Janina Jeff is an American geneticist and Staff Bioinformatics Scientist at Illumina. Jeff is particularly interested in identifying genetic variants that explain disease disparities across populations. She is the first African American to earn a PhD in Human Genetics at Vanderbilt University. She is also the host and executive producer of the podcast, In Those Genes, which links genetics, African American identity and Black culture. Jeff is also an active science communicator and a minority STEM activist.
Please note the transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
FLG: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the latest Genome Giants interview. Today, we are joined by scientist, educator and podcast host, Janina Jeff. So, before we delve into your career, Janina, if you could just introduce yourself and tell everyone a little bit about what you do as well.
Janina: Hi. My name is Dr. Janina Jeff, I am a population geneticist. I am formally a Staff Scientist at Illumina, as well as a host and creator of a podcast called In Those Genes. In Those Genes is a podcast that uses genetics to decode the loss histories and futures of African descendants. More recently, we’ve been also covering basic science journalism like COVID-19.
FLG: So, if we go back to the beginning, you grew up in New Orleans. What are some of your fondest memories from growing up?
Janina: I grew up with a large family of people. My grandparents have lots of siblings, and so I have a lot of great aunts and great uncles, and then their children, so cousins, and so forth. So, I grew up in a really big community of people who loved and cared about me, which was amazing. With that comes so much diversity in the type of people that I was close to (family members and friends). In school, specifically, one of my fondest memories, and I talk about this a lot is, was when I was in elementary school, and your grandparents asked you questions, like, what do you want to be when you grow up? That question should be abandoned. It should be abolished for children in general, but definitely for young adults. We should just stop asking that question. But back then, when I was asked that question, I remember my grandfather dropping me off at school. And I told him that I wanted to be a mathematician.
My main reason and only reason was because I was good at math. Math makes so much sense. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to be a mathematician, it makes so much sense’. Then, when I was in school, I started doing science fairs. I’m a very competitive person, mostly with myself, which I mean, I don’t know what scientist isn’t. I was winning these science fairs, but I was also being able to tap into my creativity. So, if you have ever been to New Orleans or hear about New Orleans, it is a city of creatives. You have musicians, you have artists, you have the culinary industry. You have so much. I think science and STEM is less talked about. But competing in these career fairs was an opportunity for me to express that creativity in a different way.
FLG: Apart from being creative, what were you like as a child? Also, how did you go from liking maths to then moving over to other types of science?
Janina: As a child, I was very inquisitive. My parents tell the story of how I was very inquisitive. It’s interesting how I had a sense of human rights. Like, obviously, this was before I knew I was Black and before I knew what it meant to be a woman. My parents tell stories of when we were at a restaurant and I asked the waitress for chicken nuggets, and she was like, ‘We are out of chicken nuggets’. And I was two or three, and said, ‘This is just ridiculous’. Ridiculous is such a big word for a two- or three-year-old, especially in the 80s. I was always a child that was yearning and asking for more and always knew that the world had more to offer. And I felt confident and bold enough to ask the world for more. That’s just an example of how I was then.
In terms of shifting sciences, I lived in New Orleans until I was 17. In high school, I hadn’t quite got a handle on what type of science that I was going to be interested in yet. It wasn’t until I went on to college, where I started to explore different types of sciences more, and then specifically genetics. So, when I was at Spelman, which is where I went for undergrad, I worked in a genetics lab, and it was what we call a damp lab where you do some bench work. You can also go on computers and do some computational work. The computational work then was blasting sequence data on UCSC Genome Browser. That was bioinformatics, big time! So, that was when I started to get interested in genetics. At that time, I was working in a bovine genetics lab, and I really enjoyed it. That was my introduction into genetics.
FLG: How do you feel your upbringing affected your career decisions? What made you want to go into this area? Did you have any role models growing up that encouraged you to go into this area as well?
Janina: I didn’t have role models that directly encouraged me to be in science, per se. I do have an uncle who has a PhD in computer science from Georgia Tech. I would say the person who was probably most instrumental to me, knowing very early on that I was going to continue on with a doctorate degree even before I had started college, would be my grandfather. My grandfather was a psychologist. He has a PhD in sociology. He really was a civil rights activist. And so even when I was younger, all of the things that I’m able to do now he was doing. He had gotten his PhD, he had been working on books, he had been teaching courses. He had also been leading a therapeutic service. He also was the President of an organisation called 100 Black Men. He even had been on Oprah back in the 90s. I was very fortunate to grow up very close to my grandfather, and he was the one who I told I was going to be a mathematician. He definitely continued to push me along and continued to reemphasise the importance of my identity and the importance of family. While my grandfather wasn’t a formal geneticist, he was definitely deep into genealogy and deep into thinking about our connections with our ancestors.
