Dr. Jacqueline M. Brooks

This past month I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Jacqueline M. Brooks about her experiences in science as both an academic and a teacher.

Dr. Jacqueline M. Brooks holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology with a Secondary Education Teaching Certificate from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She earned a Master’s of Science in Biology from Duquesne University and a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Brown University. After her PhD, she worked as a post-doctoral researcher and instructor in molecular biology and life sciences at Harvard University. Dr. Brooks currently works as a freelance consultant in Greenville, Rhode Island where she lives with her husband and three children.

A Very Personal Journey

Why did she choose science?

Dr. Brooks’ interest in science started in grade school when her science teacher, Mrs. Peters, got her class involved in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science. This allowed her to perform small scientific experiments and present them to a panel of judges.

Later, her high school Biology teacher, Mrs. Cardinale, allowed her students to come up with their own ideas and do hands-on science experiments instead of just reading about science in a textbook. Jacqueline said, “I liked the way that she taught because it was more hands-on science using the scientific method to do your own exploration. I found that very exciting to tie into the textbook learning.”

When asked who may have motivated her to start down the path to a career in science she said, “I think it was having those teachers that were very involved and would take it to the next level.”

But she also had a complete fascination with the natural world and understanding it. While taking molecular biology as a senior in college, she was absolutely amazed by the molecular world, which she called “inner space”. She never understood why people wanted to study astronomy, when they could never go to those places. But now, with molecular biology tools in hand, it was like she could go to “inner space” and explore it for herself.

What obstacles did she overcome?

Dr. Brooks’ did not come from a wealthy family. Her mother left high school to work in the service industry. Her father came from a family of laborers and was the only one in his family who had graduated from high school. Jacqueline’s mother passed away before she entered high school and her social security money allowed her to pay to attend a private Catholic high school. Although her family had very little financial resources, she was able to attend Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a tuition waiver provided through her father’s retirement as a postal worker from the university.

Because she was attending college on a tuition waiver, Jacqueline felt she should get as much out of it as possible. “My sister said, ‘What are you going to do with a science degree? You should get a teaching degree too’”, said Jacqueline. While at Edinboro, she completed a Secondary Education Teaching Certificate and a Chemistry minor in addition to her Biology degree. “Because of the tuition waiver, I tried to get as many degrees as I could”, she said. This broad educational foundation launched a lifelong parallel trajectory of teaching and doing research science. “Training as a teacher was pivotal for me. It really requires you to master the subject matter and it made me a better scientist and educator”, said Jacqueline.

Although her tuition waiver made it possible for her to attend college, she still had to pay for rent, food, clothing, etc. by herself. This meant that Jacqueline had to work several jobs while in college. “I worked the whole time I was doing that as well. I worked bartending, I worked in the (university) mailroom, I worked off-track betting, I worked as an elementary school gifted tutor. I had a lot of jobs because I had to pay my rent, and all my utilities, and everything else,” she said.

After graduating with her bachelor's degree, Jacqueline moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to attend graduate school at Duquesne University. She actually had to save up money during college in order to apply to graduate school and afford the move. Luckily, her Master’s program did provide a teaching stipend, but she still had to work additional jobs in order to make ends meet. “I was bartending and waitressing every semester”, she said. “It made it really hard. However, it also kept me focused and forced time management, and I think that’s the important thing.”

When asked if she ever had doubts about her ability as a scientist, she remembered the struggles she faced during her PhD at Brown. Half of her class failed out of the program and some decided to leave the program after realizing how hard they had to work to be successful. “My first year at Brown, I didn’t even buy anything from the bookstore that said Brown University on it. I was thinking, if I fail out, I can’t wear this and explain that I went to school there and then was asked to leave,” she said.

Dr. Brooks made several science demonstration videos while at Harvard

However, Jacqueline said that although she was painfully aware she might not make it through, she never wanted to quit. She never thought that she had made the wrong choice.

