STEM Superstars: Interview with Jessie Griffith ‘19

This year, being a junior at Kenyon, I often think of the incredible seniors that are graduating. Many of them have felt like mentors to me and real stars of the science department. It’s a bit daunting to think that soon, students in my year will have to replace the heroes leaving the science quad. It’s been an honor to watch these stars flourish in their academic pursuits and set the standard for future Kenyon science graduates. Today, I present to you an interview with someone who is not only an outstandingly exceptional scientist but also a caring mentor: Jessie Griffith, Class of 2019!


HCK: Tell us a little bit about who you are, and your aspirations!

Jessie: [Laughs] Okay! I’m Jessie Griffith, I’m a senior molecular biology major. I work in Dr. Slonczewski’s lab, and I work there because I want to be a microbiologist when I grow up. Basically, my research is on experimental evolution of E. coli; what happens when you expose them to stress over a long period of time, like what kinds of genes change and mutations pop-up.

HCK: Very cool! Are you going to work in the Michigan [Blount] lab?

Jessie: No, but it is cool that we have Dr. Blount right now. I have some questions to ask him about, actually.

HCK: Did you guys nerd out about E. coli already?

Jessie: Yeah. [Laughs] yeah.

HCK: Why do you love your research? What about it is so special to you?

Jessie: I just love it! I think because especially with experimental evolution, there is this huge potential for being the first person to ever know what happens in that kind of experiment. And I think that’s a feeling that I really crave and keep chasing—the idea that I can be the first person, anywhere in the world, to have this incredibly niche piece of information and knowledge that no one else knows, but I have the ability to share. So I think that’s probably the thing I like most about microbiology; those answers apply to such a gigantic field such as human health, industry, plant health, microbiomes, oceans, ecology, just much stuff. And also just like to do an experiment, to know something, something that was previously unknown to everyone and to figure that out is such a cool feeling.

Check out Jessie’s research about the genetic and catabolic effects of acid evolution in E. coli and mutations in PMF-driven drug efflux pumps from evolution in CCCP!

HCK: When did you figure out that you wanted to go to graduate school?

Jessie: Oh! That’s a really good question. So when I was little, I always thought I was going to be a medical doctor, probably because my grandma was a nurse. I remember, when I was six or seven, she made me a little nurse’s bag with a stethoscope in it, band-aids and stuff. I just fell in love with the idea of treating people and helping them get better. But as time went on, I realized that I do really feel passionate about helping people, especially helping people who are sick, but I don’t want to be a medical doctor. That realization actually came somewhere in my freshman year at Kenyon. When I was a junior or senior in high school, I was starting to think, “Well, maybe I want to do an Md-PhD after college.” But once I was a freshman in college, I knew that I loved research so much and that I could still help people, research disease, have a family, and a real life.


HCK: I’m just curious: I do know that you’re religious. How does that come into play?

Jessie: So my religious beliefs are very, very tempered between the beliefs of a hardcore scientist and a believer. I like to take the approach that integrates religious documents are written as guidelines for human life and behavior but are not to be taken super literally. So I’m really into thinking of it as an allegory, or a way of thought that you haven’t explored before. Like, I totally believe that evolution exists and humans are a product of evolution. [Laughs] But I guess the spiritual spin I put on it is that it is all influenced by higher power, a creator.

HCK: Do you also have bad days in the lab?

Jessie: [Laughs] Yes! Everyone has bad days in the lab! It’s not possible to be a scientist without having bad days.

HCK: I’m just curious, what do you think is your ratio of good to bad days?

Jessie: Good to bad days, probably like 70:30, good to bad, which I feel is a pretty high ratio!

HCK: Wow! That’s pretty good! In general, it’s tough.

Jessie: Yeah, it’s tough. And those bad days, if you get that 30 or 40% in multiple days in a row, you get a little discouraged. You’re like “Wow, I really need a win.” And in those days, a win after a streak of bad days is like ...oh yeah.

So another thing: graduate school can sometimes be pretty unforgiving to women. A little anecdote that I talked about recently with some faculty in the chemistry department, was that from personal experiences, female graduate students/faculty are unintentionally always the ones that set up events such as picnics or food-related gatherings. What are your thoughts on that and how do you expect to respond to that?

In particular, in the field of chemistry, it is not an equal weight of men to women in that field. But in microbiology, it is actually pretty lucky that we have a somewhat equal to even slightly women-heavy discipline, which rocks. Go women in STEM! But that is definitely something that makes me a little nervous about going to graduate school, especially because a lot of institutions aren’t like Kenyon where a comment like that would be well received, people would talk about it, and changes would be made. But I’m definitely hoping for an inclusive, feminist environment for the graduate school I end up at.

HCK: Who are some women that you look up to, who are your mentors?

Jessie: I mentioned my grandma earlier; she’s definitely someone that inspired me. Dr. Slonczewski really inspires me. I also really love creative writing, so Dr. S’s science fiction is really inspiring. I have never finished a piece of long creative writing, like a novel, but I really hope to be able to have that as a hobby someday. In terms of famous women in STEM, Lynn Margulis. She's the one that I really look up to, even though towards the end she started to have some ideas that were sort of nuts. She’s the one that really pushed for endosymbiotic theory when all of the men were like, “No Lynn, this is the 70’s and women can’t be right about things that destroy our dogma.” But she was right, and she really, really worked hard for what she believed in and pushed back against patriarchal nonsense.

HCK: For sure. And briefly, could you explain what endosymbiotic theory is?

Jessie: Oh! Sure! So endosymbiotic theory is the idea that eukaryotes arose from endo-, symbiosis. Mitochondria into some eukaryotic precursor and then plants, when a photosynthetic bacteria was uptaken by the eukaryote.

HCK: In my opinion, the people that impact me the most are the ones that I see every day, like my professors. What about Dr. Slonczewski inspires you so much?

Jessie: Dr. Slonczewski has such a personality that keeps going even in the face of adversity. I think that’s always who she has been as a person, and I really look up to that. We talked about the 30-40% of days that don’t go well in the lab, and she’s always been one to keep pushing me to work harder, smarter, and also to be forgiving with myself. I think that’s a really important quality to have in a mentor.

HCK: I definitely agree. Lastly, what is your advice to young women who want to pursue a career in STEM?

Jessie: [Smiles] Just go get it. Really, when it seems like all the odds are stacked against you, that’s when you have to rise to the challenge no matter how impossible it feels. It will be worth every second of it. I can say confidently that if you want something, and you’re a woman, and what’s holding you back is the notion that it’s going to be hard for women in STEM, you should really push yourself and just go out on a limb. Just go for it.


Image Credit: Jessie Griffith, 2, 3