Jenea Adams is a rising 2nd year GCB PhD student in the Xing lab and the founder of The Black Women in Computational Biology Network (blackwomencompbio.org), a thriving online networking platform designed for Black women and non-binary people working towards a career that combines computational and quantitative sciences with biology. We met up virtually to talk about her exciting initiative and ambitious plans for the future.
SC: Why did you choose to pursue computational biology? What are your current research interests?
JA: I chose computational biology because I really wanted to be able to develop tools to aid in marrying the experimental part of biomedical research and the computational biological discovery arm. I’m most specifically interested now with cancer genomics and I’m really fascinated by RNA biology. I really want to get more into method development and bioinformatics as it pertains to acute myeloid leukemia or other childhood cancers, like neuroblastomas. I definitely see myself applying machine learning and other statistical frameworks to any type of tool development. And coming from a biology background, where I have done wet lab experiments before, I want to continue to develop that skillset in a way that allows me to have a more well-rounded understanding of the experimental design surrounding computational discovery.
SC: On your professional website, you write that you are “excited about genomics and biomedical research and the artistry at the intersection of biology and computer science” – what does artistry in science mean to you? (https://www.jeneaiadams.com/)
JA: Since I was an undergrad and I decided to go into computational biology, I really wanted to apply biology in a unique way. I knew I had this affinity to technology – just really fascinated by math and especially engineering. What’s unique with computer science is that it comprises a lot of mathematical aspects and allows you to build off of a foundation of what is already known to work towards solutions that a lot of people don’t know how to solve. As it comes to the intersection of computer science and biology, there is room for biological data to be represented and tapped into with tools in computer science, and especially mathematics, but it definitely requires a lot of creativity. A lot of computational biology is developing methods, software development, or tool development. It definitely requires understanding more of what people need, but also having an eye of what’s useful and how you can combine deep biological knowledge with real, solid computer science or a mathematical solution.
SC: Describe your personal journey into science – why did you pursue this field?
JA: My first year at college I was running track, so I was not necessarily doing other extracurricular things with my time, and I felt like something was really missing from my college experience. I also wanted to be more involved in the city of Dayton which is one of the most segregated cities in the United States and is literally geographically segregated by rivers and bridges. After I left the track team, I joined my first biochemistry lab and that was the first time I did PCR or used a centrifuge. It was just about me getting into the lab and being comfortable with that. I changed tracks and joined an environmental biology lab, and that was the first time I got to do data sciency-type work doing statistical analysis after collecting samples. That was really important because it was the first time that I realized data science and biology go together. I’m still enthusiastic about environmental biology, but I found myself really missing genetics. I missed doing experiments, and I wasn’t necessarily interested in doing [fieldwork] long term. Then I joined a cancer lab my senior year and spent that whole year working on a project modeling gliomas in fruit flies and doing a drug screen. Before that, I did an RUE at the [University of Pittsburgh]. That was a really important experience for me because it was the first time I did more in-depth bioinformatics work in a biomedically-research oriented environment. That was when I decided to get my PhD. And not only do I want to get my PhD to become an expert in this field, but I will have a bit more influence in the community in terms of working towards educational equity and being behind the scenes in an academic setting to influence diversity and access for kids like me, since I’m first generation.
SC: You mentioned that Dayton, OH is one of the most segregated towns. How did you get involved?
JA: The same year I started research I also joined our Black Student Union (BSU) [at The University of Dayton] as an executive board member. I worked my way up to Vice President, but I was really in charge of service and outreach. There were not a lot of opportunities for black students to become more engaged with the community. I was in charge of planning some of the revamping’s to get more students engaged in the community and sustaining relationships with other community centers and community leaders. That was really important to me, with it being a predominately white institution, to connect students to their communities since a lot of people at UD were from Dayton but never saw themselves being able to give back and contribute in that way. Dayton is a unique city and I learned a lot about its history and culture by becoming more involved with our BSU.
SC: What motivated you to create The Black Women in Computational Biology Network?
JA: As a first-generation student, I found it really difficult taking the leap into my first year of grad school, trying to reach out to people in my field that looked like me. It’s easy to find people who care, and allies and non-Black scientists who are doing a great job, but sometimes you just need to see people that look like you, doing what you are really passionate about, and it was nearly invisible. Luckily, when I was interviewing for grad school, I met one other black woman who’s now at Duke University, and another person in the GCB program, who is the only other black woman, and we’re 99.9% sure she’s the first black woman in the GCB program. At first it was striking, but I realized the easy thing to do is to reach out and try to find people. At first, it was just a Google Doc that I was asking people to fill out, but I realized because there wasn’t something else out there like this, I definitely wanted to make it a bigger platform and I didn’t want to limit myself to people in the U.S. I wanted other people to be able to use this Network wherever they were and however they could. So that’s how it started. In the beginning, it was three people in my network. The rest of the 95+ (and counting!) people that are now in it have just come by word of mouth, or Twitter, or just people being excited about it. I think that’s really important, especially seeing people’s reaction when they join The Network, it’s a sigh of relief for a lot of people because it’s like, ‘Wow. There’s something out there specifically for me, and there’s people I can connect to’. Already there’s people exchanging so many opportunities, like jobs and offering mentorship, and that’s really important, especially for grad students. That was my motivation behind it.
