With a father in the military, Sandra Jones and her family were almost always on the move: Korea, South Carolina, Texas, Georgia. But no matter where she lived, two things remained constant: her exceptional grades and her exacting father. “My father would always want to know if my schoolwork was difficult enough for me,” says Jones, 21. “On the back of my report cards, he’d write to my teacher: ‘Please challenge her in class.’”
Her father was demanding because he wanted his daughter to have the kinds of opportunities he and his wife never had. Sandra’s mother, who is Korean, completed just a bit of high school. Her father, who grew up in South Carolina, joined the military very young, and only later received a master’s degree from an online university. A traditional college experience may not have been part of their lives, but they wanted to make sure that it was a part of their daughter’s.
Photo: John Amis for HHMI
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Jones’s stellar grades ensured she’d get into college, but it wasn’t until her senior year in high school that she knew where she wanted to put her academic energies. An AP biology class made it clear. “It was fascinating to me to see what happens in our bodies on a molecular level,” she says. “All of my classmates thought it was a really difficult subject, but I thought it was amazing. I wanted to know more.”
On her cousin’s advice, in 2007 Jones enrolled in Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta. “It felt like a sisterhood,” she says. “I felt such a connection there, because it was a smaller school. Classes were small, everyone knew each other, and you could have real interactions with teachers.”
It wasn’t long before she was excelling in her major, biochemistry. She also received scholarships to work on a project in 2009 and 2010 with Leyte Winfield, an organic chemist at Spelman. Her project involved the synthesis and testing of derivatives of celecoxib, an anti-inflammatory drug, as possible chemotherapeutic agents for treating cancer. By now, she no longer needed to be pushed by her father; she was fascinated by her work and pushed herself to delve deeply into her classes and research.
In 2010, Jones received an HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) award to do summer research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) lab of HHMI investigator Susan Lindquist. She enjoyed the project, in which she studied the balance of proteins under different conditions in Saccharomyces cerevisiae—baker’s yeast. She was even more inspired by opportunities she had outside the lab. Twice a week, she attended seminars about the work of MIT researchers, including speakers from the department of brain and cognitive sciences.
Jones was fascinated by a talk given by Emery Brown, a professor of computational neuroscience and health sciences and technology. He spoke about his research on the effects of anesthesia. His talk, and others on neuroscience, inspired her to read more. “I got really interested in neuronal synapses, and signal transduction pathways in neurons,” she explains. “How does the brain connect these synapses? How do circuits form in the brain? I want to learn how these systems are altered in diseases.” She will graduate from Spelman in 2011 and plans to pursue this line of research in graduate school.
While working on such projects in graduate school will be heady stuff, quite literally, Jones has never been content to devote all of her energies to research. She makes time to help others boost their own performances in science. At Spelman, she is a peer facilitator for chemistry and physics courses. She has also mentored underprivileged youth living in Atlanta through Everlasting Vitality, a community service program.
She loved the students in the program, but admits being disappointed that the joy of discovery and exploration that she has experienced wasn’t the norm for the students she mentored. Instead of working on experiments or hands-on learning, most students focused solely on studying for the state’s standardized science exam. And those who were eager to learn more were thwarted because they were not allowed to take science books home. Jones has resolved to continue mentoring, to help others see that science is more than dry textbooks and multiple-choice exams.
As her career progresses, she hopes that her work will be both inspirational—and aspirational—to young black students who might feel that a science career isn’t for them. As she pursues her Ph.D., she will encourage students to reach higher—just as her father challenged her. “Too many African American students think that science is out of their reach,” she says. “I want to show that it is possible.”