Shaquia Idlett

3rd Year PhD Student
Biomedical Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology

About Me

My undergraduate degree was in Biological Engineering and I graduated from Mississippi State University. When I was child I wanted to be a doctor; specifically a pediatrician. When I started searching for undergraduate programs, I was looking for pre-med biology programs. At the time I was working at NASA as an administrative assistant and my boss suggested I look into biomedical engineering. I joined an undergrad biological/biomedical engineering program with the expectation of going to medical school after. Obviously that changed.

How was your experience with STEM classes and teachers in middle and high school?

I had great experiences with STEM classes and teachers in middle school and high school but honestly, for me, it began in elementary school. I remember learning basic algebra in the 3rd grade but I didn’t realize how awesome that was at the time. Throughout middle and high school, I was in advanced math and science classes. I’m still pretty close to my high school AP Calculus teacher (we share the same birthday).

After grad school, what’s next?

More research. Right now I want to avoid industry positions and will likely look for post-docs with the expectation of applying for faculty positions when the time is right. I’m also open to working in government research settings. Hopefully, I’ll have this question answered more thoroughly in the next year or two

What do you do to unwind?

I dance! When I’m super stressed and feel overworked, I will call one of my best friends and suggest we go out for a night of dancing. I also love to cook—and eat.     

My Research

I study how electrical currents, from devices such as spinal cord stimulators, interact with the transmission of sensory information in the spinal cord. Specifically, I am investigating how pain signals resulting from injury (spinal cord and peripheral nerve injury) can be blocked from reaching the brain. In order to conduct this research, I use electrophysiology techniques to observe the neural signals in the spinal cord.

It was important for me to do relatively applied research. I wanted to solve a problem affecting human health and not just answer a question for the sake of obtaining more knowledge. It is a problem that is unsolved for spinal cord injury cases of chronic pain and often goes ignored. I was also motivated to pursue this work because of the established industry collaboration with Boston Scientific (a company the designs spinal cord stimulators).

I think the coolest thing about my research is that I am able to observe the neural signals on a screen as I’m conducting my experiment. It’s awesome to be able to quickly observe how your actions are affecting a biological system.

Working with biology is hard especially when it comes to neurons (excitable cells of the nervous system). Keeping neural tissue alive and functioning are some of the biggest hurdles in my area of research.

My Grad School Experience

I knew that I wasn’t done learning. An undergraduate degree is a broad curriculum, no matter the major. I wanted to become a specialist in my area of interest and I learned in undergrad how exciting and interesting research could be. By the end of my junior year I had to decide if I would study for the MCAT or study for the GRE. I ultimately decided on the GRE and grad school because a nearly free education (plus a living stipend) seemed better than finishing school with debt.

Most definitely! I tell almost everyone how much I HATED my first year in graduate school. It’s not because it’s an awful place (I absolutely love it now) but I was mostly frustrated with the pressure I placed on myself. Coming from undergrad and being accustomed to studying and being able solve most problems on my own crippled me initially.

Graduate school is hard. It’s hard for almost everyone, so I had to learn to step out of my comfort zone and reach out to others for assistance. I also had to learn to get over the dreaded “imposter syndrome.” I was the only black student in my incoming class of 30 (which can mess with your mind occasionally). I just had to get present to where I am (2nd ranked BME graduate program in the US) and know that I wouldn’t have been admitted if they didn’t believe I was a high caliber student capable of successfully completing this degree.

My mom has always been my biggest cheerleader. She’s always encouraged me to go forward and be amazing. My best friends and boyfriend are all here in Atlanta so they’re sure to snap me out of being ridiculous when I start to feel like I can’t accomplish something. My advisor is definitely one of my greatest assets. I brag about him all the time because I truly feel fortunate to work with him. He’s helped me gain confidence in my abilities as a scientist which has helped me so much when developing and expressing new ideas.

What do you want to say to up and coming Melanin Genius?

You are capable. Do not let the doubts of others (or your own) deter you from pushing forward. You will be more amazing than you ever thought possible if you keep working. When you believe that, “Black girls are magic,” you become the evidence that such a statement is important and true.

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