A lot of my family is very Afro centric, so a lot of my childhood was about learning about my ancestors, learning about the people who came before me. I wasn’t quite making that connection to genetics yet, but I definitely think it built the foundation of my interest in it because living in America as a Black person, you don’t have access to the history of your ancestors. It’s intentionally kept away from you. So, to be in a family where we were very progressive and very conscious about how we reclaim and reidentify ourselves, and how we change this negative story to a story that we can learn from and benefit from. My grandfather always talked to me about the Sankofa principle, which is a Ghanian principle, that basically means to go back and fetch the things that came before you, and to use those things to feel what is coming ahead of you. If you have ever seen the Sankofa symbol, it’s a picture of a bird whose head is turned backwards, and its mouth is on an egg. It’s just this idea of that in order to fully understand ourselves, we have to understand who we are, where we come from, and then use that information to fuel our futures. So, I’m really big into futures, but we can talk about that later.
FLG: You mentioned that you got your bachelor’s degree at Spelman College. What was your time like here?
Janina: I had a great time. It was an amazing time. College is fun! Spelman College is a historically Black college. It was started in 1881. Spelman has a long-standing history. I’m actually named after a series of women in my family, we all have the same initials JMJ. My great aunt is Jolene Maria Jeff then her niece is Jolena Maria Jeff and then her other niece is Janine Maria Jeff and then I’m Janina Maria Jeff. I was the second generation to attend Spelman. I followed in the footsteps of my aunt who I’ve been following pretty much my whole life. My grandfather passed away the summer before I went to Spelman. One of the things that he told me before he passed away, when I was applying for college and I had got into Spelman, and he actually wrote out my deposit check. I had no idea how I was going to pay for Spelman. He wrote out my deposit check and he told me, ‘To be the woman that I needed to be, I needed to attend Spelman College’, and then he passed away June before I went to Spelman. And so, I knew that Spelman was the place where I was supposed to be.
I walked into Spelman with that in mind, and when I got there I built, which I think every Spelman woman builds, is a community of Black women who are like minded, who support each other. Spelman, at that time, was probably accepting about 5-6% of the applicants. And so, you’re getting the top tier of people who have 20 million extracurricular activities, who also have a 4.3 GPA, who also are well rounded, who also are so conscious about the world, all coming together at one time. It’s not a coincidence that so many of us go on to do great things after Spelman. But the biggest thing that happened at Spelman was the development of a sisterhood. I think community is something that really emphasises itself in every phase of my life. And at Spelman, that community was building a sisterhood with my Spelman sisters who are now my best friends to this day, and they’re all doing great and amazing things and we all support each other in great and amazing ways. That would be the biggest thing I got from Spelman.
From a science perspective, in addition to getting a great education, and working in a genetics lab and really being introduced into research. One of the things that I think is unique about the Spelman experience is that because Spelman is really focused on womanhood and reinforcing the value of being a woman and re-instilling the power that women have and also how that came to be. Because this is not how it always started. This is how it should be. I go back and look at some of my early books at Spelman and we had to take a class called African Diaspora in the world. A lot of men at our brother school Morehouse College would joke and say, ‘This is the womanist training. It’s like womanist bootcamp’. You would go through this class, and you are like, ‘Yes, I have a womanist and here are all the great, amazing things about women’. I was re-reading the book last year and just reading it like, ‘Wow, I had no idea at 18 what I was reading and how far ahead of time Spelman was’. We were talking about gender not being a thing then, we were talking about race not being a thing then, we were talking about how the patriarchy has shaped and the intersection of being a woman and being Black then and how that experience cultivates and creates this unique group of women.
And so, from a science perspective, the thing that Spelman had done is made sure that no matter what discipline you were in, you learned, and you were competent enough to tap into the soft skills as well. It made sure that you learned how to network, made sure that you knew how to talk, made sure that you could communicate. Because we have all of this knowledge and by no means is it saying or am I saying that it’s everyone’s duty or job to communicate, because there’s a very fine line there. But if you want to communicate yourself, and you want to connect with people, here’s a way in which you do it. And so, at Spelman, I feel like I really got the experience of learning how to communicate and be confident in what I’m communicating. And as a scientist, that’s a very unique skill set. Because most of us scientists like to work in silos, we like to work on that little thing that we’re working on, and we don’t really care if no one else understands it, as long as our reviewers understand it, that’s all that matters. And so, I valued that part, getting the soft skills that I needed to get now.
The part, which transitions into Vanderbilt, that I didn’t realise was that I was in this safe space of woman who looked like me, who supported and who were just so pro each other, and then going to Vanderbilt, where then I was the only person who looked like me. That was a completely different transition. But Spelman definitely, helped me build the social and soft skills in addition to the science that I needed.
FLG: As you mentioned, you did your doctorate at Vanderbilt University. What was that transition like? How did you deal with that culture shock?
Janina: It was hard, very hard. I grew up in New Orleans, a predominantly Black city at that time, and Atlanta, another predominantly Black city, at a predominantly Black school. In elementary school, I went to a more diverse school, but I hadn’t really been exposed to being the only one. That was a culture shock. I expected it. I even expected what that experience could be like. Because, obviously, there were other Black women who came before me, even other Black women from Spelman who went on to do PhDs at Vanderbilt who could prepare me for what to expect. But then I think I definitely didn’t understand the substitute things that were affecting me and chipping away. I would say the biggest thing is having imposter syndrome. If you can imagine, you walk into any room, and you’re the only one. You walk into any room, and let’s say you are all getting together to talk about one topic, but you’re the only woman there, you look around and you ask yourself, ‘Well, why am I here? Do I deserve to be here? Because there should be more women here at this table. There should be more Black people here at this table’. And so, I already walked in feeling very alienated because I was different. And of course, when you walk into this, if you are the different one, people ask questions, people make assumptions. In my experience, I expected that, I was used to it.
