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  • Writer's pictureKaylah Holmes

International Identity: Overcoming adversity to succeed in the pursuit of your passions.

Hey FemNeuro readers! My name is Nuri Jeong and I am a 27-year-old Neuroscience PhD candidate at Emory University. I study how electrical activities of neurons change during learning and memory formation in mice. I absolutely love what I do. I get to train mice to run on a treadmill while searching for rewards in virtual reality environments. When I record from these neurons, it is THE coolest thing to see them fire action potentials while mice are actively engaged in a task.

How difficult was it for you to pursue this career ?

I am an international student from South Korea. I moved to the United States when I was 15 years old to stay with a host family as an exchange student. Moving to another continent alone at a young age was not easy. I missed celebrating birthdays and holidays with my family back home and had difficulties with the language. I still remember the getting a ‘D’ on my first quarterly report in high school simply because I did not understand the homework assignments. I had many sleepless nights looking up words in the dictionary and trying to decode my assigned readings. During my college years, I struggled financially making it difficult to graduate. These were very stressful times. Thankfully, my host family, wonderful mentors, and friends helped me through these difficult times. I could not have accomplished all that I have without their support.

How does gender discrimination play a role in your career thus far.

As far back as I can remember, gender bias and discrimination have always been there (whether I recognized it as such at the time or not). As a child in South Korea I was told that I was too loud, too opinionated, too good at (or not good) at something for a girl. I remember having a male teacher back in middle school who commented that the goal of a woman was to get married and have kids. In South Korea, I did not like the higher educational system in which there is a prominent divide between liberal arts and STEM fields (Korean students are to choose between the two fields of study by their second year of high school). This educational system made me feel as though I was being forced to pursue a field that I was not passionate about. One unfortunate consequence is that female students are less likely to enter the STEM fields dominated by male students. Moving to the U.S. helped broaden my opportunity for high education in the STEM fields.

Now in graduate school, I am thankful to be surrounded by so many empowering female scientists at all levels of training. Throughout my academic career, I have had many mentors, both male and female, who have taught me to become the scientist I am today.

How has intersectionality come to fruition in your experiences of discrimination?

I have experienced blatant discrimination based on my ethnicity and race. For example, I was shopping at a store one day when someone referred to me as the c-word and told me to go back to my country. This verbal harassment escalated to the point where the store had to intervene. When it comes to the more subtle, every-day microaggressions, I find that they can slowly eat away at my self-confidence. It is impossible to know whether a person is treating me any differently or judging my level of competence based on how I look. Even well-meaning words can be hurtful if they suggest a person’s understandings of my identity are deeply rooted in race- or gender-based perceptual bias. Despite the discrimination, I try to stay positive and do my best not to let it stop me from pursuing my goals.

Have you ever been asked, expected, or made to decide between a family and your career?

I am fortunate to have my support network to avoid having to make this type of decision.

But in South Korea, I feel that there is a lot of societal pressure disproportionately placed on women to do housekeeping, parenting, and taking care of family members. Things are a lot better than it was 20 years ago in Korea, but there is still room for us to improve as a society. One of the changes that we have seen in the past few decades is that more women are holding high-paying jobs and making significant financial contributions to their households. Yet, many women still feel pressured to pursue traditional gender roles over their interests. I would like to see more women in leadership roles, especially in science. One reason I am pursuing a higher degree is to become a role model and inspire more young women to become leaders in the scientific community.

Is the gender disparity visible to you?

Being at Emory is a blessing because for the past 5 years over 60% of enrolled students have been female. My lab is led by an energetic female mentor and again dominated by female students and trainees. Perhaps this may be why I have not observed much disparity, compared to other peers.

What is the biggest lesson your career has taught you ?

The biggest lesson for me is that I can always learn more. The more I read literature, the more I realize how much I don’t know. My former mentor taught me to never be discouraged to ask questions. I found that by asking questions, I could learn more lessons efficiently.

What advice do you have for girls who feel discouraged from pursuing a career in Neuroscience because of their gender?

Do not underestimate the power of education. Growing knowledge from education makes you realize that you have the freedom to pursue many different options in your career. Being a minority does not mean being a handicap; you can use it to your advantage. Show the world that intellectual capability cannot solely be reduced to a certain gender. By the age of 16, I chose a path where I saw the biggest educational opportunity. I pursued the field that I truly wanted, despite it being heavily male

dominated. There is always going to be resistance to changing the status quo. In the end, you must hold your ground and protect your mental health. Don’t let external bias stress you out or hinder you from pursuing what you want!

What is your favorite thing to research about science!

I am passionate about understanding how we learn new information. My hope is that my research investigating the mechanisms underlying learning and memory formation will help design a new therapy for memory impairment or learning disability.

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