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Interview with NexGeneGirl Trinity Boykin

Trinity Boykin interview

Trinity Boykin has participated in NexGeneGirls for the last three years and graduated this spring from Liberty High School in San Francisco with a 4.0 GPA.  As a NexGeneGirl intern at The Gladstone Institutes in 2017, she published the first ever report on ILIT1 gene detection. With a passion for science, Trinity has received a full scholarship to St. Mary’s College, where she was also selected for a research internship through the MAPS program in the chemistry/physics lab studying how certain materials react to light – highly unusual for a freshman.

Trinity is also a classical dancer and plans to major in Biochemistry and minor in dance performance at St. Mary’s. A resident of Bayview Hunters Point, Trinity is also the second eldest daughter of seven siblings. She paused to reflect on her experience as a NexGeneGirl, her family, what makes a good mentor, why companies should consider taking high school interns and more – before embarking onto her next chapter at St. Mary’s.

What has the past three years as a NexGeneGirl been like?

Trinity Boykin interviewBeing a NexGeneGirl for the past three years has definitely broadened my horizons. I had no idea there were so many things you can do with science….  [It] opened my eyes about the possibilities of future careers. I never would have seen myself in a lab under the President of the Gladstone Institutes. If you said that three years ago, I would have been like “What are you talking about?”.  NexGeneGirls has definitely given me hope that an ordinary person like me will be able to be up there with the big dogs in the labs doing research.  Who would’ve thought that I would have the doors open for me being a NexGeneGirl?

When people hear that you’re a NexGeneGirl intern, they are intrigued. They want to hear all about it — what you did, how you got there, what research you did….” NexGeneGirls has definitely created a pathway for me towards success.…  If NexGeneGirls had not been there, it probably would have been difficult for me to get my foot into the science world.

What are you doing this summer?

Earlier this summer, I started an internship through NexGeneGirls at UCSF Parnassus in the laboratory of Lauren Weiss, Ph.D.  Her lab focuses on understanding the genetic architecture of autism. At her computational lab, I used R and bash scripts to study genome-wide genetic data to identify risks for autism.

In addition, I recently received news that I was selected to participate in a research internship at St. Mary’s College through the MAPS program. I was surprised because freshmen aren’t usually allowed to do research. It’s more of an upper-grad kind of thing. I’ll be moving in on July 1st to start my internship.

What are you most proud of?

For starters, I am proud of my first year NexGeneGirls internship project at The Gladstone Institutes (summer of 2017).  I was doing research on certain genes and prohibitors that indicated future cardiovascular disease…. Somewhere towards the middle of the internship, I started realizing what I was doing, how I was doing it, and what this meant.  When I published my research poster, my mentor actually told me that my report on ILIT 1 gene detection was the first ever report to be published on that subject.  I was like, “Are you serious?”. That was crazy to me because I didn’t think this would be a big deal. It was mind-blowing to me.

Another proud moment was graduating from high school with the highest GPA I have ever achieved during my high school years. That was one of the things that was important to me because a lot of people slack off during their senior year and that was not something that I wanted to do. You need to keep at it, stay in this routine of taking difficult classes because college isn’t going to be easy.  During my senior year, I took some of the hardest classes I have ever taken: AP calculus, AP literature, AP Chemistry, AP Government and composition. I’ve had endless all-nighters, I’ve had times when I had an entire mental breakdown, when I’m like I just can’t do this anymore. I pushed through and I graduated with a 4.0 GPA for this school year and this is something that I am proud of.

Another moment that I am proud of: I’ve been a part of the Dance Academy for three years. At the end of our final recital, I was recognized as one of the top five dancers in the entire academy…. I am very passionate about science, but I’m also passionate about my dancing. I’m trained in lyrical, classical ballet. And I do some African and ballroom dancing, jazz, and contemporary.

What are your biggest challenges?

One of my biggest challenges is knowing that I’m not always going to be good at everything. I struggle with that because I want to think you could do it all, but that’s not how it is most of the time.  One of my challenges is accepting that everyone is different, and everyone excels in different areas.  Sometimes I am harder on myself when I find that I struggle with certain tasks. Really, it just kind of helps me push myself to work harder.

Tell me a little bit about your family life.

We are a blended family…. I have six siblings and that includes my baby brother arriving in August. It’s definitely a large family…and there are a lot of responsibilities that goes with that.  Oftentimes, I am imparting on my younger siblings and just helping out from time to time.

What motivates you?  How do you stay motivated?

