Talia was born in Germany and spent the majority of her childhood growing up in Prince George, Virginia. The oldest of three children, she spoke gratefully of her parents and the upbringing they provided her. She told me, “I enjoyed my childhood. I just worked steadily. For me, there was never a question of not trying to do well in school or not going on to college. Both my parents went to college. Both my parents have master’s degrees. My mom has two Master’s Degrees. For me, if I even thought about bringing home a ‘C’ I was in major trouble.” I would say the academic structure of Talia’s upbringing has attributed to her learning capacity in the science field. From Marine Ecology to the periodic table, Talia compounds the elements of success.
I sat down with Talia at the OncoPlex Labs in Rockville, MD. She gave me a brief tour of the building and then we made our way to her office. Talia is a scholar, but I noticed a picture in her office that reminded me that she’s no loaf on the beauty side either. She’s participated in pageantry since High School and was crowned Miss Norfolk State University in 2007. She joked, “All of them were scholarship pageants, so that’s your motivation right there. I was like, ‘I’m bout to get this money! Trick it off… on these Books!’ It was just fun and I went into it like, ‘I hope I win!” Well she did that and then she was featured in Ebony Magazine. The “HBCU Queens” Edition. As a scientist, Talia received a pre-professional Bachelors Degree in Biology, which provided a medical/pharmaceutical foundation. She also held internships through William & Mary and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science before earning a Master’s Degree in Biology from VCU. In an industry where you don’t find many young African-American women, I’m pleased to bring you a unique perspective for this week’s #ShineHard conversation.
What is your passion and when did you know?
Talia: From the time I was in fifth grade until probably my freshmen year in college I wanted to be a pediatrician. And then I took Chemistry and I changed my mind. *laughs* I’ve just always been interested in science so that’s what I knew I wanted to do. One thing that really got me interested in science was this 3-week summer enrichment program. It was the summer after fifth grade. We dissected a sheep’s eye. I’m sitting there like, 11 years old, going through the different parts of a sheep’s eye. That was like the coolest thing in the world to me!
I don’t know if there is just one thing that I’m passionate about. There are things that I enjoy and then there are things that I just want to strive for. I enjoy science and I enjoy learning more about the different aspects of it. What I’m doing now, I feel like I’m making an impact, so that’s rewarding. Overall, my goal is just to succeed at what I do.
So, who did you look up to as a kid?
Talia: My parents. Growing up my role models were my parents because they were doing what I wanted to do in terms of being successful. They went to school, they were using their degrees, they loved what they were doing, and they instilled values that made who I am now and what I want to teach my kids one day. They gave me confidence in who I am. They taught me how to stand up for myself and how to be professional. They taught me, “Don’t take any mess, but be respectful.” I didn’t want to go into the education field, but I’ve always wanted to be like my parents.
What exactly do you do here at Oncoplex?
Talia: This is molecular oncology, so it deals with cancer research and cancer diagnostics. My position here is a Clinical Operation Specialist. I work directly with the Director of Clinical Operations. I deal with procuring samples, talking to the doctors, talking to the pathology labs, getting the sample into testing, getting the reports out. I’m not in the lab as much any more. Right before this though, I was doing molecular oncology as well, and I was in the lab all the time. I did DNA extraction and I worked with Next Generation sequencing. The main focus of Molecular Oncology is to extract genetic material and find any mutations or some type of biomarker to indicate the characteristics of the tumor. Then understanding what you can use against it.
Can you explain the Cancer Research?
Talia: Cancer itself is a disease of the cell cycle. Which means your cells aren’t reproducing the way that they should. A person can have cancerous cells that are “benign.” Meaning a cell has cancer-like properties, but it’s not cancerous. It’s just a mass of cells that has grown abnormally and doctors can just remove it because its isolated. If it’s “malignant,” it’s cancerous and has the ability to spread. If it’s “metastasized,” it’s actually traveled to another part of the body. Once that happens it’s harder to catch it. That’s why it’s important to try to catch it early through different screenings, breast, prostate, etc. What we do here is a little different than the normal cancer diagnostics, because we’re looking at the protein bio-markers. Based on the protein bio-markers that are present, we take those results and offer suggestions from studies that have been done. Studies that may help the doctor with therapy for the patient.
