‘It takes a village to succeed’: Student earns national scholarship to finish her Ph.D.
Right: Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing
Seventeen-year-old Josly Pierre-Louis would be surprised to know what her 2021 self is up to. A singer, actor, dancer and musician, Pierre-Louis spent her early life planning for a career on the stage.
“I auditioned for a performing arts program in North Carolina,” she said. “I put all my eggs in that basket. I said, ‘That's the school I'm going to.’”
But, when she didn’t get in, Pierre-Louis started classes at John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield County. And a chemistry course unexpectedly handed her a new passion.
Now the second-year doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University is planning a career in research and education with the help of a national fellowship from the Ford Foundation and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. The fellowship is geared towards students who want to be professors and educators, and specifically those who actively help and mentor underrepresented students.
It’s a perfect fit for Pierre-Louis, who has led efforts to establish support groups on campus for her fellow science students and help her colleagues navigate unfamiliar spaces.
“In performing arts, I always liked being a part of a team and seeing how everyone's expertise could come together to build this awesome product,” she said. “And I found that I could do that with science, too, by bringing those who are underrepresented into that world.”
From stages to science
Pierre-Louis draws inspiration from her parents, who immigrated to New York City from Haiti. They emphasized the value of education, and both had college degrees. But Pierre-Louis saw her parents struggle to navigate their new country.
“When my mom came here, she couldn't speak English, but she eventually passed her nursing boards while raising three kids,” she said. “Seeing all of the things that my parents overcame, the challenges and discrimination, that’s my foundation. I was raised that, once you set your mind on something, only you can stand in your way.”
That work ethic is mixed with a strong appreciation for the value of community and the people who believe in your success. One of those people for Pierre-Louis was a chemistry professor at John Tyler.
While still thinking she would pursue performing arts in the long run, Pierre-Louis scored well on math and science placement tests. She had liked her chemistry teacher in high school and chose that as a concentration, almost on a whim.
Her first chemistry professor at John Tyler, Colleen Taylor, Ph.D., of Virginia State University, “changed the trajectory of my life,” Pierre-Louis said.
Taylor brought in industry professionals, post-secondary students and fellow professors to give her students a full view of what chemistry and science could offer. She pushed Pierre-Louis to reach outside her comfort zone, apply for opportunities and pursue a chemistry career. In doing so, Taylor also inspired Pierre-Louis to be that person for others.
“I truly believe that professors or teachers have so much influence on the trajectory of the student,” Pierre-Louis said. “Empowering them, letting them know the information that they need to progress.”
Creating community at VCU
In the fall of 2014, Pierre-Louis transferred to VCU, where she worked to find and replicate that same support system with her fellow students and professors. She aimed to create a place where students like her feel supported, could share experiences and navigate unfamiliar spaces within academia.
“I'm grateful for VCU because we have a lot of that in place — safe spaces for our students of color, or underrepresented students, to communicate and share what's going on,” she said. “That's already a framework here on campus, and I just want to scream that out, share it with everybody.”
Pierre-Louis helped revitalize a student chapter of the American Chemical Society at VCU, where students could learn about opportunities in chemistry. And another VCU chapter she co-founded, for the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, brought together a multidisciplinary group in service of professional development and mutual support.
A frustrating, early experience in the world of academic science almost knocked Pierre-Louis off course. She attended a summer fellowship for undergraduates interested in science research at another university, and the atmosphere of the lab induced an immense amount of pressure — to the point where the stress affected her health.
“I thought, ‘If this is science, I do not want to be a part,’” she said. “But I recognized later that it wasn't the science, it was the lack of program support, mentorship and a safe space to be honest and ask questions.”
Pierre-Louis came back to VCU that fall, grateful for the supportive environment of the school, and even more motivated to fortify those support networks for fellow science students.
“There are so many bright minds that might be intrigued by science,” she said. “But because of their social interactions, because of preconceived notions, they may not feel like they're a right fit for that world or that they would excel.”
Pierre-Louis graduated from the College of Humanities and Sciences in the spring of 2018 with a B.S. in chemistry and a concentration in biochemistry. She was then accepted to the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program, a one-year training program for recent college graduates in groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences, run by the VCU Center on Health Disparities.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of Josly’s success and her work on campus to bring her colleagues along with her,” said Charlene Crawley, Ph.D., an associate professor in the VCU Department of Chemistry. “While Black and Hispanic students tend to declare majors in STEM at roughly the same rates as their white peers — and a high percentage of them want post-baccalaureate degrees, too — students of color and women face significant challenges and barriers in those fields. At VCU, we’re working to counter those disparities, with the help of students like Josly.”
Doctorate in clinical and translational science funded
Having a supportive environment was also in the back of Pierre-Louis’ mind when she was choosing a Ph.D. program. In the fall of 2019, she enrolled in VCU's Clinical and Translational Science Doctoral Program in Cancer and Molecular Medicine at the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.
“We have amazing science happening on campus, and what I like about this program is that it’s an environment that would support me, where I’m always advocated for,” she said.
Pierre-Louis is set to graduate with her doctorate in 2024. The interdisciplinary program at the Wright Center trains students to perform research that translates sciences like chemistry into health breakthroughs.
The competitive Ford Foundation Fellowship from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine is a predoctoral award, meaning it will help fund her next three years of school and gives her access to regional liaisons in the Ford Foundation. The award will also pay her travel expenses to an annual conference where she’ll meet other Ford Foundation fellows.
“Josly has been a standout student from day one at VCU,” said Patricia Sime, M.D., chair of the Department of Internal Medicine in the VCU School of Medicine. “She’s really lived the vision of this fellowship through her leadership within the university as an undergraduate — and now graduate student. Josly is a valued member of our research team where she’s investigating aspects of lung inflammation and scarring, including those caused by COVID-19.”
As for Pierre-Louis’ skills in performance, they’re not going to waste. She sings and plays keyboard and drums at her church. She still dances.
“I'm really grateful for my unconventional path,” she said. “I see all the people that helped me along the way, and I know it takes a village to succeed. And my background in performing arts helped me know how to advocate for other students.
“I just want to encourage everyone to go at your own pace. Don't compare left or right. Take your time and everything will come as it goes.”