I don’t think I seriously pondered my career path when I was in high school. I knew I enjoyed the sciences, especially biology and learning about the human body. But I was also fascinated by world history. I am from Ghana and I think that’s why a liberal arts education in the U.S. appealed to me. I knew I could explore different subjects and would not be locked into a course of study right at the beginning of college, as would have been the case in Ghana.
I was excited and a bit nervous, about leaving home and a very familiar environment and moving across the world to start college at Wellesley, a small women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts. After college I spent several years at Harvard where I got my Ph.D. in infectious disease. If you had told me when I was starting college that I would become a Ph.D. infectious disease scientist en route to becoming a professor, I would have said you were crazy. But once I made the decision to go to graduate school, it all made sense from there!
My Ph.D. defense was amazing and a highlight of my career so far. It was the culmination of many years of hard work and failed experiments, and wondering if I will ever be done. It felt wonderful to have a finished product that was deemed worthy by a panel of expert scientists. My lab where I did my research was fantastic and organized the mother of all parties for me, with my mother in attendance. I usually do not like to be the center of attention, but I reveled in the celebrations and congratulatory messages that day and in the weeks that followed.
Another highlight was a project where I studied a malaria parasite that infects macaques and humans. A central part of that work was genetically manipulating and culturing human red blood cells in the lab to make them more monkey-like so as to study the dynamics of human infection by a parasite that naturally infects monkeys. That’s cutting-edge science! The day-to-day work was tiresome, but it was still an exciting project.
Now I’m a postdoctoral scientist (postdoc for short) which is technically a training position. I’m nearing the end of it, which means there are a number of different paths I can take. I want to continue in academia and become a professor. On this track, I will start out as an assistant professor. Based on my productivity, primarily measured by publications, grants awarded and recognition in my field of research, I will be promoted to associate professor and by similar metrics to a full tenured professor.
What do you wish you had known when you were a high school senior?
I wish I had known to take advantage of every opportunity to learn and explore the world outside of the classroom while in college. There will never be a time like college to do that. I did take advantage of amazing opportunities like spending three weeks in Paris, but there were other opportunities I missed out on. Also, learn to drive!
What is your favorite thing about being an adult?
The independence. Getting to make my own decisions about mundane things like what to eat, or what toothpaste to buy, but also the more weighty decisions like where I’ll live and work.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I really enjoy being involved in all the aspects of doing science and disseminating the findings. I love the combination of setting up experiments in the lab, analyzing data, thinking through next steps and sharing the results at conferences and in scientific articles. I also enjoy teaching and mentoring younger scientists.