SC: What is The Network’s main mission?
JA: I think the main purpose is to continue to support the people and The Network however we can. This includes providing scholarships and grants to members for when they’re applying to graduate school. That’s a big barrier in academia in general, so it would be great for people to have financial support to do that. And because we are global, we’re not necessarily going to have a physical hub just yet, but we could support people who want to provide outreach programming to make computational biology a little bit more seen. The outreach goal for me, working with youth or more early career scientists, is to open up their minds to see how well computer science, math, engineering, and biology can work together – your career doesn’t have to be straight and narrow. You can really be interdisciplinary, not just by you working with other people, but by developing this really diverse set of skills. [Another important component of the Network is] being that representation and example of an underrepresented group actually working towards equity within academia. We have a collaboration now with PLOS Computational Biology, and we’ve been working with the editors there to provide an early reviewer program for our members. This is a really solid example of working towards equity in academia, because we know that editors decide what is important in a journal and what they want to hear. But of course, there is a lack of diversity of women in these roles, and definitely lack of diversity of Black women in these roles – I have yet to find a single Black woman editor for a computational science journal. Trying to work with our members to understand what the reviewing process is like and what it’s like being an editor for a major journal – that’s something that is really important to me. [Finally, we aim to have] true inter-generational tiered mentorship within The Network. Having a good mix of faculty all the way down to undergrads, and different people at different stages of their professional careers is really important. Everything we do is through a global perspective, so we engage in conversations and create spaces for programming that caters to Black scientists across the diaspora.
SC: Can you talk about the significance of the language on your platform, specifically your use of the word, ‘womxn’.
JA: From the beginning, I wanted to make sure the platform was welcoming and inclusive for all Black women or non-binary people; I wanted to set that standard. The representation of queer people in science in general is, I mean, there’s probably a lot of us, but there’s not as much of a conversation in terms of how much to disclose about yourself, or what it means to be in that professional environment. All the verbiage on the ‘Who We Are’ page speaks to how unapologetic I want the platform to be: a symbol of all Black women or non-binary people, wanting them to be welcomed, and our successes to be celebrated. Because first and foremost, it is a Black space, and it’s a space we have to protect. But I think once the expectation is set there, we can continue to work towards normalizing and asking people for their pronouns. And ‘woman-ness’ will not be defined by the pronouns you choose to use or how feminine you choose to present yourself. It’s a small part of a big book.
SC: You encourage members to upload a professional headshot to the website. Why is this important to you?
JA: I didn’t want it to be like a job application, but when you go on the website's ‘Connect’ page, my breath is taken away every time. Because one, you can see everybody that’s there, but you can see people that look like you. You can see people with natural hairstyles and still being professional. In academia we definitely have a lot of anxiety around how you have to present yourself, but seeing people come as themselves, and their smiles, I think that’s really important. You scroll through and see just how many people there are from so many places, and you can connect people and their successes, and connect the CV to a real human face. It helps to build communities, since most of our events will be virtual. Maybe you won’t ever meet everyone in The Network but seeing that these people actually exist is very important.
SC: Broadly, what role do you hope The Network will play for Black women in science?
JA: I hope that it’s a springboard. A very small pebble on people’s journeys in science. I really want the platform to be representative of the voices and need for diversity and equity within STEM. I’m still encouraging members to share their blogs about their journeys on the website just so people can get a better understanding that they’re not alone in whatever struggles they’re going through or highlight some issues within the computational biology field. A big part of computational biology is genomics, which is genetics and has a controversial history. [It’s important that we] continue to unpack the ethical past and the role that we can play as Black scientists in the overall philosophy of our fields, biomedically research focused or not. I want us to be a part of a larger conversation of changing the landscape of STEM. And that doesn’t necessarily mean having a seat at the table because, really, that saying implies that there’s ownership of a table. We’re actually just trying to create our own table; we want to create our own seats. It’s completely separate – we don’t need to have a spot at a table that wasn’t initially created for us to thrive.
SC: What other resources and events are available, or do you intend to offer, through The Network?
