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Unique Stephens: My Journey to a Career in Life Science

April 29, 2024

Unique Stephens, who recently testified at a Philadelphia City Council hearing about the life science sector, shares why her experience at Wistar was transformational.

Can you tell me a little bit about your high school experiences? Did you always have an interest in science?

I really didn’t take a science course until high school. I went to high school in West Philly, and wasn’t interested in science, but my school had a program called a CTE – career and technical education. They offered two different courses: a health-related technology (HRT) program and a sports therapy program. I was enrolled in the HRT program. It was supposed to be a 4-year program that ran from 9th to 12th grade, but I started in 11th grade, so it ran on a compressed timeframe.

We were in class about four hours every day to get the needed number of hours to qualify as a CTE. This was the first science related, hands-on course that I took. And it wasn’t even in a traditional science like biology or microbiology – it was focused on nursing. During our training we had a conversation about cancer, and I went down a rabbit hole. I started thinking, ‘All you have to do is kill the cancer cells. Why is it so hard?’ So that was what got me interested in the sciences.

When I started thinking about a future career, I was initially more attracted to engineering or architecture because I love learning about the structures of things. But in my classes, when we talked about the human body — internal organs and cells — I realized the body is like the most complex structure.

COVID hit in my senior year of high school, and I was comfortable with receiving the necessary vaccines and booster shots. But a lot of people in my community were more reluctant because they didn’t understand the science behind it. That heightened my science interest more. If I understood the science, I would be able to break it down so that they wouldn’t have to be too scared to protect themselves.

You’re currently a senior at Cheyney. How did you get involved with Wistar?

I’m studying biology with a concentration in pre-health profession. When I was a junior and registering for courses at Cheyney, I noticed a class called biomedical research methods. My advisor suggested I take it because of how important it is to get hands-on lab experience – and this is central to the course. After completing the course, I continued on with a summer internship at Wistar working under Dr. Ian Tietjen, a Wistar researcher in Dr. Montaner’s HIV lab.

Dr. Tietjen and I talked about continuing my work in the lab because I liked it so much. Then, a couple of weeks into first semester of my senior year, he emailed to say they would very much like to have me back. I was able to continue my work in the lab, and as I got closer to graduation, Dr. Tietjen asked about my plans afterwards. I originally considered a gap year but knew this was a great opportunity to continue in the lab through the Biomedical Research Technician Apprenticeship. I qualified for the Apprenticeship because of my coursework, so now I’m working in the Montaner lab for the foreseeable future.

I’ve started working with Paridhima Sharma, a research assistant in the Montaner lab. Her work is very different from what I’ve done before, and I’m very thankful because she is going to teach me a lot.

What does your family think of your path?

Everybody in my family loves the work that I do. My older sister was also in research, but it wasn’t as focused as what I do. They recognize that I’ve always been very “hands on” and had a tendency to question everything, so research is a good fit. I think they admire the work I do because it’s so different. I break the science down for my dad and he catches on quickly. But what’s also interesting is that he gives me ideas regarding my research experiments.

What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you, and why is it important?

As you see more diverse people around you – people who look like you – it makes you feel like you can belong in this space. It gives you the confidence that even if you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, you can always learn. Diversity covers so many different forms – you can get input from the the most unlikely places! Let’s take my dad, for instance, the reason I talk to my dad and my friends about the work that I do is even if they don’t understand the science, they still have good ideas about the questions to ask when doing science. My dad has no science background, but he has common sense and brings an outside perspective, so it all matters. That’s similar to when you talk to someone who has a science background but is from a different country. They may have a totally different lab experience, yet they may show you a new technique that helps you achieve your goal. I think that representation, and feeling comfortable — all really matters, and it moves everything forward.

You mentioned you want to go to grad school. Do you see yourself as continuing in the research field or do you think you may end up teaching?

I would like to do both. I’m really interested in education. For the last two years, I’ve been tutoring high-school students in biology, chemistry, and even math. It’s inspiring to see my students learning about different chemicals & bonds and basic biology. I believe you can learn whatever you want, you just need a good teacher to help you understand. It’s definitely something that I would love to do. I love research, but I think teaching would be very fulfilling alongside carrying out straight research.

You recently testified before Philadelphia City Council, at a hearing about training for future life science careers. What was that experience like?

I was anxious – as you can imagine – but it was great. If I did it again, I would be more confident. When I know what I’m speaking about, and I stick to my experiences, and in my own words, then I’m confident. I didn’t practice my testimony beforehand, but next time I will so that I can feel comfortable. It was a great experience — I loved it. And I tell everybody I spoke at City Council!

Any outside interests or hobbies?

Most of my hobbies are on hold because of classes and work, but I’ve been planning! Once I graduate, so much time is going to be freed up. I’m learning how to roller skate because all my friends know how. I’m practicing in my basement because I’m too embarrassed to go to the actual skating rink and fall. I also like to sew, and I have a sewing room. My grandma taught me how to crochet and knit. I’m also really interested in cooking, even though I’m not very good at it yet. My mom keeps encouraging me, though, so the more I do it the better I’ll get.