Johns Hopkins Masters in Biotechnology Student and San Francisco Bay Area Scientist
Abstract: Dr. Jennifer R. Cohen (photo below) is a vibrant visionary leader with a unique talent as an Equity and Inclusion Entrepreneur in northern California. She shares how her family, mentors, and experiences played a vital role in shaping her character in who she is today. Dr. Cohen expresses her first-hand experiences as a woman of color inside the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education pipeline. Her robust science background and enthusiasm brings a highly analytic data-driven perceptive to solving problems. She has devoted her career to creating inclusive communities for diverse students and young professionals to feel welcomed, respected, and supported to achieve their full potential.
Complete Audio Interview and Transcript (adjust volume as needed):
Interviewer: 00:05 Alright, so if you can please state your name and title and position.
Jennifer Cohen: 00:12 Sure. My name is Doctor Jennifer Renee Cohen. I am a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant here in northern California.
Interviewer: 00:22 Okay, and what inspired you to pursue a Ph.D. in the biological sciences, and what brought you to Hopkins?
Jennifer Cohen: 00:32 My inspiration really started with my mother. So my earliest memories are with being in elementary school and her telling me you have what it takes to be a great scientist. Whenever I got a math or science score back, she’d be like see? You know, it was all corroborating her master plan of having a daughter who was a scientist. And she just saw my innate curiosity and always asking how. How is this working, how does this work? And why. Why are things this way? And helped to expose me to lots of enrichment programs through MESA, which stands for Math, Engineering, Science Achievement program.
Jennifer Cohen: 01:12 Aim High, which is another summer program that just further helps to develop a young person’s science aptitude and identities. So my interest in science started early from mom, inspired by my mother. And then, of course, I liked it when adults would say what do you want to do when you grow up? And I would respond saying a scientist or a forensic scientist. And I liked how they would respond because it let me know like, oh, there’s something to this. This was a little bit unexpected. So that was the original goal. I was chasing that moment, that ephemeral moment where you’re the only person who knows something new when you’re chasing discovery. And that really did fuel my interest as well as I progressed in high school and then college, really trying to figure out how can I add wisdom to a field. And so those were my motivators.
Interviewer: 02:06 Okay. And how did that bring you to Hopkins to pursue?
Jennifer Cohen: 02:13 So, Hopkins was introduced to me . So although at the time it was the number one medical school, it’s still in the top three, I did not have such a prestigious school on my radar. And this is really speaking to an early sense of imposter syndrome. So even though I had the passion to pursue science , and then by the time I was applying for graduate school I had the experience. I had done an international research experience studying malaria in Ethiopia. I had had exposure to lab scientists through my undergrad experience at Howard University. But I just didn’t even think about applying to such a prestigious university. And if it wasn’t for one of my mentors at Howard whose name is Doctor Clarence M. Lee, a champion who still is opening doors for me.
Jennifer Cohen: 03:06 Doctor Lee said, “Jennifer, there is an open house at Hopkins.” And we’re talking October 2003. “And you need to get on the train.” I was living in DC. “And you need to go up and just check ’em out. Just hear ’em out.” And I spent a good 15 minutes trying to convince Doctor Lee that I had no business on Hopkins campus. Like, “No, not me. That’s too big, I’m too small. I can’t go. Like they’ll swallow me up.” Just go is what he was saying: “Try. Don’t count yourself out before you even listen to what the programs and what the offerings would be.” So I bought a train ticket, got on that MARC train, headed up to Baltimore for the BCMB Day of Science is what they called it. And so this was the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program, an umbrella program. And you got a chance to hear from the PIs and from the students at different levels, and listen to all of this amazing research that’s being done within this graduate program.
Jennifer Cohen: 04:12 And I left that day of science hooked. I was like I can see myself here, I want this, this is my next step . So I took the GRE, I did another fellowship, research fellowship, just before submitting my application to Hopkins. Applied, got accepted and then I started July 2004. So I did an early rotation, moved to Baltimore quickly and jumped right in.
Interviewer: 04:40 Okay. And for this mentor who inspired you to check out this science event at Hopkins, was he someone that you looked up to?
Jennifer Cohen: 04:53 Absolutely. Oh, yeah.
Interviewer: 04:54 So, yeah, he was like directly involved like with your undergrad deeds?
Jennifer Cohen: 04:57 Yes, yes.
Interviewer: 04:57 Okay.