Tell me about your Masters Degree experience at VCUand how you became a GTA..?
Talia: Originally I wanted to go to VCU for undergrad. But having gone there for grad school, I really enjoyed it, although I was in a different mind set. I really couldn’t imagine going there for undergrad after my four years at Norfolk State. I earned a Master’s in Biology and my thesis research was on Microbial Ecology. So it was more micro-organisms and environmental science.
Before classes, I had contacted a professor who ended up being my adviser and she was like, “Oh I have this project you can work on..” I was like, “Ok sounds good.” So when I got accepted they called and offered me a Graduate Teaching Assistantship, which paid my tuition. My role as GTA was to help with the lectures and teach the labs. We were the sole primary instructor for the labs and after my first semester I was the lead TA. I had to train the new TA’s and set up the labs.
Johnny: Always good to get that leadership experience under your belt.
What inspires you to succeed?
Talia: I love that feeling you get when you accomplish something. I enjoy feeling like I set out to do something and I conquered it. Whether it’s work related or just personal life, if I set a goal and I reach that goal it’s the best feeling in the world for that day! It’s also a great feeling to be able to use the knowledge that I have in my head. Of course, its “nerd excitement,” yeah, but I would hate to have these degrees and not feel like I’m using them!
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career this far?
Talia: Here everybody thinks I’m younger than I am. I have to like prove that I was alive when Harry Potter books came out. They say, “You remember the movies?” I’m like, “The movies?! I remember when the books came out! How old do you think I am??” *laughs* At a former job, I think the biggest issue was, being a woman in this field, and more so being a black woman in this field. There aren’t a lot of women in the science field or the other STEM fields. There are some people who will automatically assume that you don’t know as much as them. It’s not everybody, but it is some people. It’s like you get that feeling, “Ok… I have to prove to you that I know this.” And I kind of hate feeling like I HAVE to prove myself.Overcoming stereo types like this are a challenge.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Talia: Honestly, most recently, getting this job! I just started this job in March. Before this I was still in science, but it was more in the pharmaceutical industry. I worked my last job for four years in a vaccine lab. When I first moved up here I was working at Quest Diagnostics in Chantilly and it didn’t turn out to be what I wanted. I kept reminding myself that I took this job to get my foot in the door of THIS sector, molecular oncology. I told myself, “Just keep looking, take everything you get and add it to your resume, really retain it and keep looking.” I had a friend here that kept me updated and when I came in for an interview it’s like they had been waiting for me. You know, just doing what I said I was going to do. I said I would use previous jobs as stepping stones to get the one I wanted and that’s exactly what I did.
What frustrates you most about today’s culture?
Talia: I feel like you get a lot of people that feel like they need to show off. “Look what I’m doing. Look how much fun I’m having. Look how great I am.” I always joke to my friend, “People want you to just bask in their awesomeness.” *laughs* And you’re like, “No I’m good, just doing my own thing over here.” It’s over-sharing. I guess people have this need to prove how great their life is through social media. But to me, it’s just live your life. Be in the moment. Enjoy it.
What would you say is the #1 factor behind your success?
Talia: My determination. Once I put my mind to something I just keep going. I have this mind set with anything. It probably stemmed from the science thing. Most scientist, when we’re presented with a problem, we want to find the answer. We keep going until we find the answer, the solution, the cure. And that’s that determination. I don’t get discouraged, I just keep going.
What advice would you give to the aspiring scientists out there?
Talia: If you’re still in college, do as many internships as you can. If you can do an internship every summer then do it. Get as much experience as you can while you’re in school, because once you go out and start looking for a job, you’ll already have an advantage. Study, be patient, and really work for it. Being in the science field can be challenging. Not just mentally, but trying to actually gain access to the jobs you want and competing with others who have the same degree. And one of the few things that can set you apart during your job hunt and the interview process are the contacts you’ve made and the experience you have gained. Study, be patient, and really work for it.
Johnny: I agree. Experience is a form of wealth. Build it up and invest it in the future! Keep shining Tal. @ShineHardFamily