A burgeoning doctor eager to help those in need, if you can’t find Victoria at the library or in the lab, you’ll likely find her at the bowling alley.
Responses may be edited for clarity and brevity.
Where do you go to school?
- B.S. Biology (in progress), Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA
- Richmond Community High School, Richmond, VA
What do you do right now?
I am a rising Junior at Virginia State University majoring in biology. Last summer, my research explored the thermal preferences of Sceloporus slevini (S. slevini), a “Near Threatened” species of lizard found in the southwestern United States, that is also commonly found in Mexico. As global temperatures continue to rise, ectotherm species that depend on external temperatures for body heat, such as S. slevini, are on the verge of extinction. My summer research focused on determining if S. Slevini living at higher elevations can withstand the same high temperatures as those lizards living at lower elevation sites.
This summer (2018), I am conducting medical research at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM). Each year they accept two students to participate in their Early Identification program, which provides intensive medical school preparation during two summer sessions. In the first summer, we conduct research at the Virginia Tech Research Institute in Roanoke, VA and take MCAT-prep classes. During the second summer, we shadow doctors and continue preparing for the MCAT. Completing both summers of enrichment and maintaining all program requirements results in special consideration for admission to VTCSOM and, possibly, a scholarship award to attend.
The research I’m conducting this summer is completely different from what I did last year. Thanks to this medical internship, I am spending 10 weeks in Dr. Zhi Sheng’s lab exploring the effects of new drugs on cancer cells. I couldn’t be more excited!
Beyond studying biology, I am a mentor, a volunteer at several organizations and a proud member of the Virginia State University Women’s Bowling Team.
What made you choose your STEM discipline?
In high school, I completed a exploratory health science course at Virginia Commonwealth University which provided one-on-one opportunities to investigate several health specialities. The knowledge I gained from this experience allowed me to tie my passions to my interests, and ultimately pushed me to want to pursue a medical career. My dream is to practice medicine with a double specialty as a pediatric oncologist-hematologist, which is a childhood-cancer doctor who specializes in blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia.
When I was 12 years old, I was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder. I spent a LOT of time in the hospital receiving treatments and surgery. Spending so much time in medical spaces gave me many opportunities to learn about those who were there alongside me. Many of the children I talked to and played with were younger than me and were fighting some sort of cancer, ranging from brain cancer to leukemia. Seeing how strong they were and how much faith they put into their doctors inspired me. I had always wanted to be a doctor, but I wasn’t aware of specialties before then. With a lot of research, and later on after shadowing, I decided that a becoming a pediatric oncologist-hematologist would not only let me help children with cancer, but also position me to explore my interests in hematology.
While I’m still deciding if I’ll pursue an MD-PhD, any research I might conduct as a physician, scientists would work to lessen the longterm effects of cancer through the development of novel drug therapies. Although I don’t believe there will ever be a cure for cancer, I do believe science is advanced enough to diagnose and treat cancer before it becomes aggressive enough to cause harm.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you had when you started your STEM journey?
Never — and I mean never — let anyone tell you that your dreams aren’t possible! If you can think it, you can do it!
It may take time and you may even fail as you work toward it, but you can’t let others determine your destiny. Continue to be true to yourself. Ultimately, dreams become reality with hard work, so keep striving for success!
Do you have any woman of color in STEM sheros? Who and why?
My STEM shero is Dr. Jedidah Isler. I met her at the AAAS Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in STEM last February. Before hearing her personal story, I loved the idea of #VanguardSTEM and was instantly eager to learn about how to become a brand ambassador. As the keynote speaker at the conference, Dr. Isler instantly went to the top of my list of successful people.
Although I am a strong advocate for people of color in STEM, I never actually settled on a female “shero” before meeting Dr. Isler. She is my shero because not only is she an African-American woman in STEM, but she chose a field so many people aren’t even willing to try to explore: astrophysics!
What else are you passionate about?
Besides education and advocating for girls in STEM, I also am very passionate about pediatric cancer. In high school, I had to write a 14-page thesis on any topic, and I chose to write about how pediatric cancer only receives 4% of government funding — a number that needs to drastically increase.
I also love to spread awareness about mental health. As a woman of color who has battled depression and anxiety disorders, I like to tell my story. Not for sympathy, but to show others that you can conquer anything and that mental health is a real problem, despite its stigma in the African-American community. I use social media mainly to talk about pediatric cancer and mental health statistics, and at times my own personal battle with the latter. Through this, I have helped many realize, Yes; it’s okay to not always be okay, and it’s also perfectly fine to seek help!
Why do you think it’s important to highlight women of color in STEM?
I think it is very important to bring attention to women and girls of color in STEM because it breaks stereotypes. There have been so many times where after I’ve told someone I am a biology major on the pre-med track, they respond with questions about why I would choose such a difficult major. I am also often told that I simply won’t excel in the field. I make sure that as a woman of color in STEM, and especially as one representing a lower socioeconomic class, that I advocate for and let young girls know they can be anything they want to be!
I love to volunteer at elementary schools, talking with third-grade girls. in particular. So many of them have been told that STEM fields are just for boys.
Serving as a role model breaks these barriers and continues to prove to girls of color that the sky is not the limit — there’s an entire universe out there for us to explore.
Are there institutions, groups or organizations you want us to shoutout?
My university, especially the honors department, has really helped me branch out in my STEM career. Because of it, I have been able to conduct once-in-a-lifetime research across the country (which has also helped me to come out of my shell).
I want to thank Jasmine Frazier who has served as a mentor to me not only in college, but also in high school. And there are so many others to thank: my Mom and Uncle, and Brenda McDowell. I also have to shoutout and thank my teammates and coach on the Virginia State University Women’s Bowling Team; they are always rooting me on! They each have unique ways of doing this, from being emotional support to, at times, financially supporting me so I can attend trips related to my major. Above all, each of these people have given me one thing that money can not buy: unconditional love.
I would also like to give thanks to my high school teachers at Richmond Community High School for instilling great work ethics in me, and to Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School for all its love and support.
Finally, thanks to the Virginia State University Minority Association of Pre-medical Students chapter for linking all the pre-med students together and being an inspiration. And thanks to Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) for linking me with other STEM majors across the country! You all have been an inspiration to me and my success!
Is there anything else you want us to know about you?
My personal health battle really helped me see how I can thrive. In addition to contending with my neurological disorder, I faced depression and anxiety for many years. The depression became so bad that I tried to end my life on several occasions. I worked to not let my mental and physical health defeat me, using them to build up and motivate not just myself, but others. Allow your adversities to fuel your dreams — keep going, keep living and keep striving, because the only way you can fail is by giving up or not trying at all!
(Editor’s Note: If you are struggling with thoughts of taking your own life, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 immediately.)
Thank you, Victoria, for sharing your story with us and for demonstrating such tenacity in the face of challenge. We’re honored to have you in the #VanguardSTEM Village!
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