Jennifer Cohen: 04:57 So Dr. Clarence Lee is still a professor in Immunopathology and Parasitology professor at Howard University. So he was my professor and he was one of the first black men in science, with a science doctorate, who was teaching me. So you can imagine, for the first 20 years of my life I wanted to be a scientist but I had no direct role models. My mother was a stay at home mom. We didn’t know any scientists but she was the one who was telling me you have what it takes. And then I got into science. You know, I became a biology major at Howard, moved to DC from San Francisco, and now I’m surrounded by black and brown scientists who are demonstrating that I can be just like them.
Jennifer Cohen: 05:41 And so he played an instrumental role in me visualizing myself in science. Me understanding that there is a need for increased diversity and representation of women and black and brown people, underrepresented folks overall, within science, technology, engineering and math. So mentorship has been something that has shaped my career. And tormentorship as well, so people who were in roles as mentors and who did not amplify or support was equally important to me. But, yes, Doctor Lee was somebody that I had the good fortune of taking his class and who took me in and saw my future, and helped me to chart the path to be able to become a scientist.
Interviewer: 06:29 Okay.
Jennifer Cohen: 06:29 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Interviewer: 06:31 And so what is your current position and how has your career trajectory followed the path that you had expected when you had graduated?
Jennifer Cohen: 06:40 Sure. So I completed my doctorate degree at Hopkins, and also a two year postdoc. So I was working in the Brady Institute studying prostate cancer. And when I finished grad school and postdoc, I knew I wanted to do diversity work. So I had spent a significant amount of time in my training, my graduate training and my postdoc training, creating community for underrepresented people. So I started two student organizations and then developed a model on how to build community. And tested that model by creating a postdoc organization.
Jennifer Cohen: 07:20 And so when we were coming in, I was talking to you about one of those. It’s called the Biomedical Scholars Association , and that organization is the purpose, the mission of the Biomedical Scholars Association, is to support anybody who feels like they are a minority on the campus and provide academic, social and professional development. Social support, academic support and professional development. And it’s still, 10 years going strong, thriving and supporting students. And it’s the only tri-school organization that supports med students, nursing students and public health students. So I was doing these side projects around diversity and inclusion, and was very aware of otherness and the need for a sense of community to stay within science.
Jennifer Cohen: 08:08 And so I said, “Maybe there’s a career here.” And so I finished the postdoc, applied for a policy fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS. So I became a policy fellow working at the National Science Foundation, NSF, where I was exploring how can we increase diversity within STEM using policy, using national policy ? And that trajectory then led to being able to work with the White House Council on Women and Girls, being able to support through Arizona State University a national girls collaborative which focused on gender equity within STEM. And so you see the constant thread was diversity and inclusion. And I had been living in DC, now we’ll flash forward. Up to about 16 years have passed since I first moved to DC to go to Howard. And I was contacted and recruited to come to Oakland to work for an Oakland based nonprofit and direct their STEM college prep program.
Jennifer Cohen: 09:16 And so that’s what brought me back to the Bay Area. And it’s a program that’s supported, that continues to support, diverse students. So those, again, who are underrepresented within science, technology, engineering and math. And through a residential summer program the students learn all of their STEM curriculum and are living on a major college campus. And it was the UC Berkeley campus that I was running .
Interviewer: 09:41 Oh, okay.
Jennifer Cohen: 09:41 So you can imagine how impactful it would be as a high schooler to spend your rising 10th, 11th, and 12th grade summers living on maybe your dream school campus. Living in the dorms and taking STEM classes during the day, and being able to develop that STEM identity. So by the time we graduated them, they were applying for college, becoming STEM majors and being more successful. So I had no idea how my first love of science and my emerging love through my time at Hopkins of diversity and inclusion would bridge .
Jennifer Cohen: 10:15 And that’s one of the most important things that I think all students should be aware of, is that the pathway between where you are and where you’re going to be is nonlinear. It’s a squiggle. And that we have to surrender to this squiggle because you can have a goal, but you have to be open to achieving that goal. And maybe a way or on a path or through a route that you did not expect. So I had no plan. I just knew what I was good at, what got me out of bed, what I did for free. In between experiments I’m thinking about organizing Baltimore youth to come into the lab so that I can show them HeLa cells. And, you know, connecting them to Henrietta Lacks. And especially for our African-American and Latinx students for them to understand how connected they are to not just the ability to do the research, but that the findings would help improve our lives. It was incredibly rewarding and I’m just grateful to have had such a squiggly path that has allowed me to achieve great success and momentum around diversity, equity and inclusion. And I think that my time at Hopkins was the foundation to that.
