you for some time, is the road map needed to achieve this success and the tools that are required to help sustain your journey from conceptualization to reality. No matter where you begin this trek, you can be sure that you will end at your appropriate destination, despite the roadblocks, detours, sidetracks, and the alternative routes you take.
I am currently a research and science specialist in the Office for Diversity and Community Partnership (DCP) at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in Boston where we strive to promote increased recruitment, retention, and advancement of underrepresented minority faculty at HMS and oversee all diversity activities involving HMS faculty, trainees, students, and staff. In addition, DCP coordinates the school's many interactions with community groups and organizations including the Boston Public Schools. The road to this position was not clear from the beginning of my journey but has proven to be a preordained destination that fits nicely into my path toward personal and career fulfillment. It is important for you to remember while you are in the developmental stages of your career that no stop is the final destination. You should constantly strive to learn more, be open to diversity in learning, and be open-minded to different types of options.
From Beginning to End: The Short Version
I was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, received my high school diploma from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, a B.S. in biology (with minor in Spanish) from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, and my Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduating I served as assistant coordinator of Meharry's Health Careers Opportunity Program before beginning my postdoctoral research fellow position in the department of pathology at HMS where I conducted basic cell biology and immunology research.
Following Your Heart
Although I loved the research I was conducting while in graduate school and as a postdoc at HMS, there was still something missing for me and I knew what it was. I did not see many people that looked like me within my lab, department, student body, faculty, or the medical school itself. This was different for me since I had attended two Historically Black Colleges and Universities before coming to New England. This realization prompted me to ask myself, "What can I do to make a difference"?
Throughout my tenure at HMS, I attended any type of diversity event or lecture series sponsored by or featuring a minority scientist in search of support and a sense of community. After attending several such functions over the course of more than a year I realized that a recurring supporter of these events was HMS's Office for Diversity and Community Partnership. When I came to the point that I was ready to leave the lab, I approached Dr. Joan Reede, the Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership, to talk about what I could do to make that difference.
Reede, the first African-American, female dean in the history of HMS, was very receptive while still probing to be sure that I was committed to making this change. I shared my thoughts, aspirations, and dreams with her and it was through this conversation that she recognized my sincerity and dedication toward efforts in the area of diversity, and my long-standing interest in promoting science education.
I had been teaching and promoting science education efforts for more than 10 years, through interactions with underrepresented minority students from elementary school to postdoctoral levels, with the assistance and mentorship of caring people who extended countless opportunities to me throughout my career. Because I was interested in exposing biomedical sciences and health profession career options to academically and educationally disadvantaged students, Reede decided to enhance an existing position within the office to create my current role as research and science specialist.
Making the decision to leave the lab was easier for me than it was for other people to deal with or accept. People can tend to make you feel guilty when you do not live out their dreams for your life, but it is only when you are true to yourself that you find true contentment and peace of mind. Despite loving research, I felt I would have more of an impact on underrepresented minorities by encouraging them to pursue careers in the biomedical sciences and health professions, rather than discovering a cure for cancer.
And as it turns out, my experience as a molecular biologist and educator have played vital roles in allowing me to perform my daily tasks in the office more efficiently. My responsibilities include developing and revising science curricula for DCP outreach programs for teachers and students in the Boston public school system, facilitating the implementation and evaluation of these programs, and helping to secure funding to make them possible. I also work with issues related to minority health policy and health disparities research and am involved in activities that help train students and professionals from K-12 to junior faculty level in these areas.
Looking Backward and Forward
I do not miss the lab bench, but I do still get excited when people talk about their research. I feel like I could go back to the lab if I wanted to, but I know that the work I am doing now is desperately needed and even appreciated. I also know that I chose the right turn in regards to career fulfillment because I feel good and I see the fire ignited in so many young people of color. Because of our tireless efforts, many students now want to know more about science and research.
Within the next 5 to 10 years I see myself in more of an instructional and administrative role within upper administration at a college or university. I cannot define the specifics of that role just yet, but I see it coming. With a passion for something, a determination to reach that goal, and support from others who have resources and encouragement to offer you, success will come. If you have a heart that has the welfare of others in mind, you will positively affect people and will end up at your final destination without any regrets.
Jabbar Bennett, Ph.D., is a Research and Science Specialist in the Office for Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School.