Now that I’m older, I didn’t realise how it was having an effect on me. How it was affecting me, how my own issues and insecurities were coming out because of this experience, how my own issues of anti-Blackness were coming out because of this experience, my own issues with patriarchy. And we all deal with these systems in different ways, even if we are a part of an oppressed group. I think at that time, you’re so used to dealing with them, you don’t understand the psychological toll it can take on you. And so, it was then when I realised ‘Oh, there’s this thing called anxiety’. I didn’t know you know; you hear about anxiety. But there weren’t people in my community talking about, ‘Oh, I have anxiety so I can’t go to work’. We didn’t have a choice. You went to work because you had to go to work. And you put all those things that you were dealing with on the side, and you pushed through it. That was my Vanderbilt experience. I was pushing all these things on the side and just pushing through and just pushing through and just pushing through.
And so, I definitely had some challenges when I was at Vanderbilt. One of which being the qualifying exams, which are oral exams, which, if you want to test your anxiety, that’s a great way to do it. To have to talk about all the things that you’ve been learning and what you’ve been studying, it’s a very, very nerve-wracking process. My first time taking the qualifying exam, I didn’t pass it. I think that was largely because I was just nervous. I was nervous, I was anxious, I was dealing with all this self-doubt, I already felt that I was not as smart as everyone else. That’s my own anti-Blackness kicking in. I had no basis of thinking that. I went through the same application process as everyone else. I didn’t pass the exam; I went to therapy for the second time in my life and started to realise that I was dealing with a lot of insecurities and a lot of self-doubt. And just started to learn how to manage that. I mean, I’m still working on that. I tell people, ‘Spoiler alert! It doesn’t go away’. You continue to deal with imposter syndrome in different areas and walks of life. And I would say, it’s not even something that’s unique to women, men deal with it too, we’ve just been socialised to express it in different ways. Now, I have been learning that and learning how to manage that, and just re-instilling and reminding myself what’s reality versus what am I cultivating in my head that’s creating this painful experience.
FLG: What advice would you give to people who are experiencing that?
Janina: The first step is always realising it. I didn’t realise it. Going to therapy, I had begun to realise it. Then, you go therapy, and you talk about and your like, ‘Oh, my God, now what do I do about it?’. And your therapist is like, ‘You just talk about it’. And I am like, ‘Ah! I feel like I need a little bit more, I’m tired of talking about it’. But that really is true. Talking about it, and for me, talking through what is really real versus what am I creating and then starting to ask yourself, ‘Well, why am I creating this environment that is obviously painful for me?’. So, I’ll use myself as an example, I am at Vanderbilt, I’m one of the only ones I’m like, ‘Oh, my god, they’re all going to think I’m stupid. They’re all going to realise that I don’t know what I’m talking about and that I’m stupid. And that all their assumptions about Black women up until this point were exactly right’. The reality is I have lived in a world for my entire life with those assumptions about Black people and the success of Black people, particularly in the sciences. I already walked in with that predisposition and so did the people in my programme. But I also went through the same application process, I also went through the same coursework that they went through, I’m also going through the same rigorous processes that everyone else is going through. And I’m excelling through those processes. So, why do I think that I’m less than? The reality is I’m doing the same exact thing as everyone else. Now, I am dealing with other issues that are about my identity, and the way that I experience my identity in this world that maybe other students aren’t dealing with. Maybe that’s what’s causing me anxiety, maybe that’s what’s causing the imposter syndrome. But the reality is, I am here, I am excelling, I am doing all the same things as my counterparts. So, let me quiet these loud voices and the noise of the world and let me focus on what’s actually in front of me.
FLG: You were the first African American to get a PhD in Human Genetics at Vanderbilt. How did that feel at the time, and now upon reflection, how does that feel today as well?
Janina: It is really interesting. At the time, I never really said it much. I knew it was, I was asking around, and it was something that no one else had thought about, but it was on my mind. There were other students who trained with PhD professors who weren’t Vanderbilt students in genetics. And so, I started to even discredit it like, ‘Well, I’m not the first because there’s other students here’. But they weren’t Vanderbilt students, they weren’t trained at Vanderbilt. So, technically, they weren’t Vanderbilt students. So, I even started to invalidate this huge accomplishment that was clearly there, and then other students would too. I remember saying it to a few grad students and they were trying to justify it, or saying, ‘Oh, other people here trained, and we have other Black people who are doing other things here’. It wasn’t until much, much later that I started to say no, actually, this is a fact. I am the first Black person to graduate with a PhD in Human Genetics from Vanderbilt. And I should be proud of that. I can’t take on everyone else’s guilt about that. Why can’t I be proud about it? Why should that make anyone feel uncomfortable? And it shouldn’t. Because the good news is, I’m not the last and never did I think I would be the last.