Interviewer: 11:27 Great. And so in terms of academic resources you’ve been sharing, students having opportunities to take classes at college, but you also mentioned some social resources to get.
Jennifer Cohen: 11:40 Oh, sure.
Interviewer: 11:40 What are some examples of those? Yeah.
Jennifer Cohen: 11:43 So research shows that students of color or folks who have an identity that’s not represented, whether that’s in their peer group or their professors or within the leadership at in this case an academic setting, that there is a need to supplement a sense of community in order to be able to persist and continue on in what is very rigorous course work. And so being able to provide social support, a sense of community. Being able to plan events off campus, and offsite too, for rest and relaxation. You know, to check in and make sure if something happened in the lab, is this a microaggression or is this am I being sensitive? To kind of pulse check with your peers on your experience. Sharing it with them and getting the support that you need, that you might not feel comfortable with your lab mates or your principal investigator, your PI .
Jennifer Cohen: 12:44 So that social network is very important. And as you know, being a STEM student is consuming. By nature, we are to focus and….and allow ourselves to be consumed by the process of learning the language of science and becoming a content expert, and collaborating to be able to. So it can become a second thought or an afterthought that you might need more. You need to be playing, to be playful, to dance. Whatever the things that you find balance in are important. And so through the Biomedical Scholars Association at Johns Hopkins, they provide those structured socializing opportunities and making sure that students feel connected and supported. Because if they don’t, they leave bench research.
Interviewer: 13:40 I see. That makes sense. Okay. And I don’t know if we already touched on this, but so which aspects of your educational training or background helped you with your current role?
Jennifer Cohen: 13:55 Sure. So this is I wish that all of the main and transferable skills that we learn as science, technology, engineering and math graduate students, that these STEM skills were more publicized. Because you can apply these skillsets to so many careers, like outside of academia, within academia. And so I really do wish that maybe they were posted on the threshold of a building, like here’s all the things that you’re learning. And so I think that the skillsets include analytical thinking and problem solving skills, along with critical and creative thinking, the ability to collaborate and work on teams, but also work independently. The ability to evaluate and be solutions seeking, to maintain a curiosity, to know how to test your curiosity. These are all valuable skillsets that you learn and can apply anywhere.
Interviewer: 14:55 Definitely. Yeah, because normally when people think of scientists they think of an old, crazy guy in a lab coat alone at his lab desk. And I think that’s what steers a lot of people away from science.
Jennifer Cohen: 15:08 Exactly.
Interviewer: 15:08 ‘Cause they think that’s not what I want to do. I want to … Yeah, so I’m glad that you mentioned that there’s a lot of important and transferable skills, like being collaborative and learning to think critically, that can be applied to any career field.
Jennifer Cohen: 15:23 Exactly.
Interviewer: 15:24 Yeah.
Jennifer Cohen: 15:25 And you’re bringing up a great point, which again was the foundation of the type of work I do now, is that when you ask a child what does a scientist look like, they will never say someone like you or I. They see a white male, perhaps balding, glasses, lab coat, stern face. And…um… that is not at all what science is and could be. And it’s really important that we do all that we can to make sure that young people can see themselves being successful within science, ’cause I believe that our innovation is tied directly to diversity. Changing that stereotype, reprogramming, doing some counter programming around who is welcomed within science.
Interviewer: 16:10 Definitely. I also think there’s a lot of misconception between the different levels in science. So like some people probably don’t know the difference between a graduate student versus a postdoc versus a PI. There’s so many different levels within that. You know, within that, yeah.
Jennifer Cohen: 16:27 Yeah. It’s our responsibility. Anytime we’re mentoring or even have any interaction with young people to demystify what that educational path looks like.
Interviewer: 16:37 Yeah.
Jennifer Cohen: 16:37 If that’s through asking questions, like do you know where you go after high school? Do you know where you go after college? And letting them know that there’s an awareness or helping them to develop. Not letting them, no. Helping them to develop an awareness around higher education because the jobs of the future, the 21st century jobs, are going to require that students and young professionals have computer science skills, evaluation, technical skills. You know, those transferable skillsets that we talked about earlier that they are going to have access.
