Dr. Korie Grayson recently received her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and is now a postdoc research fellow at the University of Michigan. Check out her interview to learn about her science story and her advocacy journey for minorities in STEM!
STEM to the Sky
Sep 17, 2020
My name is Korie with a “K” (Dr. Korie), and I am currently a postdoc research fellow at the University of Michigan where I will be evaluating novel nano microparticles for therapy in neutrophilic, acute inflammatory disease as well as cancer. I’ll also be evaluating biofunctionalized microparticles for use for targeted drug delivery in large animal models. I recently defended my Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University. That work was about studying late-stage prostate cancer and using a targeted drug delivery in order to provide better treatment options or possible treatment options for people at that stage.
As a child, I wouldn’t say that I was interested in STEM specifically, but it was encouraged by my mother who actually used to help my brother and me with our science projects when we were kids. She would whip up this science project out of nowhere, and we would end up like placing and getting first and second place. So, that was my initial exposure to STEM. I think my interest in STEM didn’t really grow until I was high school taking classes like AP Chemistry and AP Calculus. Once I got to college, I transitioned from biology to chemistry. My general chemistry class was definitely when I got inspired and knew: this is it, this is me.
I got a full-ride scholarship to Norfolk State University HBCU in Norfolk, Virginia. I was in a scholarship group with many others interested in pursuing a STEM major. Initially, I went to biology just because I knew I was interested in science, so let me just choose one. During the first semester, my chemistry professor was like, Korie, you have great critical analytical thinking skills, and I really think you should become a chemistry major. After that conversation, I ended up switching my major to chemistry. For a while, I thought I was going to go to med school because I was chemistry pre-med. But, later I found that med school wasn’t really my top choice deep down. After graduation, I got a job in Atlanta working for a biomedical company where I really found my interest in biomedical engineering. Then, I decided to apply to grad school for biomedical engineering. I applied and got into Cornell University. Once I got there, I didn’t really have a huge engineering background like my cohort did, so I had to take some undergrad engineering classes to kind of catch up. After I did that I was able to successfully complete my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. And now, I’m in chemical engineering. It’s definitely been a transition going into another field, but there was still some familiarity because I did get my bachelor’s in chemistry.
The hardest challenge was really trusting and believing in myself that I can do these things when I didn’t see a lot of representation of myself in the field in general. Initially, I would doubt my own thinking and my intelligence just because I wasn’t always “on par”, especially when I got into my Ph.D. program. But after doing that, and then transitioning to a postdoc, I have come to realize that I may not know everything, but I have the competence and the ability to figure out anything. I just may need some time and need to do some extra research, but it’s that innate confidence that has helped me with my ability to get things done. Actually relying on myself and not just on information that’s given to me was definitely a more difficult kind of path to go down. But, I’m here now, and I just feel like I can do and figure out anything that is put in front of me.
For me, it’s about the translational aspect. I like things that I know are going to end up somewhere at some point in time or just have an actual application in medicine. That’s why I kind of drifted away from going into the medical field. I decided that maybe I can be a part of the “behind the scenes” where we’re actually making things for doctors to use. When I was working for the biomedical device company, I was working on what we call it the hero graft, which was a dialysis graph that das patients would use as a kind of like a last resort because their veins had either collapsed or the fistula networks are no longer working. Just seeing a part that I was touching and making like literally every day was actually going into actual people really kind of like inspired me to figure out so what else is out there? It gives you an end goal to think of when you are doing your research or you are in the biomedical engineering field. The impact of your research just touches so many people that you don’t even realize.
I wish I had been told to get used to failed experiments and to not get so invested in things always working out the first time, or the second, third, or seventh. Sometimes an assay may work, and sometimes it may not. I think just having that persistence and tenacity to keep going and overcome, even when you feel like you did everything right and it still went wrong, is so important. Now, when things don’t go the way it’s supposed to, I think about what it’s trying to teach me and what I could do to improve upon this. Science is a learning experience; it doesn’t go from A to B. I think if I would have known that, it would have taken a little bit of the heartbreak out in the beginning.
