Practicing Resilience Mid-Ph.D.: Spotlight on Kristen Walker

Sept. 1, 2020

Headshot of graduate student Kristen Walker.
Graduate student Kristen Walker.
Kristen Walker has years of scientific experience, from her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Animal Science (from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Kansas State University, respectively) to her work as a biologist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the Agriculture Research Service (ARS), where she investigates the genomics of a virus that is a serious threat to domestic pork production. But nothing prepared her for the sudden departure of her Ph.D. advisor in the summer of 2020.

Walker is currently a graduate student in the Bioenvironmental Science program at Morgan State University. Her original dissertation focused on using nanoparticles and microwaves to develop alternative treatments (as opposed to antibiotics) for bacterial skin infections, but the shock of having her advisor leave academia has led her to rethink and refocus. She calls the experience the most challenging issue she’s had to deal with in her scientific career to date. Of her former advisor, she says “I felt that I was abandoned because he could not see my potential as a Black woman scientist. In [his] lab, my research observations and suggestions were constantly dismissed and waved away, and my writings were never thoroughly reviewed. 

Additionally, though each person’s Ph.D. experience is unique, I found it odd that a white male labmate, who joined our lab at the same time as I [did], had the privilege of seeing his dissertation to completion in the same week that I was dismissed as my advisor’s student. This student was also privy to the information that my former advisor was leaving the university, while I was not informed.”

As any student would, Walker initially saw the need to find an entirely new lab and dissertation project as a devastating setback, but has realized that it also offers her the opportunity to start fresh. She sought guidance from past and present mentors, tapped into her network and ultimately decided to persevere in the program. She is transitioning into a lab whose projects are more aligned with her career goals, and is now studying the biological effects of health disparities and how to foster interest in STEM in minority communities. Her new advisor is faculty in the school of public health.

Walker points to her own experience with lack of diversity in STEM as a catalyst. “It has been difficult trying to navigate my career without seeing many faces like mine and being one of 2 or 3 Black women in the room has been quite discouraging. It intensifies my imposter syndrome and the feeling that we, as Black women, are inadequate to add value to the field. It feeds the notion that we must do triple the work of our white male peers to even get our feet into the door. On the other hand, it motivates me to persevere and show those who are coming after me that they belong, their viewpoints are welcome and Black scientists matter.”

Walker’s interest in expanding the educational opportunities of underserved populations grew from her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa. She taught health biology, environmental education, sustainable development and information and communication technology at a secondary school. Walker also received several scholarships through the A2Empowerment Program, a nonprofit company, in partnership with Peace Corps, dedicated to empowering women through education. Through this scholarship program, she counseled and academically advised girls towards the successful completion of their final year of secondary school. She also organized and facilitated weekly health meetings with community members in Cameroon, focusing on malaria, sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, environmental protection and water sanitation.

Walker joined ASM after participating in the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). She volunteered as a poster judge and represented ARS at the Career Pathways in the Biomedical Sciences session at ABRCMS 2018 (and again in 2019). Subsequently, she participated in the ASM Profession of Microbiology (POM) retreat in April 2019, offering a student’s perspective on the future of ASM’s career development initiatives.

Walker encourages Black women to seek both mentorship and sponsorship. Whereas mentors provide guidance and advice, sponsors provide access to opportunities and other senior members of the scientific community. “I have often heard that Black women are the most mentored group in the workforce. However, if we lack the support and advocacy from those in the positions to which we aspire, the dearth of women — especially Black women — in STEM leadership positions will just continue to expand.”

Author: Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.

Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.
Dr. Katherine Lontok is the Director of Science and Policy Communications with the Immune Deficiency Foundation and the former Scientific and Digital Editor for ASM.