FLG: It’s such a great achievement. You are a role model for other people coming through. What was your early career like?
Janina: Yeah, so I had an amazing PhD advisor. Her name is Dr. Dana Crawford, she is a genetic epidemiologist. At the time, to give a little bit of a genetic timeline, I was working on GWAS, we were doing some of the first GWASs. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen or heard about Manhattan plots, these GWAS Manhattan plots. We were working on the ones that were hideous, they were so hideous. We would make the first Manhattan plots. And just to give you a timeframe of how archaic this is, to plot 500,000 SNPs or even 300,000 SNPs, which was considered GWAS, that was huge then, in a couple 100 people, it would take 30 minutes to plot that. It was funny.
My early research was focused on cardiovascular disease, and specifically quantitative traits that are associated with cardiovascular disease. So, you can consider these traits as an intermediate phenotype. If someone has chronic heart failure or congestive heart disease, that’s an end phenotype, where we have diagnosed the patient with this, we know the clinical progression and outcome of this given disease. What I was studying, were quantitative traits that lead up to it. And so specifically arrhythmias in the heart and how we measure cardiac arrhythmias in different time points in a heartbeat. And so, I was studying the genetics behind that. My advisor was interested in genetic epidemiology. And so, we were part of a big cohort, and everyone was studying all kinds of things. My very first paper, I think it was published in 2011. And it is my favourite gene, every person has their favourite gene when they’re like in grad school, because no one else cares about your gene but you, and it was a sodium channel gene called SCN5A. A lot of research had been done on it in the past, but I was tapping into the beginning of how we started to take all this research that had been done in European descent populations and trying to understand what it looked like in other populations. That’s a huge part of epidemiology. And so, I was doing that research and SCN5A was one of my favourite genes. I was also studying other quantitative traits associated with cardiovascular disease, like clotting factors and many of the metrics that are captured in a blood draw that we call a CVC. And just looking at the genetics of those traits. I was doing this and trying to replicate findings of European descent populations, but also looking at the extent in which those findings held up in African descent and Latinx populations. That was a lot of my PhD work.
Then, towards the end of my PhD, I really started to try to understand why we were not able to replicate the findings of European descent individuals and thought ‘Let’s answer the question why?’. To answer that question, we have to get a deeper understanding of populations in general, we have to get a deeper understanding of the history of populations and what we call the genetic architecture of a given population. I then was really diving deep into population genetics. And so, that was when I was thought it’s time for me to evolve out of this lab and go a little bit deeper into the populations themselves and understand what are the different parts of the genome that we can characterise and quantify and qualify that are unique. In other words, these population signatures that are unique to populations who share common ancestors. And so, that was taken off into my postdoctoral research.
FLG: Why is population genetics so important? What are some of the existing challenges within this area?
Janina: Population genetics is extremely important. One of the reasons why I like to think of it is when we think about the diseases and the phenotypes that are manifesting in present day, a lot of them could be attributed to natural selection, a lot of them can be attributed to how our bodies are evolving with the environment. In order to understand that, we have to understand the ancestors that came before us and the types of environments they were living in. A really great example of that is sickle cell and malaria, where having the variant that yields for sickle cell disease prevents you from developing malaria. That’s definitely something in our ancestor’s time that saved lives. Your body was having to choose, ‘Do you need to live to 40 versus dying at five or six? Well, we’re going to select for you to live until 40 or so’. Now, the thing is, we have migration – forced migration by way of slavery, and also intentional migration of other populations and natural migration – that has just happened in human history. And so, once our environments start to change, depending on how fast that comes, our bodies may not be caught up to speed with our new environment, and most importantly, technology. And so, now, sickle cell is a big issue. Malaria is not as much of a threat as sickle cell has been, particularly living in the Western world. The World Health Organisation recently announced that we now have a treatment for malaria, which is really, really exciting. And also, now you’re starting to see a lot of gene editing technology being used to help and cure sickle cell. There’s a lot of advancement in technology that is now coming in and saying let’s try to fix things that our bodies won’t be able to fix on their own naturally in the time period that we’re here.
When we talk about evolution, we talk about natural selection, these things happen very, very, very slow. It’s not like you can move and 400 years later, our bodies should be used to this environment. These things take 1000s of years. Even 1000s of years is considered fast. A lot of things are like millions of years. So, understanding population history directly informs, and can tell us a lot about what we’re seeing in health disparities. Genetics is just one part of it. Population history as a whole is also important. Culture is important. Our environments are important. The engagement of culture, environment, and genetics is all important. And so, we have to understand all of that stuff to really be able to answer the full question of what’s really going on?
There are several challenges. One, we’re talking about now, in the last, let’s be generous and say 7-10 years geneticists starting to say, ‘Oh, yeah, we should probably study other populations’. Mostly because if we understand more populations, then we can start to develop cures. We can start to understand how a medical practice that has been researched, discovered and used in only one population is clearly not benefiting other populations, other people are dying, we have to study other populations in order to save those lives. But also, in doing that, we learn so much information that we actually wind up creating more information to save everyone. And so, it’s a really great thing. But the challenge being because there’s such a long history of only studying European descent populations, there are so many limitations.
