Talking Genetics and Authenticity with Janina Jeff

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Breaking BarriersUnsung Women's Project

Welcome to our newest blog series: the Unsung Women’s Project! We’ll be highlighting amazing women in STEM, sharing the stories of all of the incredible, meaningful things women have done in their STEM careers that haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.

Dr. Janina M. Jeff is a Human Geneticist and the first African American to graduate with a PhD in Human Genetics from Vanderbilt University. She is currently a Senior Scientist at Illumina, a biotech company that creates technology for companies such as and 23 & Me. Her research career was focused on population genetics, specifically studying admixed populations (descendants with African ancestry) and discovering population specific genetic risk factors of common disease. Dr. Jeff’s passion however is deeply rooted in the community. She is a STEAM-activist, educator, motivational speaker, and now a podcaster! She recently was selected as one of three winners from Spotify’s Sound-Up Bootcamp for her podcast, “In Those Genes”, which is a hip-hop inspired podcast that uses genetics to uncover the lost identities of African Americans. Dr. Jeff is also public figure and was featured on the cover of The Network Journal and the Spelman Messenger educating the community on genetics and discussing her career journey. Janina attributes her success to her “village” which includes her family, friends, and her sister-friends from her alma mater Spelman College, the leader in producing black women with PhD in STEM fields.

In your own words, can you describe to me what you do?

I work for a company that develops genetic technology for genetic testing. I’m a human geneticist, and I would also say I’m inherently a “STEAMinist.” People often say STEM, but for me, the inclusion of the arts is really important. The creativity that comes from the arts– whether it’s music, media, audio, movies or whatever else it may be– really enhances your creativity for science.

What does being a geneticist entail?

A lot of geneticists study different model organisms– people study mice, fish, all different kinds, but I’ve always been a human geneticist. Because I’m a human geneticist, I basically look at DNA sequences all day, so it’s a computational job. I know a lot of people think about science and think that you’re just in a laboratory pipetting, but I’m actually at my desk coding, and that’s because the data that we get from each human sample is just a combination of letters– A, C, T, and G. From there, you can use statistics and computer or computational science to really understand what you’re looking at. I don’t really look at individuals, I look at populations, so I’m a population geneticist.

Genetic testing can be fun stuff like 23 and Me and– I actually worked really hard to create the content for those tests. It can also be the not so fun stuff, like cancer and carrier screening in newborns, and so forth. Working at the population level, I actually do get to work on the fun stuff with 23 and Me and Ancestry– by using computer science, I try to think about what are the best things to look at on the tests.

I’m curious about your opinion with the backlash against Elizabeth Warren’s genetic testing, since a lot of people have said it’s irrelevant and that Native Americans don’t really have specific markers.

I think it’s a really cool and personal thing to get to understand your genome. I think that everyone has that right, if you have access to these tests and you can understand them. But when I think about it from a political standpoint, which I try to do as both a humanitarian and a geneticist, what I’m trying to do is make genetic research accessible for all, but also to build trust between the research community and communities of color– especially those of which who have gone through really bad stuff that breaks that trust.

So personally, I didn’t think this was worth it, and I think it did more harm than help. She has every right to learn her family history and no one should have ever questioned that, but now this is at the expense of an entire population that’s now been somewhat exploited, and their data was not even what was used for the test.

I would love to hear your origin story, and how your academic and childhood experiences prepared you for what you’re doing today, and how you learned growing up.

I wouldn’t say that I woke up one day and was like, “I want to be a scientist!” when I was a little girl or anything like that. I wanted to be a mathematician, actually, and like my parents, I just really understood math. It was just easy to me, and I got obsessed with trying to analyze a problem a million different ways. I’m also extremely competitive, and there weren’t a lot of people of color doing science in New Orleans in the ’90s. But one thing that every school does is a science fair. Going back to the STEAM thing, I didn’t realize how creative I was at the time, but all I could think about with the science fair was that I wanted to do something different than what everybody else was doing– that I really wanted to understand and explore something different.

In grade school, you do exercises in the textbook, and there’s always that extra part that no one ever does, like a “think further” question– so I would always do those, and then add a different level of creativity on it. When I got to high school, I actually started winning the science fairs. I went to a regional science fair, and I was one of the first people from my school to get to that level. So I thought, “Wow, this is cool. I could do this.”

When I got to college, I wanted to be a doctor, because that’s what society told me you should do if you’re into science. Then, I got exposed to the lab, and then actually worked in what we call a “damp lab,” which means you do some bench work and you do some computer science– and that was the beginning of all this for me. I did okay in college; I wasn’t a stellar student, but I was alright. I’m extremely extroverted, so I wanted to have fun and find myself and all that which definitely made my grades suffer, and to that extent I would say that in college I didn’t know how I learned.

