About Joyonna Gamble-George
With over twenty years of experience discovering cures for the most common health diseases and disorders, Joyonna Gamble-George is an internationally acclaimed scientist. She has traveled the globe sharing her research approaches to medicine with diverse audiences, including Nobel Prize winners.
Joyonna has been granted membership in seven (7) honorary societies and is the recipient of over 30 awards for her leadership, philanthropy, and dedication to science while fostering diversity. During her doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University, she co-founded SciX, LLC, a biotech company searching for methods to combat brain disorders and other health issues. Her business acumen was honored with the Entrepreneur of the Year Award and Tampa Bay Business Journal 40 Under 40 Award.
Joyonna holds a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Biology with Honors in Mathematics from Xavier University of Louisiana, a Master of Health Administration from the University of South Florida College of Public Health, and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Vanderbilt University. She enjoys drawing, painting, writing poetry, and playing the alto sax and piano.
What lessons have you learned in your STEM journey?
I am the first one in my family to pursue an education and career in STEM. Most of my family members are working or have worked in other fields such as education, law, or administration. As a result, I did not have any role models in my family to guide me along my STEM journey. Also, as a woman of color, I have many times experienced being the “only one.” This has been the case when I majored in or worked as a researcher in a STEM discipline. The absence of Black/African American mentors, who worked in the biomedical sciences, was a tremendous challenge; often a concerned hand can make the difference in understanding an environment and give you clues regarding the invisible important work components. There is an apparent gap between male and female roles and a disparity of ethnic or racial minorities in STEM fields; I have endured social isolation, and limited access to resources and opportunities that could help me advance my STEM career goals. There have been times when I did not receive proper scientific credit for work I completed on research projects, and there have been not so subtle microaggressions. My experiences have been challenging since people at times do not accept me, even with my educational credentials, talent, and skills as a scientist, because they have assumptions and preconceived stereotypes about how they believe a scientist should look. That is why it is so very important to have and see representation of women, especially women of color, in STEM-related media and the workforce because it helps to dismantle the preconceived notions and ideas people may have of who is a scientist looks; seeing and working with examples of female excellence in STEM is vital.
When faced with a challenge, there seems to be this innate human inclination to just learn to avoid conflict and its potential repercussions. This practice often leads to mental and physical fatigue. When we do this, we cut ourselves off from the possibilities that await us to be amazed by. Rather than shut down completely from the challenging experiences like the ones I have endured, I have learned to not dwell on them or let them deter me from my aspirations in life. I turn that negative energy into positive energy and continue to pursue my career path because I know who I am, I am proud of who I am, and I know I have what it takes to be a great scientist. There is a purpose for all parts of our STEM journey. When we worry about “why is this happening to me” and “why is this happening at this point in time,” it minimizes our ability to find the true meaning. For me, the reason was to keep pushing forward to be a living, breathing example of black, female excellence in STEM. By doing so, I can contribute to STEM learning and work environments by enriching its diversity of thought and experience and making the future STEM communities representative of our diverse nation. Future generations that aspire to pursue a STEM education and career as a scientist will look to me one day for guidance and view me as a role model or potential mentor when they are facing similar adversity.
What has been a critical factor in your success?
There are two critical factors that contributed to my success as a scientist. One is my upbringing. As a child, I either wanted to become a professional artist, medical illustrator, a physician, or a scientist. My grandmother helped me determine that becoming a scientist was a part of my destiny. My grandmother, Mrs. Menda Gamble Pettway, raised me on a farm in rural Alabama; she was a retired elementary school teacher and business owner of my grandparent’s grocery store called the Pettway’s Place for over 50 years. Grandma Menda was also a voting rights activist and a registered voter, prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; she participated in numerous marches, including the Selma to Montgomery march, to help register African American voters without harassment and discrimination based on race. As a child, I remember going door to door with her to help homebound and socioeconomically disadvantaged African Americans exercise their constitutional right to vote. Grandma Menda’s activism taught me the importance of community service and how it can help an individual build character, find a new passion, and promote personal growth and a sense of accomplishment. Because of my Grandmother, I saw how scientific discovery could be seen as a form of humanitarianism, especially when it is used to save lives by creating cures for common diseases that affect people worldwide.
The other critical factor is my crowning scientific achievement. I attended the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate (Physiology or Medicine) meeting in Lindau, Germany after being selected as one of 600 young researchers on a multi-step competitive basis from approximately 20,000 applicants worldwide to attend this meeting. I was the first African American woman selected to represent Vanderbilt University School of Medicine at this meeting. During this meeting, I had the opportunity to network and meet with Nobel Laureates to discuss future research approaches to medicine. The highlight of the meeting was talking to Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of how telomeres protect chromosomes from being broken down. She told me and a few other young female researchers from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds that our selection to attend the meeting signified that we were “going to do extraordinary things” in science or medicine. Her encouraging words helped to see that I belonged in a STEM career even though many professionals in STEM did not look like me. I always look back on these two critical factors to help maintain my resolve and motivation as I pursue a career as a scientist.
What advice do you have for students and young professionals in STEM?
I have found the following advice helpful and hopefully students and young professionals in STEM will find them helpful:
Tip #1: Appreciate Your Skills and Abilities and Think Outside of the Box. In high school, my art teacher, nicknamed Froggie, would tell us to always try to be different and unique when it came to creating a piece of art. This advice has been quite helpful in my research because sometimes you must think outside of the box when it comes to understanding how biological processes in the human brain and the rest of our bodies work, especially when you want to develop a cure to treat them.
Tip #2: Know, Claim, and Own Your Worth. Do not settle for less in your life and know what you deserve in life, especially with regards to your STEM career. Do not give away your power or inner joy to others but aim for your dreams in STEM despite the odds that encounter. Lastly, be a living, breathing example of excellence in STEM. Future generations that aspire to pursue a STEM education and career will look to you one day for guidance and view you as a role model or potential mentor.
Tip #3: Don’t Allow Negativity of People’s Actions or Words Deter You from Your Dreams. When you let people’s actions or events that you face in life defer your dreams, you are denying yourself the opportunity to see whether your dreams become a reality and how they can help you in your pursuit to become a STEM professional. Always strive to live the life you want to live, to pursue the dreams and career path you want to achieve, and to never give up on YOU and your life-long aspirations regardless of the hardships you face. A quote that sums up this is, “Life is like a camera. Focus on what's important. Capture the good times. Develop from the negatives, and if things don't work out, take another shot.”
Tip #4: Live Your Dreams. I would tell myself if I could go back in time to not allow fear, intimidation, stress, or uncertainty determine the steps you take during your pursuit to become a STEM professional. Learn to take risks and explore the endless opportunities that await you on your STEM journey. According to Harriet Tubman, who was an Underground Railroad conductor, American abolitionist, and activist in the women’s suffrage movement, “Every dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars, to change the world,” especially if your dreams are to become an extraordinary scientist, technologist, engineer, or mathematician.