My mom.  I feel like everyone says that, but it’s true.  I’ve seen my mom accomplish a lot in my lifetime.  She went back to school after she already had four children to get a college degree so that she could have a better job for her children and provide for her children. After working long days, she would come home and study at nighttime. I would see her doing her homework at the table and I thought, “You know, if my mom can work that hard for me, the least that I can do for her is go out there and be my very best self and continue on doing what I am passionate about.”  That’s what motivates me – to be at a point in my life where I can look at my mom and say, “Hi, this is me. Thank you for motivating me. I hope that you are proud of me.” That’s what motivates me — to make my mom proud.

Were you always interested in science?

I was in the third grade when my mom enrolled me in the STEM program at my school.  I grew up in Hunter’s Point in the Bayview and at the time the school system was not the best.  The STEM program was something that they were trying to get going on Saturdays at school.  My mom signed me up and I was like, “Why are you signing me up? I don’t want to do this. I want to be home. I want to watch TV. I don’t want to be at school on Saturdays because I have to be there every day throughout the week.”  It was something that I fought my mother on a lot.  My mom kept telling me, “You’re going.  This is something that will be good for you.”  My mom has always been someone who is trying to get us involved in educational opportunities.

From a third grader’s standpoint, I just couldn’t see or understand why she was making me do it.  I thought it was the worst thing in the world.  But then when I got there on the first day, we were playing with snap circuits and I was so intrigued.  I walked in and I was like, “What is this? What are all these pieces? What does this do? What happens if I connect this here, and this here?”  Ever since then, I was kind of hooked on science. It got to the point where I was begging to keep going to the STEM program. So, from the third to ninth grade, I was in the Carver’s Scholars Program. It was a program that made me discover what I was passionate about.

At a certain point they said, “You’re a very intelligent person. We don’t have much more to offer you and we think you should take it up to the next level.  That’s when I heard about NexGeneGirls. I have been part of NexGeneGirls throughout high school.

What does being a NexGeneGirl mean to you?

Being a NexGeneGirl means having responsibility. When I say that, it means you are expected to go to your Boot Camp training and perform well in your lab. You’re expected to present a poster at the end of the summer and with those expectations, comes responsibility. Being a NexGeneGirl isn’t something that is taken lightly. A lot of people in laboratories are often skeptical about people who are younger in age and don’t really know what they are doing.  Because of that, NexGeneGirls have to reach the bar and even exceed it… age has nothing to do with it…. Being a NexGeneGirl means you have the responsibility of setting a good example and giving a good impression.  So that brings responsibility because you are expected to perform at high levels. And it’s fun.  We go out as NexGeneGirls.  We teach science. We have our days together.  But when we are in the labs, business is business.  This is your education and not something you play with.  That is our responsibility as NexGeneGirls.

NexGeneGirls. The Brand.  How would you describe that brand?

NexGeneGirls is definitely something that a lot of people don’t have trouble getting on board with. It’s one of those brands that when people first hear about it, they are surprised that they haven’t known about it all along…. NexGeneGirls is a bunch of high schoolers trying to pursue a dream.  A lot of people are definitely intrigued by it…. It leads to comments like, “Wow, I wasn’t even at that age when I thought that I wanted to do anything with my life.”

What is your favorite internship project so far? Why?

I would probably say that my favorite was my first summer internship at The Gladstone Institute with Yvanka de Soysa, Ph.D.  It was crazy how much I learned in my first year. I had that once-in-a-lifetime feeling about my experiences. I got to work hands-on in everything. I personally worked with mice…. When it was time for surgery to extract things that we needed for our research, I was there.  My mentor allowed me to do it. It was up to me to break open the sac and extract the little tiny mice embryos without tearing them, without puncturing anything in them. Any of that could have messed up our results.  It was one of those things where I had a million different things going on at once and I loved every second of it. It was also probably my most hands-on project. This was definitely my favorite project by far.

Which internship made your brain sweat the most?

All of them.  I can’t say I’ve had an easy lab.  This one, doing computational work challenged me a lot because I had to remember certain commands and scripts, and all these go into working on the computer. That definitely made my brain sweat because I’ve never seen this before and this computer spits out all these weird phrases.  My second-year internship was challenging for me. I was looking at genes and proteins that I have never seen before.  All three of them were challenging. All were different, which I appreciated.

What makes a really great mentor?

