Photo by NIDA
One of the 2017 winners of NIDA’s Addiction Science Award is Nkima Stephenson of Georgia. We asked her about working in scientific research, her advice for young people thinking about science as a career, and more.
What made you want to explore scientific research?
I’ve always had an interest in the “hows and whys” of the world. Although I didn't know it was called “science” at the time, I loved to figure out life’s little mysteries when I was younger. My first middle school science teacher was the one who really pushed me to do science. Little did I know, growing salt crystals in mason jars for my 6th grade science fair project was only the beginning for me.
What do you love about science and research?
The freedom to explore any subject or questions that interest you while also helping people through your discoveries. Also, the science community is very generous, and scientists love to work as a team. More-experienced scientists are always willing to mentor and guide enthusiastic young researchers.
Can you give us an example?
In my junior year of high school, I completed a project on the genetics of canine hypothyroidism, a disease that affects thousands of dogs every year. When I was in the planning phase of the project, I emailed some questions to a few professors across the country. The response was overwhelming. They gave me free access to many publications and priceless advice on my research plan. Even if the professor I contacted didn’t know the answers to my questions, they would refer me to someone who did.
What are some of the challenges in science and research?
Setbacks happen. Sometimes your research plan comes back with negative results, or no one will support your next big idea in the lab. The most important task is facing these problems head-on and not quitting during uncertain times.
What’s your advice for other young people interested in doing scientific research?
Get started as soon as you can, and don’t be afraid to start small. Once you decide what topic you’re interested in, find someone in your local area (at a college or lab) who is also studying that topic and email them some questions about their work; they may be able to offer advice and resources to help you out! And never stop questioning the world around you.
What’s your next project?
My current interests are how epigenetics plays a role in a person’s behavior and how it’s connected to the risk of disease. Ultimately, I’d like to conduct a project on how epigenetics, environment, and neuroscience affect race relations in different communities.
Learn more: meet three teens whose ideas could save lives.