JA: We’ll be putting together little resources for people applying to grad school: what the interview process is like, how is it specific to computational biology, and putting together resources for comp bio in general. We also have an upcoming seminar and workshop series that will allow us to engage with the broader STEM community on multiple fronts. All of comp bio is not just bioinformatics – people work with electronic health records, there’s people working on phylogenetics – it’s definitely diverse and I want to showcase that. I want the website to be a learning hub in the future as it grows.
SC: On the website, you gave the option to join as an ally for those who do not identify as a Black woman or non-binary person. What role do you hope that allies will play for The Network?
JA: I think it definitely starts with taking the initiative to connect, but first let’s talk about allyship. A lot of people, when they become an ally to something, may not necessarily understand what that means. A big part of allyship, and this is actually a part of the little email that you get when you become an ally, means listening to the marginalized group you’ve aligned yourself with. But that’s the thing, you have to listen to them and understand their needs, and not necessarily impose what you think could be helpful to this marginalized group. And a part of listening to us is citing us, Retweeting us, or sharing the work that we do. But most importantly, citing our work as scientists. I want people to feel comfortable sharing their work within the network, but also understanding that you put in all this work, and that you will be represented in the grand scheme of scientific contributions. And it’s not just “hard sciences”, but social sciences see a lot of Black women are being left out of people’s references, their ideas and their hard work is paraphrased. As allies, be open to not just mentorship in terms of, ‘I can help guide you through this’, but ‘I genuinely want to collaborate with you, I want to share a scientific opportunity with you’. Understand the amount of work that we can do together and be open to whatever we need. I think the platform opens itself to that. That’s my hope for allies: listen to us and cite us, but be open to collaborating as a two-way street since many members in The Network are actually established scientists.
SC: What is your vision for the future of The Network? Any plans to expand the community?
JA: Yes, it would be great for us to have an annual conference for global Black people in computational biology or bioinformatics, and related quantitative biology fields. Bringing together Black people across the diaspora, across the world, who are doing really cool research, to connect, not only to share cool research, but to collectively work towards making sure STEM is continuing to serve us and other marginalized groups. That type of collaboration, but also being able to come together in a physical space post-pandemic, is definitely going to be the goal over the world. Ambitious, but that’s what I want it to turn into.
SC: Do you have any important influences or role models that have shaped your professional and personal life?
JA: I’m definitely influenced by a lot of people. On the website homepage, there’s a quote from Annie J. Easley – I wouldn’t say even just her specifically, but I’m so inspired by what’s going on, at least on Twitter right now, with the increased amplification of black voices in STEM. It’s motivation for us to continue to honor and remember people like Annie J. Easley. And we all know the Katherine Johnson’s and the rest of the hidden figures, but I think those people are inspiring and I think any Black faculty, especially a woman, who is still a faculty member and has gone through the PhD process, absolutely inspires me. I still fangirl over any Black faculty, especially here at Penn, because of the ability to just survive academia continually being a minority – I’m talking about any underrepresented minority where you could feel like you’re not seen. The big answer here is everyone who’s come before me has influenced me, and they inspire me. And that’s a big part of Black culture in general, but I think those people who have survived physical segregation while at NASA, it’s just so, I mean it’s hard to listen to, but it makes you appreciate where you are now, where your feet are planted currently.
SC: Do you have any parting words of wisdom for younger Black women that want to get into science?
JA: Something that’s really important is the ability to use your voice, and advocate for yourself. I’m thinking back to high school, when I first realized that I was even interested in biology – and this was in my AP biology class – I actually had to petition to get into the class. I was told that I would not do well in it because I hadn’t taken honors biology or honors chemistry before, and I had to literally fight my way into the course. And yes, it was difficult. I almost didn’t make it through, but I had to definitely advocate for myself to get in, advocate for myself to get help, and advocate for myself to end up with an A. And then coming through college and being told not to apply to Ivy league universities because they’re not very nice to ‘people like me’ – I have a hard time listening to stuff like that now because I know how to speak up for myself, and I know my own potential, my own passion, and my own limits. Getting through those types of obstacles – and there will definitely be more – and that self-awareness and the courage and the strength to get through that is definitely most important.
SC: Any current hobbies or books that you’re into right now?
JA: I love crocheting and I just love making crafts here and there. Occasionally, I’ll feel the urge to paint or crochet. That’s a good hobby because you can kind of do other things while you’re doing it. And I also have a lot of plants, I would definitely say that’s a hobby. Books that I’m reading right now include Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis. I’m trying to read up on my classic black literature but also a little bit abolitionist theory – trying to understand what is happening in the world around us and to contextualize that a bit more with some concrete readings. Angela Davis is one of my favorite people and scholars.