Yvanka was an amazing mentor. She was one of those mentors who never doubted me for a second. And although my other mentors never deliberately doubted me, oftentimes, I would get these kinds of questions: “Do you understand this? Do you know what’s going on? It’s one of those things that I had to keep on reiterating: “Yes, I get it. I may be young, but I understand it.” I am one of those people who doesn’t have problems asking questions if I don’t understand.  Yvanka trusted me and she allowed me to do to my project. She didn’t hover over me and she allowed me to do different things. She trusted me in one of the most important aspects of her overall project, [which] was vital to [her] own career. The fact that she trusted me with something so big like this, I felt like I was able to perform at a higher level. I felt like I could handle this because there was a lot riding on it.

What should I look for in a mentor for high school students?

Look for mentors who have time and are also enthusiastic about teaching.  I’m not going to lie, there are some people who just don’t know how to teach. It’s not for everyone. You can’t be the best at everything. You have projects that require a lot of reading to have a deeper understanding and you’re going to have questions.  Interns will need help having things explained to them. Definitely look for [people] who are enthusiastic, have the time, and who understand what it’s like being in a position where you feel like you’re being challenged because if a mentor has not ever felt very challenged before, you won’t know how to challenge others and I definitely feel that with NexGeneGirls.

How would you urge a biotech company who does not take high school interns to reconsider?

I would probably start by letting companies know that if a teenager has an interest in being an intern at this lab, it goes far in saying that they are probably mature over their years, especially with all the other things going on in a teenager’s life. Teenagers are relentless.  Once they find something that they want to do, it’s kind of hard to convince them not to…. Their age shouldn’t be something that could keep them from something that could possibly change their lives.  I really think that young people should be given the opportunity to prove themselves and not be turned down just because of their age.

It’s a fascinating time in biotech right now, what does biotech mean to you?

Biotech means the future. I think that biotech is definitely one of those things that in one way or another will overtake the entire world. I say that in the least threatening way possible. It’s just that biotech is so innovative and it’s becoming largely widespread. It’s definitely where the science is at the moment, where the innovation is at the moment. Biotech consists of a lot of different categories and will be at the forefront of science for a few generations.

How would you encourage other girls to pursue a career in science?

I feel that science is one of those things that you either like it or you don’t. I would probably say to a young girl that it is her duty to try. If she doesn’t like it, fine, but at least she tried. As women, we are underrepresented in the science world and I feel like encouraging a young girl to go out for something in science because there are so many different [aspects to] science. Science is not all biochemistry. It does sadden me that there are not as many women in the science world. It is definitely our duty as women to appeal to the younger girls and younger females and give them the opportunity to try.

Why do you think science is unpopular with girls?

Because even at a young age, young girls are conditioned to care about things that may be seen as superficial, like how to dress, what kind of dolls to buy, things like that. At a young age, even from commercials and ads, girls are conditioned to think that they should like things that are made for girls: playing with dolls and not with a chemistry kit. It’s not popular because it’s not something they think is attainable.  You don’t see girls in science commercials for kids. You see the boys of course, and that’s something that’s constant. Girls doing science is often not represented.  So, if they haven’t seen it, they won’t see themselves in the science world.

Your advice to the 12-year-old Trinity?

It gets better.  When I was 12, I was going through a rough patch. I didn’t know where I fit in. I was pretty much alone. I didn’t have too many friends at the time. Being a 12- and 13-year old were probably the hardest years I went through because I had to find myself and figure out who I am and what kind of person I wanted to be. I spent so much time alone, it evoked a lot of thought. But I would tell my 12-year-old self that it gets better.  It’s one of those things you have to deal with at one point or another.  I would definitely tell her to get out of her shell because I used to be so shy. I wouldn’t have a conversation with anyone I didn’t know. It got to the point where I became super anxious. I didn’t know how to talk to new people. I didn’t know how to communicate. I was a completely different person than I am right now. Going through life experiences, and constantly being forced to talk and communicate, slowly helped me come out of my shell. I wish I would have done it sooner.

How would most people describe you?

That’s a funny question. They would probably describe me as a goofball, and definitely on the very quirky, funny side.  Also, people would definitely describe me as somebody who’s trustworthy and somebody who gets along with everyone.  I am very fluid in my way of talking and interacting with people of different ages. There is no age range that I don’t get along with, whether it be from little toddlers to 60-year-old persons.  There is no distinct thing that keeps me from interacting with them.

Anything else to add?

I want to give a shout out to NexGeneGirls Founder, Marlena Jackson, who made this all possible; my mentors over the years – Dr. de Souza, Dr. Kameswaran, Dr. Michaela and Dr. Weiss this summer. And all the other mentors my NexGeneGirl colleagues had.