One is that the discovery that we’re seeing, we can’t really say it’s a true discovery. Because a lot of the time we see that these discoveries that we find don’t translate to other populations. That could mean a lot of different things. It could mean that the variant that we thought was causing the disease is actually not causing the disease. Maybe it’s not causing the disease, the way the genome works, maybe it’s hanging out with other variants that are actually causing the disease, and it’s just disguised. And we can only see it in one population. When we study other populations, we can really home in and say, ‘Oh, actually it wasn’t that variant, even though it looks like that variant, it is this one. And this is the one we should maybe look at when we think about a drug target’. So that’s one of the challenges, is that everything that we’ve known beforehand, all has to be restudied in other populations with a critical lens.
And the other thing is that, how do we do that? At Illumina, we create the technology to do this. Before next generation sequencing, a lot of that technology was on genotyping arrays, which is very limited and very selective. So, you have to know what you want to assay before you actually do it. And so, the problem is, is that if all of your research up until that point is all in European descent populations, the technology also is geared towards European descent populations. So, even though you’re asking the question in African descent populations, you don’t even have enough information to do it because the technology is not really supporting this population. That’s what I work on at Illumina. And we’ve been really successful in the last five or six years, or maybe seven years even, with improving that technology, and really making that technology as inclusive as possible from a genomic perspective.
Then, the other part is, we talk about discovery practice and what we’re studying and making sure discoveries are real and that they apply to different populations. In order to do that, we need the technology to do that. In addition to the technology to do that, we also need the methods. So, we know human genetics is a really large computational field. We think about statistics, the statistics have to also match all of this stuff. The methods that we create have to understand that there’s underlying population structure differences between different groups of people, so that when we actually get an association, we can say, ‘This is real’. So, we have the discoveries, we have the technology, now we have the methods that have to be improved.
The other biggest challenge is that we have to make sure we have the right scientists. If we’re asking questions, and we’ve only been studying European population for the last 25 years, we don’t even actually know what are the topics and phenotypes and things that we should be studying in different populations. We need these populations to be enrolled in these studies in order to have enough power and people to answer these questions. We have to understand the population not just from a genetic and science perspective, but from a cultural perspective. And so, you do need scientists that represent these communities, because we’re engaged with the community, we actually, especially given the history, are much more trustworthy than some of our White counterparts. And so, coming in and actually having a personal human care and concern for these populations in a way that directly touches you does impact the questions you ask and does impact the type of community you engage in for that research. And so, it’s important that we have diverse scientists and populations. I tell people all the time, a lot of geneticists three years ago would say, ‘Oh, we just need more African descent samples, we just need more Southeast Asian samples, we need more Latinx sample’. It’s not just about the samples, you’re not going to get the samples if you don’t have the trust of the community, if you don’t have the community at heart.
And so, there’s a lot of challenges but there’s also a lot of promise. Because all of the challenges that I mentioned to you have all been worked on. There are a lot of huge initiatives making sure that we have diverse scientists at the front lines asking these questions who are deeply connected to these communities. We have improvement in the technology, we have improvement in the methods. And we’re also improving the research that has been done before to make sure that it checks before we just decide to prescribe a medication or make a diagnosis. So, I think there’s a lot that is being done. It is barely scratching the surface; we have a long way to go. But we’re getting there.
FLG: On a personal level, what has it been like for you as an African American bringing this important research to the forefront?
Janina: It’s been a journey. I often hear people come to me and ask me, ‘Can you help me with my diversity inclusion initiative? How can we get more samples from diverse communities? Can you help us do that?’ And I always give a little bit of pushback. It’s not because I don’t want to help. But it’s because most of us want to make sure, because there’s such a long history of distrust, I can’t just sign on to everyone who just says they want to have diverse samples. I have to really make sure that whoever I’m working with is doing this for the right reasons. Those reasons can’t be self-motivated. I ask questions: ‘Well, how many diverse scientists do you have on your team working on this?’ Most of the times the answer is zero because they’re coming to me. And then, I also have to ask, I have a PhD in Human Genetics, I actually don’t have a PhD in diversity and inclusion. There are people who are diversity and inclusion experts, I have a lived experience as a Black woman. And so, I don’t know if I even qualify to lead a diversity and inclusion initiative from a very professional, implementation standpoint. I have a lived experience. But in no ways am I an expert. I am an expert in genetics. I also sometimes get a little offended, because it’s almost a dismissal of my actual science training and my actual science discipline to assume ‘Well, you look like this, I’m missing this from my research question, or my research programme, I need it. And I am just going make an assumption that you can get it for me’.
