A note from the author: At the time I interviewed Jennifer for Gutted, she was the director of the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy (SMASH) for the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI). It is obvious in her interview how much she respected the organization and aligned with the institute’s values and mission statement.
About two weeks after we spoke, Jennifer called me and told me that she was no longer working for LPFI. I could tell that her change in employment was both unexpected and raw and I did not press her to share what unfolded. However, what I realized during our call is that Jennifer’s intention wasn’t just to tell me that she resigned from her job, but rather it was to make sure that this podcast episode would still feel okay for me due to her employment change. Not only that, but amidst the devastation of professional changes, Jennifer continued to speak eloquently and with high regard for her former employer. To me, this is a sign of an evolved and selfless being. She is someone who is willing to look outside of her own adversity with her head held high and her heart open to opportunity.
As you listen to (and/or read about) this episode, I invite you to do so with the utmost compassion and empathy. We all know what it feels like to move away from something we love and it takes courage to be vulnerable amidst change and uncertainty. And to Jennifer, may you listen and read with pride for giving your heart so fully to your work and with trust that the unknown magic of what’s next is right around the corner.
Dr. Jennifer R. Cohen was interviewed at a personally opportune moment for me. I was feeling a creative lull for my podcast and was met by her exuberant energy and warmth. She was so excited to be on the show, which inherently made me delighted to have created a platform for her story.
As mentioned above, Jennifer was previously the director of SMASH for the Level Playing Field Institute in Berkeley, California. LPFI is a nonprofit organization that is committed to eliminating the barriers faced by underrepresented people of color in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and fostering their untapped talent for the advancement of our nation.
I am playfully curious about the definition between actual stem cells and the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math and challenge Jennifer to explain how the two intersect. Without a moment’s hesitation she explains that “stem cells are cells that are the hardest working cells—they can be anything. There is potential for them to divide and start an organism. And looking at our SMASH scholars, they have the potential—it may be untapped before they come into a program like SMASH—but they have the potential to be anything. And that is a part of the global organism.”
As an educator and student navigator, Jennifer talks about what lit her up in her previous job. There is a “nice balance [for her] between instant gratification as an administrator and also [as] somebody who just cares about the community and sees [herself] directly in [the] scholars, she explains. “To see growth across the five-week summer academy through the parents when they come and pick their child up after dropping them off and haven’t seen them for about five weeks. Either their child is taller, or they speak with more confidence, or they’re noticing that their child is volunteering and stepping up their leadership roles in new ways. . . . In SMASH we’ve had scholars come out and ask for conversations and to hold space around what does it mean to be sexually fluid.”
From the way that Jennifer talks about her work, you can tell how much she cares and how much personal stock she has in her field. She is not just invested on a professional level but on a personal level—the students in this program are mirrored reflections of herself: her adversities, her struggles, and the lack of mentorship and role modeling that existed for young women of color looking to be scientists and mathematicians.
Jennifer and I discuss what it means to be a leader and Jennifer says that she believes “as [she is] learning and going through life that [her] philosophy on leadership and mentoring have evolved and should continue to be fluid.” She goes on to note that she thinks of leadership in three phases: 1) Sleep—the phase about planting seeds and learning what is taking place around you and within you: “You’re not quite sure if all that hard work is going to pay off.” 2) Creep—”Some of the seeds are not yet bearing fruit but starting to sprout.” 3) Leap—”This is when you start to see the true color, the true bloom, the strength [of your efforts]. The leaping is part of the being joyful [and] taking pride in and celebrating some successes of your own and those folks that you’ve been working with.”
Jennifer received her Ph.D. in biochemistry with an emphasis in cellular and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University. When she was in graduate school, there were very few women—let alone women of color—pursuing a doctoral degree and career in the sciences. Looking back on that period of time in her life, Jennifer remembers how challenging it was as there were “very few role models that [she] could identify with.” She notes the necessity of having a diverse support system:
“It’s important for students and people to create [a] board of directors and have a diverse group of cheerleaders. A diverse group of folks who problem solve differently. Diversity of thought. Not just racial and ethnic backgrounds or any ways that we identify as underrepresented.”
Her time in graduate school came after she attended Howard University for her undergraduate degree. Howard is a federally chartered, private, coeducational, nonsectarian, historically black university in Washington, D.C. It was the first time in Jennifer’s life that she was surrounded not only by her own people day in and day out but also by black people who were striving for excellence in academia together. Jennifer notes,
“It helped with my confidence. It helped with my own identity as a black woman, a future scientist. To be surrounded by incredible scientists, actually teaching me. Folks that I had read about were my professors and became my mentors and my cheerleaders. Setting me up, propping me up, pointing me in the right direction to be able to go into Johns Hopkins and not be consumed by being ‘the only,’ and still thinking about community.”
Jennifer goes on to say,
“My tormentors . . . they are as much a part of my success and my ability to be well as the Dr. Winston Anderson and the Dr. Clarence in my past. The Dr. Daniel Teraguchi, the Dr. Carolyn Machamers, Loretta Cohen, Everett Cohen—my mentors. The people who have been telling me that I have what it takes to be successful in STEM are just as important as those folks who are like, ‘You need a plan B. I don’t think this is for you.’”
Toward the end of our conversation, Jennifer and I discuss what it’s like for her to be a 38-year-old woman who isn’t interested in partnering or having children and how that is so outside of the social norm that many people don’t quite know what to do with that information. They often ask, “Dr. Cohen—you are so lovely, are you seeing anybody?” Jennifer explains how she responds to these inquiries:
“I know that it comes from a place of love. They just want a version of happiness—one version [of happiness]—that we traditionally see on television or in social media. And I think of myself as someone who has just got to stay strong enough to show that you can be a retired molecular biologist. You can be doing great work with the community, changing the stereotype image of STEM 100 SMASH scholars at a time, and that you can still be fulfilled. You still can have a level of satisfaction with your life at this time that does not include a partner or a child. And that there is a possibility that it might come in the future—should I choose.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask Jennifer what she would offer to individuals who are looking to access their own contentment, especially those coming from more marginalized and minority populations. Jennifer responds,
“Figure out what that [contentment] is first of all. And that takes intention, effort. What makes you happy? Remove anything that has to do with other people. My advice really would be—you happy not in relation to others. Where can you find your happiness outside? What type of work, kinds of sports, activities . . . [trying] new things I think is the first step to having a list of experiences that you can choose and think about that are like ‘Okay, I was happy when I was doing that.’”