Jennifer Cohen: 17:10 They need to be able to think in these ways to be able to be competitive in the types of jobs that are going to be available. So it’s really important that we talk to young elementary school students on up about their possibilities within science. And that what happens after elementary school is middle school, and middle school is high school, and just spelling that out so they can start to see that they’re going to college. Because for students to be competitive in the future, they’re going to need more than just their high school. And now we’re seeing more than an undergrad degree. You’re going to need to specialize and have earned a Masters or a doctorate.
Interviewer: 17:54 Definitely. Yeah. So you spent many years in the DC area and at Hopkins, so what would you say…or what did you like most about being at Hopkins and even many years after? Like as you reflect?
Jennifer Cohen: 18:12 So I love Baltimore City. I will forever have warmth and love for Baltimore and the people of Baltimore. What I appreciate most about my time at Hopkins is the network of colleagues that became friends, the network of mentors and champions that I also had access to. And also the tormentors that I interacted with. Together they shaped and prepared me for my career.
Interviewer: 18:44 Definitely. Yeah. And um…
Jennifer Cohen: 18:48 Can I add to that?
Interviewer: 18:49 Sure, definitely. Yeah, yeah.
Jennifer Cohen: 18:51 Are you sure that’s all right?
Interviewer: 18:51 Yeah, yes. No, yeah, please go on.
Jennifer Cohen: 18:52 And being able to complete my Hopkins training allowed me to develop a very hard earned sense of confidence in my ability to be resilient. So I failed throughout my graduate experience. I didn’t pass my qualifier the first time. And even if I step back from there, there are classes that I repeated. And these failure experiences were devastating to me. I had tried and failed things as I was growing, and experienced challenges and failures in high school and in undergrad. But Hopkins was the first exposure to when you really try to achieve a goal and then you don’t achieve it, what do you do?
Jennifer Cohen: 19:38 And that was a hard learn to be able to still tell the truth that I didn’t pass the class. I remember I was asking, I was sitting in biophysics, and I just was looking around. Everybody looked so smart. Everybody looked like they knew what they were. Like they got this and I was the only one that was like, wow, I don’t understand this. This feels like it’s a whole ‘nother language. And I asked a colleague after class, “You know, are you getting this? Would you mind, like, would you like to study together?” And she said, “No, I got it. You know, I understand it.” And so I was like, “Oh, okay, I just outed myself.”
Jennifer Cohen: 20:12 I asked somebody else am and I was, hey, to a gentlemen, “Are you getting this? Would you like to work together and study? Let’s form a study group.” And he was like, “Oh, no. I understand this. I took this early on and I also really just feel very confident about this.” It turns out both that gentleman and that young woman, we all failed the class and we all ended up having to retake the class. And I learned a valuable lesson, that there’s this sense of competition in graduate school which I hope that students will abandon as early as possible because you’re just competing with yourself. You’re already into a prestigious program. You don’t need to compete against the next person. It’s just about reaching your full potential. And so we took the classes you know… but it’s like there is a sense of secrecy and shame around not understanding. And so failing is something that we don’t really talk about.
Jennifer Cohen: 21:06 And so I’m sitting in this second attempt at this class, and I’m looking at the people who looked like they understood everything and even told me I’ve got this, I understand. And here we are in the same boat. And it felt like a waste of an opportunity to be able to have the first time around work together, collaborate it, help each other pass the class. So experiences like that with failure, and trying to understand why we do what we do when we’re not in spaces that we want, have been just things that I care about a lot.
Interviewer: 21:41 And that’s what? Didn’t those experiences inspire you to pursue the project that you’re currently working on?
Jennifer Cohen: 21:48 Exactly, exactly. So think about that. So we’re talking I started at Hopkins, my grad program started in 2004. It’s 2018 now. For 12 years I have been thinking about failure and how we can destigmatize it. I started the Graduate Peer Mentoring Group at Hopkins, and that was a group that the intent was to be one step below therapy. Being able to, in community, be peer mentors. You know, train. We had a training program. We trained senior students to be supportive to the more junior students. Junior students would come in talking about conflict in their labs, or how do I have this uncomfortable conversation with my PI? Or can you coach me through the different challenges?
Jennifer Cohen: 22:34 And one of our signature programs was the Flemmys which, in honor of Alexander Fleming who accidentally discovers penicillin, and of course tongue in cheek play on the word, on the Emmys awards, we had a bad data social. We would host postdocs and grad students, and we’d invite them to show us all their bad data. The gnarly gels, experiment that didn’t work. We would take those images and blow them up in like museum style. Do a gallery walk. Attendees would come, the entire community is invited, and attendees would give stickers and put stickers on what they would consider the worst data. So every image had a blurb at the bottom, a short description on what the experiment was and what they were trying to accomplish. And then hear what’s happened, what they learned from it.