So, I always just tell people, be careful how you approach these things, especially a lot of Black scientists who are in academia right now have to do their science, but also do 100 million diversity and inclusion support help, and it doesn’t help them get tenure. It’s not like someone’s giving you a pat on the back and saying, ‘Thank you and here’s a promotion’. A lot of this work is done for free; it comes with a lot of stress. Another thing that’s really complicated is that it comes with dealing with a little bit of trauma. I don’t get to the privilege of waking up one day and not noticing that I’m Black, or not noticing that I’m a woman. And to be in a position where I would have to talk about those challenges and all these horrible things that have happened to me or in my community every single day, you can imagine that takes a huge toll on a person. So much so that before I started doing this work, I never talked about it. I wasn’t talking about this at Vanderbilt. I was just assuming that’s just the way the world was, and no one cared to change it. But now that we are able to talk about it, and now I can say the word ‘race’ in a conversation. I have to tread a fine line of this might be informative to the audience but how is this making me feel to re-victimise myself with a long history of eugenics and racism, and all of these things that have built up that really has gotten us in the situation that we’re in.
And so, it is hard, it’s not easy. You have to definitely do self-care, and definitely reorient. I like to think of myself, and I think about my ancestors. I’m not the first person working on these things. And there are a lot of people who came before me who were working on these things, and I now understand the sacrifices they made so that I could be here to work on these things. And so, my outlook on it is that as long as I’m doing the right self-care work, on a bigger scale I’m doing something that will impact the generations to come and so hopefully they won’t have to deal with as much trauma as I did, or even more trauma as the people who came before me So, it is a challenge.
At Illumina though, not so much. Because at Illumina, I’ve been very fortunate enough to focus on science. At Illumina, I don’t do a lot of diversity and inclusion work. I’ve been fortunate enough to really been able to have the respect of being a scientist. They’re not pinging me like, ‘Hey, can you be on a D and I initiative’. Illumina has been very smart in hiring staff who are experts in this area, and they’ve been amazing at doing this work for Illumina. And so, I actually enjoy that because like I said, it would be not so fun to have a job where 40 hours a week you talk about your trauma. I don’t think anyone wants that. But I don’t think a lot of people realise that this is the experience of someone who is doing this work.
FLG: Aside from your work at Illumina, you’re also the host and executive producer of a podcast called In Those Genes. What made you want to start this adventure? What has this journey been like?
Janina: It’s been just like the journey of getting a PhD. It’s been a lot of imposter syndrome. Like I said, it doesn’t go away. It just comes in different forms. So, in 2018, I applied for a programme called Spotify Sound Up Bootcamp, and a friend of mine told me about the programme. And I was like, ‘Ah, I like podcasts, but I don’t know what to have a podcast about’ and then I went to bed. Then, the next morning, I was like, ‘Oh, In Those Genes – that’s a podcast!’ The name came through because it’s a play on words from an old 90s R&B song from Ginuwine. But it wasn’t genes, it was jeans. And a completely different topic! I really woke up the next day and was like, ‘Oh, I can have a podcast and we’re going to have all these things, like the gene of the week, and we’re going to pick a gene, and we’re going to change the acronym, like the BLM gene is going to stand for Black Lives Matter. And we’re going to do all these cool things’. None of that stuff actually came through on the podcast.
But I wrote this application, and it was going viral on Black Twitter. So many people were applying to do this. And I was like, there’s no way I’m going to get it because I was just seeing the tweets and 18,000 people applied. And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah I’m a statistician, this is not in my cards, it’s fine’. And then I got a rejection email. I wasn’t surprised. I felt a little drop in my heart, but it went away after five minutes and then I was fine. Then, I got another email that was like ‘Congratulations, you’re in the top 20!’ So, I go into the top 20 and I interview, and I wind up being in the top 10. The top 10 got to spend a week in New York to learn about podcasting. Then, the top 10 competed for three spots to win $10,000 to start their podcast, and I won one of those top three spots and started In Those Genes. Not long after that I met Sam Riddell, who is our Lead Producer. At that time, she was working at a company called Inverse and they were working on an episode on gene editing. And so, she was going to interview me for gene editing. I just thought she was so cool. And I was like, ‘Hey, do you know any producers who would be interested in working on a podcast about genetics. I’m starting this podcast; I don’t have anybody’. She was like, ‘I’d be interested’. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay, let’s work together for a week and see where its goes’. And it was amazing. And it’s been amazing ever since.
We created the first episode, which is called ‘Scientific Sankofa’, and we talked about the Sanokfa principle here. It really is about me learning about my own identity with my parents. So, it’s a conversation with my parents and opening up the season on how we can learn about ourselves. The whole season is on genetic ancestry testing, which most people in the Black community in America have strong interest in genetic ancestry testing because of the history being erased. And so, we decided that whole season to dive really deep into it, what is everything you should know, where are the Black owned companies. We do a rap battle. We talk to the elders and ask them what their thoughts are. We looked at 23andMe and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with the data?’ We looked at privacy and we talked with legal experts. We also talked to genealogists stans who look for their 30,000 cousins. We have all of these fun episodes and one of the things that’s been very delightful about In Those Genes is like I told you, talking about this stuff can be somewhat painful and traumatic. And we have found this very sweet spot of bringing in Black culture, which is full of joy and music and all these things to make something very heavy a little light, but also educational.
