Early Life

 

I grew up in Akron, Ohio, the "baby girl" and youngest of four children in a blue-collar family. I concluded early on that getting an education was my ticket to a better life. I owe credit for my interest in science specifically to an unfortunate accident at the age of 3, which left me blind in one eye. The blessing in disguise of this happening at such a young age is that I never felt that I had a disability, and found ways to adapt/compensate for the loss of sight in one eye. I developed a keen interest in understanding how the eye works and the specific cause of my own condition. In spite of being an extremely shy child, I played sports, loved the performing arts, and was always drawn to be involved in student activities and serve in leadership roles.

 

Graduating as my high school valedictorian and Senior Class President, I had amassed more than $400,000 in scholarship offers for college. Wanting to follow behind my older brother who was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, I decided to take my talents to Clark Atlanta University on a full ride scholarship, majoring in chemistry. My time at Clark Atlanta was a critical part in my development as a young black woman. I maintained my focus on academic excellence, but I also began to come out of my "shy girl" shell, growing into a confident and outgoing young lady that was even elected 1st Attendant to Miss Clark Atlanta University and pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. In the spring of 2004, I was accepted into Harvard Medical School's Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) program. 

 

 

 

Detour to Hollywood

 

In the fall of 2004, I packed up my life in Atlanta and moved to Boston. This was the point when I was first introduced to the imposter syndrome. I had never doubted my intellectual prowess before, but arriving at Harvard was the first time in my life where I didn’t feel smart. I soon began to feel that my admittance had been a mistake, and slowly but surely I retreated to a self-imposed shell. The confident, outgoing woman of my undergraduate years was no more. After one semester, I decided to take a leave of absence to reevaluate my life and career goals. I was leaving Harvard with no real notion of whether or not I’d return.

 

I decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue one of my "secret" dreams--to become an actress. I began working as a background actress, landing work with TV shows like “House MD,” “CSI Miami,” and even the movie “Dream Girls.”  I learned that the Hollywood industry was full of long days, excellent craft services, but unfortunately only paid “extras” minimum wage. There I was with a Master’s degree in Chemistry…earning minimum wage. Quickly deciding that I was not willing to starve to be an actress, I took a job as a substitute teacher, primarily working at an underserved school in the heart of south central Los Angeles. It was during that time that I discovered my knack for teaching, and my ability to “get through” with inner city kids.  This is also how I discovered one of my other passions—motivating and inspiring kids. After being in LA for about 8 months, I began to miss the intellectual stimulation of being a scientist. My cravings for mental challenges eventually got so bad that I started calling my brother and asking him to give me differential equations to solve. However, I still wasn't entirely convinced that I was ready to return to grad school. A few months later, I was sitting in a movie theater watching "Akeelah and the Bee" when I discovered the quote by Marianne Williamson, often misattributed to Nelson Mandela:

 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

 

It was like I had been struck by lightning…like a light bulb had turned on in my head. I had made a discovery about myself that was worthy of shouting, “Eureka!” At that moment, I knew that I had to return to Harvard, and I knew that I had to finish what I had started. I owed it not just to myself to prove that I could do it, but also to my students and the countless others I had yet to meet. I wanted embrace my identity as a role model for kids.

 

 

Harvard, the White House, and Beyond. 

 

So, I returned to Harvard in the fall of 2006. My return wasn’t exactly triumphal—I felt rusty and even more isolated than before, but the difference this time was that I had an added incentive to persevere…to do everything within my power to finish. I got tutors and fortunately, I wound up in a great thesis lab with an advisor that had won awards for mentoring. In this lab, I gradually came out of my shell and eventually got involved in student activities. Slowly but surely, I went from merely surviving at Harvard to actually thriving. I defended my disseratation in the spring of 2011, was selected to serve as a Commencement Marshal at graduation, and against all initial odds, I had completed my PhD within 5 years.

 

Never forgetting my time in Los Angeles as a teacher, I was very interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Deciding to apply for the highly competitive AAAS S&T policy fellowship, I fortuitously landed a placement at the White House. For two years, I worked with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), where I had the chance to work closely with Obama’s science “brain trust,” helping to write policy reports on a wide range of science policy areas. Working so closely with the brilliant minds of PCAST really impacted me. PCAST taught me to be bold and creative in thinking about solutions to pressing challenges. 

 

During the last year of my fellowship with PCAST, I did a lot of grappling with the “what’s your next move” question. After great reflection and soul searching, I settled on the idea of working in science communications with the specific goal to revolutionize the way science and scientists were portrayed in mainstream media. I felt like everything in my life had led me to that place. I was so convinced that “creative science communications” was what I was put on this earth to do that I decided to opt out of taking a "day job" and instead took a leap of faith to pursue this dream full time. I realized that, unlike my original endeavor to become an actress, I was “willing to starve” for this aspiration. I only had a little savings to live on for a few months,  but the moment I committed to taking the risk, a peace that truly passes all understanding washed over me. And that peace carried me for several months, with all the highs of almost convincing a major Hollywood studio to establish a “media for science” fellowship, to the lows of having all my plans and even back up plans fall through. It was such a transformative and spiritual experience for me, but it certainly wasn't easy. Through the threshold of pain, I grew tremendously. I faced my fears and pushed myself well beyond my comfort zone. I became an entrepreneur, establishing my own consulting firm--Fly Sci™ Enterprise, LLC. One of my favorite recurring lines in the book, "The Alchemist," says, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” Well, the Universe had disproportionately favored me and my dream. A chance encounter led to an opportunity for me to work on a national initiative geared towards improving the image of STEM in mainstream media.

 

Science has changed and continues to signficantly impact my life. It's taken me places I couldn't have fathomed a little girl from Akron, Ohio would ever go. It’s made me a dreamer, and a person that has fully embraced my unique role in making the world a better place. 

 

 

​© 2019 Knatokie Ford