By Jenny Wells-Golden
University of Kentucky
Tyona Golden and Johnnetta Burns came to the University of Kentucky as freshmen in 2013. As two longtime friends from the South Side of Chicago, they reconnected in Lexington, and both had dreams of pursuing careers in medical fields. But for them, like many women, and particularly women of color, pursuing advanced degrees came with a variety of obstacles.
These obstacles often include obvious factors, like money or grade-point averages. But for many Black students, there are also barriers rooted in the lack of representation. When nobody in your desired field looks like you, or has a similar background as you, it’s difficult to see yourself in that space, let alone find someone to help guide you.
For Burns, there were many reasons she ultimately chose to not further pursue her studies in medicine.
“Choosing a career in medicine is a lifelong commitment and if anything happens where you don’t have the financial support, it can come to a screeching halt,” she said. “I was the first person in my family to attend college right after high school. Navigating the world of educational institutions is very difficult if you have no blueprint available.”
Burns also had to leave UK in 2017, just one semester shy of graduating, to help care for ill family members. During this time, she observed firsthand the underrepresentation of Black professionals, especially Black women, in health care.
“While accompanying my family members to appointments, I realized how important it was to have people who come from similar upbringings (as us) — or at least understand them,” Burns said. “There were many times where we felt unseen and misunderstood, and experienced the pain that comes from that.”
Golden graduated from UK in 2017 with a degree in economics, and she ultimately did go on to medical school. But she also faced her own set of challenges.
“The application process for medical school is grotesquely expensive, in addition to test prep,” said Golden, who just completed her first year as a student at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “I believe it to be a huge barrier to Black and brown students who are deserving of an opportunity to apply to professional school programs.”
Considering her personal experience, as well as other friends who faced similar struggles, Golden wanted to do something to help women like her and her peers who felt there was not space for them in biomedical science fields. So she decided to reach out to her good friend from the South Side of Chicago.
Three years after leaving UK, Burns had finally completed her UK studies online in 2020, graduating with a degree in communication.
“My degree is in communication, but my first love was science,” Burns said. “Knowing this, Tyona approached me with the idea of starting a nonprofit organization for people who look like us and come from the same places we do.”
The two friends then reached out to four other friends for input and support, who also happened to be UK graduates they knew during their undergraduate years. All six alumnae shared a passion for a science, as well as personal stories of struggles while pursuing their education and career goals.
“Through our friendship and conversation, we realized there was a need for support for Black women entering into professional biomedical schools, and that we should use our experiences and resources to be the mentors we wish we had,” Burns said. “We knew it would be hard, but the impact we would have on so many lives would make it worth it.”
With Golden as founder, and the others serving as board of directors, the women launched their nonprofit organization, Science Sistas Inc., in May 2020.
“I just wanted to create an organization that helps to offset these financial costs and allows for equality in these disciplines,” Golden said. “It is important for the younger generation to see people that look like them in positions they aspire to be in.”
The mission of Science Sistas is to provide resources to help diminish the barriers that women face entering into graduate biomedical and professional health care programs, especially Black women. The program offers guidance and scholarships to women who are nearing the completion of their undergraduate degrees and are seeking entry into professional health care programs.
For women who may not have access to a professional mentor, Science Sistas will help connect them with someone, as well as offer career exploration opportunities and “real-world advice” for various disciplines.
“Often times, careers are not equally discussed with all groups whether it’s due to bias, racism, sexism, lack of resources, support or simply knowledge on the opportunities not being available,” said Ninah Bertrand, vice president of scholarship for the organization. “Science Sistas has the ability to help close the gap to not only help future scholars learn about disciplines, but also by providing support to pursue necessary education and hopefully gainful employment in careers that have the ability to change their communities for the better.”
“Being a Muslim immigrant, Black woman, I felt I had to overcome a lot of obstacles and wasn’t aware how to manage the program and aspects outside the program (such as application fees, loans and other finances),” said Samra Nageye, a pharmacist and vice president of the organization. “Science Sistas strives to break down these barriers for Black women and provides resources for various health care and science fields. Representation is important and to be connected with other Black women in these fields is inspirational.”
In just over a year, the organization has begun connecting students with mentors, providing test prep materials and guidance for students applying to graduate programs and awarding scholarships.
“Students have expressed how this organization helps confirm their dreams are not unattainable, because there are women and people who look like them in the places they want to go,” Golden said. “Ultimately, I hope that Science Sistas can continue to be a resource to students by providing insightful information and giving opportunities to those who deserve a fair chance.”
For Burns, Science Sistas is giving her the opportunity to bring her two passions together. As vice president of communications for the organization, Burns is helping connect students across the country with resources they need.
“Science Sistas gives me the ability to marry these two worlds of communications and science,” she said. “My personal goal within the world of communication is to think about diverse groups that are usually marginalized and create content that truly represents and depicts them in a way that promotes acceptance and understanding.”
In addition to Golden and Burns, the board of directors for Science Sistas includes UK graduates Jacqueline Leachman (2017 B.S. in biology and now doctoral candidate in nutritional sciences); Ninah Bertrand (2018 B.S. in kinesiology and 2020 M.S. in sport and exercise psychology); Ariana Chambers (2017 B.S. in human nutrition and 2021 doctorate of pharmacy candidate); and Samra Nageye (2015 bachelor of business administration and marketing). The board also includes Shalbereyl Thomas, a 2019 Kentucky State University graduate.
Science Sistas’ annual scholarships are awarded to students applying to professional programs in the fields of biomedical sciences, dentistry, kinesiology, medicine, nursing, optometry and pharmacy. The deadline to apply is Oct. 1. More information is available at www.sciencesistas.org/scholarship.
If you are interested in becoming a mentor to a student through Science Sistas, visit www.sciencesistas.org/mentorship. To learn about ways to support Science Sistas, connect with them on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. For more information or partnership opportunities, contact email@example.com or visit www.ScienceSistas.org.