Jacqueline did not have parents or other family members who were scientists, researchers, or doctors. No one had expectations that she would enter a prestigious career or even go to college. Instead of hindering her, this allowed her to forge her own personal path and do things her way without pressure from her family.

Jacqueline is proof that you can still be successful, even if you don’t come from money or parents with prestigious professions. She believes that if you work hard, and it’s something you really want to do, then it is possible for you.

“If you’re hungry, people will feed you. But you show up early and you stay late. And you say please, and you say thank you”, Jacqueline said.

“It’s kind of like me winning a marathon without having the custom shoes and meeting with the personal trainer. It’s just pounding the pavement on my own and winning the race. And I’m probably more tired at the end of the race. But I also feel like, wow, I did this on my own”, she said.

What is her biggest achievement?

Most people would probably expect Jacqueline to say that her biggest achievement was getting a PhD from Brown University or getting to work at Harvard University. However, she says that her biggest achievement is that she did it all completely on her own. It was a very personal journey.

Jacqueline says that no one helped her when she applied to college, she had no strong advisors at that time, and she had to learn everything for herself while paying for everything herself. “During my more formal scientific training I was fortunate to partner with valuable mentors and I thank Drs. James R. Gary, Gary Wessel, Craig P. Hunter, and Robert Lue for their advisement and support.

What are her other interests?

Jacqueline remarked in our interview that while teaching during graduate school and her post-doc, her students would do a lot of experiments like analyzing their own DNA from a cheek swab. Although it was fun to do with her students, she never got to do that kind of thing for herself. “I am a scientist and the hobbies that I like to do are all the types of things that I never had the chance to do”, she said.

Dr. Brooks and family explore low tide at Eastham Beach in Cape Cod

A lot of Jacqueline’s free time is now spent doing activities like this with her three kids. Making a terrarium, raising tadpoles and butterflies, and going on hikes to look for mushrooms are just some of the activities Jacqueline has done with her kids. She is also very involved with her kid’s scout troop and helped them to engineer and build a race car for the Pinewood Derby. “Imparting “a love of exploring” to my kids right now is probably my biggest kind of hobby, because I get to learn it all again with them.”

Dr. Brooks also enjoys cooking, baking, and gardening. She enjoys figuring out which plants can grow best where and experimenting with different recipes.

“I feel that I am a scientist, and the scientific method has always been a part of me, and I apply it to everyday living and things that I do with my kids,” Jacqueline said. “We’re constantly learning, exploring and experimenting”.

What advice does she have for young women in science?

Jacqueline says, “I think that it depends on what they want to do. But I think what served me well was having already kind of worked pretty hard at, you know, life. Self-reflection is important. I had to pause during difficult times and think about what I was doing and why and if it was worth it. It made me be more deliberate moving forward.”

She also thinks that it is important to know what you are getting into and to be ready to work hard and in a way that might be unique.

“I think the other thing that’s important is, not just with science, with anything, is if you get into a situation and you don’t like it, figure a way to get out of it.” Jacqueline recalls people she knew who had wanted to work in the lab of a famous scientist even though they knew that they wouldn’t get much help from them or the post-docs in the lab. They knew that they would be miserable but wanted to be able to say they got their degree with a famous person.

“That’s never a good situation to get into. You should be working in a place that you like and enjoy, because you’re going to spend a lot of time there. Work on a project that you like, with someone that you get along with,” she said.

Dr. Brooks says it is also important to be genuine. Early on she avoided talking about how her mom had died and she had to work various jobs to pay her way through. She didn’t want to be a “sob story”, but she thinks now that people would have understood better where she was coming from if she had been more open. “I think that it is incredibly important to be genuine. If you need help, you should ask for help. If you’re not good at something, let them know”, she said.

Her last piece of advice is to “Do it for you”. She says that young people should not major in science or go to medical school because their parents want them to or because they think it is what other people expect them to do. “Don’t be an imposter where you’re pretending to be the scientist and train for the wrong reasons. That’s very hard to sustain. You should only be doing it for yourself. That’s the only way I feel that you can genuinely succeed and be happy”, she said.