Jennifer Cohen: 23:22 And so that was a way to destigmatize failure within research, something that we don’t hear too much about. Most of your experiments are going to not work. How do you not internalize that feeling of I’m not smart? Or if I would have just planned better, this experiment would have worked? It’s not internalizing it and just taking it as part of the process, part of the journey to success. And so the Flemmys was one of our most successful events and well attended events, and was another manifestation of what I wished I had. I wished that there was a community or a sense of a culture where failure was expected, celebrated, laughed at. No big deal ’cause it doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a great scientist.
Jennifer Cohen: 24:08 And so here I am in 2018 doing an iteration on how we can destigmatize failure here at UC Berkeley. Where we’re going to be speaking to the incoming students and five professionals will be speaking for five minutes on a topic of personal or professional experience that when they failed, and happy endings are not a requirement. And it’s going to be called “Five by Five by Five” because it starts at 5pm. And it’s just another opportunity to destigmatize failure, to put it up in the forefront that this is something that you’re going to try things and they’re not going to work. But this is how you develop resilience and this is how you get closer to your success.
Jennifer Cohen: 24:53 So it had not been my time at Hopkins and not experience to challenges. Challenges within the field that you say that you love. And I think that that’s something that’s unique and special, because we can fail at things that we think we don’t really care about or it doesn’t have that high emotional tax. But when we try something and it’s something that you’ve always thought you were going to be successful at, oh, it hits you in a different way .
Interviewer: 25:18 Yeah.
Jennifer Cohen: 25:19 Yeah.
Interviewer: 25:19 I can definitely relate, yeah. I think we are almost done with all these questions. Was there anything else that you wanted to say?
Jennifer Cohen: 25:29 Sure. So I’m just appreciative of my time at Hopkins because it helped me to develop the resilience to learn how to evolve, to pivot, to overcome. And then to use experiences and challenges as fuel and momentum to move me forward. And I’m inspired by all of the possibility and the hope towards innovation that is found within our young people and the students who will be coming through. Like I fundamentally believe that diversity is the key to innovation. And the more diverse folks that we have who are working on science and thinking about biomedical research. We’re talking about folks who problem solve differently, who have diversity of thought, not just racial and ethnic identity or gender or folks who are differently abled.
Jennifer Cohen: 26:28 All of these people are so important to being able to solve today’s medical challenges. And so I’m excited, so I continue to do this work so that more folks, more students, can see themselves at the bench and will stay there and help to advance our world.
Interviewer: 26:50 So if you were to give advice to a current student, whether at the undergrad level or graduate level, what would you say to someone who’s struggling? I mean, I feel like everyone’s struggling most of the time. I mean, you know…so… yeah.
Jennifer Cohen: 27:08 Advice that I share is to definitely surrender to the squiggle. You know, accept that your path will not be a straight shot. That you going to have ups and downs and setbacks, but there will be amplifications and catalysts who will be on your path and that this is all good. This is all moving you forward. I’d also advise students to collect mentors and to practice mentoring other people. It’s important to continue to serve your community. Don’t forget about where you came from. Make space for those people who are coming behind you.
Jennifer Cohen: 27:47 I would advise students to remember that your tormentors and your mentors both help towards your professional development. So don’t hide from the lessons that you’re learning when you meet somebody who is not helpful or is hurtful to you. And you’ll learn also to not be a tormentor. Also, again, I’d give advice on any opportunity to destigmatize failure and just to accept that this resilience is critical for your STEM success. And then to set your intentions, write them out, make them plain, keep them posted somewhere where you see. Whether that’s a post-it in your bathroom, as I do, or a vision board it can be, depending on the level of creativity.
Jennifer Cohen: 28:33 But the direction and vision that you have for yourself needs to be with you as a constant in whatever space you find yourself. If that’s at your for the students, if that’s in your workspace or at home, wherever it needs to be, maintain your vision for yourself.
Interviewer: 28:53 Okay. Thank you so much, Jennifer. This is really nice. All right.
Jennifer Cohen: 28:58 Thank you.
Interviewer: 28:58 I think I can pause this, yeah.
Jennifer Cohen: 29:02 I really appreciate this.