FLG: What has it been like for you seeing peoples’ responses to the podcast?
Janina: It’s been very humbling. I was terrified at first. I was very terrified because I felt this was like a coming out. Everyone in the genetics community I’m sure they knew I was Black. But I say it was like my coming out because I think when you work in a space where you’re one of a few you have to assimilate to make other people feel comfortable. I really empathise with international scientists who have to work in Western cultures, because if we think about the erasure of East Asian names just to make it easier for us to pronounce. There’s so much assimilation that has to happen that you do have a different identity in certain spaces then you do at home. A lot of international scientists will come to work and be a completely different person, speak completely different languages, go by completely different names when they are at home. So, you don’t get a chance to fully be yourself.
When I released In Those Genes, I was like this is really me. The people who have known me as Janina the geneticists are going to be so surprised when they hear how authentically Black and raw I am. And I was like, ‘They’re going to hate it, all the scientists are going to just hate it!’ And so, I was very shocked that they didn’t hate it. I was very shocked. When you publish things, you’re always scared that someone’s going to be like, ‘That fact was wrong’. So, it was very much like, ‘Oh, my God, everything has to be right, we have to get all the facts, right. We can’t get it wrong’. I am still like that.
FLG: I’m like that in these interviews!
Janina: Yeah, and also, because we’re talking about science, you don’t want to get it wrong. You’re never going to get it 100% right. You want to make sure you have all the caveats. You use all the words. One of the biggest things I’ve learned in the science space is making sure we have a fact checker, I’m always fact checking. But then when we say things, we are also trying not to be so definitive, because science is so dynamic, especially with COVID. What’s true today is not going to be true tomorrow. And that’s just how science works. And that’s the beautiful thing about science. And so, we have to talk about it that way. Because a lot of our listeners are not in the science community to understand that, especially when we talk about genetic ancestry, and people are really surprised to find out that their ancestry changes like, ‘Oh, 23andMe did an update and now I am not Nigerian anymore’. We have to explain that this is how science works. It is not a bad thing, it’s actually a great thing, because it means that the science is getting better. But we have to explain those things.
So, I was terrified, I thought everyone was going to hate it, I thought everyone was going to be like, ‘You can’t curse and talk about genetics’. And I know, that is not what people like, but we’re all about decolonising the industry. And we think about how we talk with our friends, that’s the most safe space. We think about a podcast, it’s a very intimate space. I am literally in your ears, it’s just me and you. This is the most personal space that you will have with someone like a journalist. And so, we can use that space to be at home and to be with friends. And if you hear a podcast on comedy or politics or any other discipline, it is safe. Why have we decided that in science you can’t do it? Well, you can, you can do that. And you can also quote 25 papers and do those two things. There are no rules. I’ve been very shocked at how welcoming and how helpful and just how supportive the science community has been about the podcast, and it’s definitely made me want to continue to do it. It has made me want to continue to keep pushing forward and so I’m very grateful.
FLG: I think podcasts are such good platform, especially trying to engage with the public and communicate science in a fun manner. Why has that been so important for you? And why is science communication and public engagement in general just so important?
Janina: COVID is a great example of that. Can you think about how the world knows what mRNA is? That’s crazy to me. The whole entire world knows what mRNA is. Everyone has a good sense of what immunity is, we all have become little immunologist in the last two years. It’s extremely important. One because science itself, science as a language, has been extremely inaccessible. I tell people the first humans were scientists, they had to be. They had to figure out ‘Okay, if you eat that berry, so and so ate that berry last week and they didn’t make it. So, we know not to eat that berry. But so and so ate this berry and had 10 babies. So, we should eat this berry’. That literally is science people. That is a study right there. We’re testing something. And so, the first humans were scientists, they obviously weren’t speaking the language that we speak today, there wasn’t any peer review publication except for so and so and so and so and so and so didn’t die so you can eat that one, it’s safe. That was the peer review process.
This has now evolved, but unfortunately, because of colonialisation, because of things like systemic racism, the science has also really shifted and became colonised as well. And if we think about the language, most scientific articles globally are written in English. If we think about the populations that are being studied, all of this stuff is really bias. Journalism is the same way. Even science journalists. While the language is more lay, it’s still very much focused on science enthusiasts. It’s not focused on the average person and is most definitely not focused on the average person of colour. And so, I see that as a barrier. Science is so cool, why would you want to keep it from anybody? Everybody should have access to science.
If access to science means that we change a few words or maybe we use a scenario that’s more familiar to you, then fine, that’s cool. Why not? The more people who are doing science, the more we’re going to learn. That’s just it. And so, I really am passionate about changing the language and making it more accessible. That can be done in a host of different ways. Why can’t we use music? Why can’t we have fun? There are no rules. As we change the culture of science, we now start to bring in more scientists, we now start to make it safe for people to come and engage in science and be their authentic self, because that’s going to do nothing but make the science better.
FLG: Aside from science communication, you’re also an activist for STEM education. Why are STEM subjects seen as inaccessible to many people? How can we ensure access is not the problem to getting more people into STEM careers?