With my platform, it’s all about really redefining what a scientist looks like. I think we all have these preconceived notions of maybe some white mad scientists white male in a lab coat with crazy hair. I mean, I might have the crazy hair, but that’s still not representative of me. By putting that image out on my platform, it allows other people to see that relatability and empowers them to think that they can be in the field too. I started advocating actually when I was in grad school. I noticed that there was a disconnect sometimes between the undergrad and the grad population. So, I took on different positions that allowed me to interface more with undergrads, specifically minority students and students of color who did not always know about grad school. I realized that I had a gap to fill. I would go to these conferences, and I would only see a certain amount of black women or women of color. It also translated to my own journey through grad school and postdoc; I was constantly thinking of ways that I could better fight for myself, and also for others.
Through the years, my advocacy has kind of shifted more to online platforms. I started working with Women Doing Science, which is a big Instagram platform where we showcase women from all over the world doing research so that we can again expose the diversity of science and show that there is a presence of women in these fields. Another organization I’m part of is STEM Noire, which is a research conference and holistic wellness retreat for black women in STEM. Sometimes we don’t always feel like maybe the minority category sees us fully, so sometimes we have to kind of create a group of our own. Having that network for other African American women to lean on has been really satisfying. I’m also part of the STEM Success Summit, which showcases to people what STEM really is. I’m also really big on self advocacy, first and foremost, and I’ve noticed throughout my whole STEM career that women have a hard time advocating for themselves on the same level as our white male counterparts. So, I have workshops to showcase those skills and scenarios that women could possibly be in, and how they can advocate for themselves in them. I’m happy that I’m able to help women who are in academia just like me, able to advocate for themselves even more, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
It’s not necessarily about balance but more about prioritizing. If you ask me how I balance everything, I have no clue. But, I prioritize things that are important to me at the moment whether that’s prioritizing my mental health, my physical health, my research, or this nonprofit I want to be a part of. Again, it’s like having that prioritization of what’s important to you, and the rest of kind of figure itself out. I will say one thing that does help is to establish a little bit of routine. At one point near the end of my Ph.D., I would get up at 5:00, go to the gym, be done by 7:30, and head into the lab at around 8:00, be there all day for whatever experiment I need to do, read if I need to do that during the day, and then go home. Once I had my actual professional life in some type of routine, it allowed me to venture into other things, such as organizations like STEMNoire or Women Doing Science.
I think one of the major ones is being able to ask questions. As scientists, we’re very curious individuals, and we’re always trying to find answers. I think it’s good to always have questions in mind without necessarily questioning your abilities, but just questioning the science at hand to make sure that it makes sense. This concept can actually prepare you for any type of career outside of STEM because you’re thinking analytically, critically, outside the box, and you might be thinking of things that other people aren’t. I think another skill is being able to collaborate as well as to take direction from other people. Although a Ph.D. is kind of solitary, you still have to take direction from your advisor, and a lot of times, we will collaborate with other people in the same field or in different fields. Instead of something coming from one viewpoint or just one set of hands, you can have input from all of these people, and it makes the science more informed and legit. You really can produce wonderful results when you have that collaboration effort behind it. As far as specific skill sets, I think statistics is a major one. We do that all the time when analyzing our data. So, being able to understand statistics, why you’re using a certain test, how you’re testing your hypothesis, and being able to use the software are very strong skills to have.
I. Be authentic: Throughout my whole STEM career, anytime I’m trying to be somebody different, it just doesn’t work. Being true to myself, my goals, my core values, my initiatives, my plans, and my priorities, really helps with finding that path to where you want to go but also having the kind of likability that people can relate to. People may not love it, but at the end of the day, you’re being true to yourself, so you can’t go wrong with that.
II. You can do anything you put your mind to: The next part is understanding that not only being a woman of color but just a person, human being in general, I can do anything that I put my mind to. The only limits that are set for us are the ones we put on ourselves. You are just as capable as the next person. Even though sometimes we all come from different circumstances, we can still overcome, persevere, and be in a field where we may not always feel the most represented. We are all amazing individuals, so we can’t let people talk us out of anything we want to do. We have got to shoot for the stars, as a matter of fact, another galaxy.
III. Be open to science: The final takeaway is just to be open to all of the different science that’s going on, whether it’s space explorations or down to what’s happening in cancer research. It is important to read and to be up to date on the latest things that are happening because something is happening every day, as far as science is concerned. I always say chemistry is the ‘basis of life’. But then again, I’m biased because I’m a chemist. In all seriousness, science is so important from when you are born to when you leave this Earth. I really think that having some level of understanding of science does everyone more good than it does bad.