Immunologist Dequina Nicholas on Tackling Racism in Science and Pursuing a Career in Immunology

Dequina Nicholas, an immunologist at the University of California, Irvine, discusses her journey in science, overcoming challenges, and her mission to promote diversity in academia.

Immunologist Dequina Nicholas has emerged as a rising star in the field of immunology, conducting groundbreaking research on the role of lipid immunology in diseases such as type 2 diabetes and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Inspired by her mother’s struggle with diabetes, Nicholas has dedicated her career to understanding the intricate relationship between the immune system and metabolic disorders. In a recent interview at the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, Nicholas opened up about her experiences as a scientist, the challenges she has faced, and her commitment to promoting diversity in academia.

A Passion for Science and Breaking Barriers

From a young age, Nicholas had a deep love for science. Growing up in a family of immigrants, her parents encouraged her to pursue the American dream of becoming a doctor or lawyer. However, Nicholas was captivated by the scientific process and the opportunity to ask and answer questions. It was during her chemistry honours project in college that she discovered research could be a career. This realization, coupled with the guidance of a Black professor, propelled her towards a path in science.

Overcoming Intersectional Challenges

As a first-generation, Black woman in science, Nicholas faced numerous challenges throughout her academic journey. People often underestimated her abilities due to her background and gender. Additionally, she encountered stereotypes and biases that questioned the scientific capabilities of Black women. However, Nicholas refused to let these obstacles define her. Instead, she chose to work harder, prove her worth, and change attitudes through her accomplishments.

Navigating the Postdoctoral Phase

The postdoctoral phase of Nicholas’s career was not without its difficulties. Initially, she struggled to secure a position and faced rejection multiple times. However, she eventually found a mentor who believed in her potential and offered her a position at Boston University. Despite the toxic environment she encountered there, Nicholas made the brave decision to leave and prioritize her well-being. This choice proved to be transformative, as she gained confidence, self-value, and a deeper understanding of her expertise.

Empowering First-Generation Students

Having experienced the challenges of navigating academia as a first-generation student, Nicholas is passionate about creating equal opportunities for all. She dreams of establishing a non-profit organization that sheds light on the hidden aspects of academic programs, ensuring that every student, regardless of their background, has access to the tools and knowledge needed to succeed. Nicholas believes that transparency and awareness are crucial in dismantling the barriers faced by underrepresented groups in science.

Balancing Motherhood and Academia

Nicholas has been vocal about the unique challenges faced by mothers in academia. During her faculty job interviews, she was pregnant, which significantly impacted her experience. However, the University of California, Irvine, demonstrated its support by providing childcare assistance. Nicholas acknowledges the juggling act of balancing work and family life, but she prioritizes her child’s well-being and cherishes the precious moments of motherhood. She hopes to inspire other women in academia to find a healthy work-life balance.

Lessons from a Remarkable Career

Throughout her career, Nicholas has learned valuable lessons that she shares with aspiring scientists. She emphasizes the importance of taking risks, such as writing grant proposals and investing in conferences, even when resources are limited. Nicholas believes that these experiences not only contribute to personal growth but also foster the development of essential skills, such as pitching ideas and handling criticism.

Dequina Nicholas’s journey in science is a testament to her resilience, determination, and commitment to promoting diversity in academia. As an immunologist, she continues to push the boundaries of knowledge in her field, with a particular focus on understanding the role of lipid immunology in metabolic disorders. Nicholas’s story serves as an inspiration to aspiring scientists, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, encouraging them to pursue their passions and overcome the challenges they may face along the way. As she strives to make science more inclusive and equitable, Nicholas’s impact extends far beyond her groundbreaking research.