Janina: I think for the same reasons. We have all these systems and structures that say, ‘If you want to do science, you have to be this type of person. But scientists don’t have fun. They are in the lab, they wear glasses, they are not doing anything that is cool’. And we have to get rid of that. We have to really say, ‘Scientists and artists look like the same exact person, they do the same things, they’re just as smart’. I think there’s this assumption that scientists are these very smart people. And that can be true. And it could also be true that in every other discipline, there are very smart people as well. I think one of the biggest issues we do is we create more hierarchy. So, we already have a system of hierarchy with race and gender and sexuality and all these things and why are we going to take disciplines and start to say, ‘Well medicine and science is above English, and medicine and science is above art or above music’. I don’t believe in that. I believe in flat. It has to be flat because in every sector of human hood, we needed artists, we needed musicians, we needed scientists, we needed culinary people, we needed engineers, we need everyone equally. There is no one above the other right. If we destigmatise what it means to be a scientist, younger people will be interested in it.
Also, like I was saying earlier we already put it on this high pedestal and then the systems are like, ‘Okay you got to be really smart, so you got to score within the 0.5% to be a scientist’. Take away those systems and take away the barriers. We have it on this tight little silo box where we use all these heavy long words and language. Why are we intentionally trying to make it even harder? Then, we exclude people, and we continue to exclude and exclude and exclude and then you don’t have as many people representing the diversity of the world. Why? There’s no reason why. We don’t need to do this. We can make sciences just as cool as art. I have cool little funky artsy glasses! You can do all these things and we just have to change the way we think about it because that is just such a beautiful thing. Such a beautiful thing. I remember when I was at Spelman, a lot of my professors would teach us that ‘You need to dress this way and it needs to be this way’. They were protecting us because they wanted us to be accepted in these academic circles. But we have to change. We have to change the way we do things because bringing all this uniqueness and authenticity and individuality, it just makes it even better. It just makes it so dope. That’s my two cents.
FLG: Outside of your career, what do you like to do in your spare time? What are some of your hobbies?
Janina: I’m a big art person. I’m in New York, I love New York. I love London too. London has big art scene too. I was in gifted art when I was in high school. I actually used to paint sketch and draw. I don’t do as much of that now. I like to dive deep into the art. So, whether that is bingeing vintage Afro futurism, low budget movies, independent films. I’ve been to Sundance, which I thought was cool. I was probably the only scientist there. I’m a huge music person. I go to concerts, just this week alone I’ve been to one Film Festival and one concert, and tonight I’m going to an opera. I like to stay pretty engaged with the arts, because I think it actually stimulates the sciences. These two are so close together. So, I’m really always looking into music, visual art, film – just such a beautiful thing.
I also love community and mentorship. And so, I do volunteer work. Last year, we did volunteer work with a non-profit called Genspace where we taught high school scientists how to make little science podcasts. We called them SNP-its because that’s funny. They’re all between 15 and 18 years old, and they made short audio stories on science topics that they were interested in. It was really cool, because they talked about climate change, they talked about fast fashion, they talked about CRISPR, they talked about COVID. Just teaching them how to use their voice for the things that they were passionate about. We did that last year and so, I’m doing it again, volunteering, as well as teaching them some human genetics and computational science. I like to do these things. That’s what I do on the weekend.
I am also a runner. So, I’ve run two marathons and about 10 half marathons. I won’t be running any more marathons! But I do plan to get back into the half marathon running again. I haven’t been doing much since COVID because all the races have been cancelled. They had the London Marathon recently. I like running and I like the arts and obviously I like writing the podcast. I’m also writing a book which is extremely delayed just like any other academic, so it’ll get done when it gets done!
FLG: You do so much running. I can’t keep up. I don’t know what I do on my weekends, it just flies by!
Janina: It does when I’m bingeing Netflix. It’s rare. First of all, I’m also overstimulated, so I have to hide my phone whenever I want to watch TV because I can never get through an episode. But yes, I try to keep balance, but it’s hard. I don’t think anyone knows how to do it great. But I’m just trying my best. But I like to do the things that keep me happy.
FLG: If you could turn your career so far into a film or a book, what would you call the title?
Janina: I love the word geneticist. If it was about my life story, I would call it like, The Life of a Geneticist or something. In Those Genes would be predictable, but I would definitely use that. The first episode of our season two that hasn’t been released yet, I love the title. The title was ‘How the World Inherited Blackness’. It just talks about the creation of race, it talks about how this translates into medicine, it talks about how this translates into so many things, and there’s a huge genetic component. Really, all the titles that we have in the seasons. The ‘Scientific Sankofa one is’ definitely one. We have another episode called ‘Black to the future’, which is this space time travel episode. I’m so excited about season two, but these are some of the things that we have lined up so any of those would work. I feel like I’m going to think about one that’s cooler later, so I’ll email you!
FLG: I know. I always spend so long trying to think of science puns, and then all of a sudden it will just spring to my mind. Thank you so much for speaking to me today, Janina. It’s been so great. The work that you do as a scientist, as an educator and on your podcast is so great. So, thank you so much for speaking to me.
Janina: No problem. Thank you.