Genetics was actually the only class I got an A in, so I applied for grad school and I got in. I wasn’t really thinking about getting a PhD yet, it was kind of more like, “Oh, okay, this is an opportunity after finishing college, since I’m definitely not ready for a real job. I like learning, let’s go with it.” Naturally, in the first year I did human genetics. At Vanderbilt, you have the opportunity to pick out of 12 different disciplines, and I picked genetics. I still found it very fascinating and I personally connected to it. It was at that point that I realized that I could use science to connect to a community, and to make it very personal.

I don’t think that a lot of people are connected to science in that way. In math, it doesn’t feel like there’s a personal connection to it, or when you’re just pipetting in science. But I started looking at genetics and realizing, “Wow, nobody knows about our genetics, I never hear people talk about genetics for people of color, period.”

I was super obsessed with wanting to know more, and when I was in grad school, that’s when I finally realized how I learn, which is really just by failing at things. Anyone who gets into a PhD program, they probably failed a few things here and there, but not that much! So failure was a very new thing to me, and I had to get comfortable in that failure, but I’m also really happy that I failed. It sounds really crazy to say that, but failing really pushed me to understand and to figure out problems. The problem was that I was studying in a way that wasn’t consistent with the way that I personally learned. My learning style is not what’s taught, which is just to read a chapter of a book and study it– I had to figure out what “studying” meant to me, and what it meant for me was learning that the best way I retain information is by giving it. So I’ll teach myself, and then a testament of how well I understand what I taught myself is how well I can explain it. That’s just kind of how I work– I’m not a big note taker, I’m more of an applied learner. If I learn something, I have to apply it to real life.

How did you get comfortable with failure?

There’s a lot of different ways that I’ve gotten comfortable with it. The first thing is realizing that when you fail, the only thing left is to do better– so it can’t get any worse! You could quit, or you could take things as a learning experience and try to grow from it. A pivotal moment for me was when I failed my qualifying exam during grad school, which is the exam you need to become a PhD candidate. That day, my mentor came to me and she and I had a heart-to-heart moment, where she told me that she had actually failed that exam too, and that the department chair at the time had also failed his qualifying exams. Up until that point, I hadn’t realized that all these professors who I looked up to had actually had similar experiences to mine. In my mind, these were these infallible, stellar scientists, but I realized then that they’re just as human as I am, and that even though they failed they still managed to do amazing things. That realization gave me the confidence to understand that I can fail and still make it as a scientist.

Of course, someone said something negative to me about failing that day, too, but I had a good friend who turned to me and said, “Failing is going to make your story that much more interesting.” And she was right. When I let go of this idea that I was somehow exempt from failure– which is crazy!– and realized that all of these people that I respected had also failed too, I also learned that me talking about my failures could  help someone like those professors helped me.

That really transitions back to me learning that there’s many different ways to get the gratifications that you may want from a career. I go back to the doctor thing because I think we teach kids at a very young age that doctor and lawyer are the science and non-science pillars of success. Typically, people tell doctors, “Oh, you can help people, you’re saving people,” but there are so many different ways in which you can save someone, and sometimes just telling your story so that they can relate is one of them.

So failure became a part of my life because I realized that it’s part of being human, and sometimes you’re going to fail, and it’s going to really, really hurt! It always hurts; it never stops hurting. But it always helps you move forward, and it really does makes your story that much more interesting.

What were some of the science fair projects that you won with?

I actually don’t fully remember! I know the area I was in was botany, though, so I know it was plant-related. I do have a funny story, though: the year that I won, I won first place at the school, and then went onto regionals and won third, and then the state where I didn’t win anything. My best friend used the same project next year actually and he won, too! He didn’t even change it. It’s so funny because when he got the award, I was like, “That’s technically mine.”

You just have to change your name to Jeff Janina.

You’d be surprised, but I get a lot of people– especially at work– that call me Jeff all the time! To transition and talk a little bit about feminism and standing up for yourself, I have a really global job. I work with all different types of cultures and people. I’ve had a lot of people call me Jeff, and in the very beginning when I was really struggling with imposter syndrome, I wouldn’t correct people all the time because I didn’t want their perception of me to change, because my name Janina also doesn’t sound like a generic woman’s name even.

I would just never correct them, and now I make it one of my personal feats to always correct people when they call me Jeff and not Janina, or when they don’t pronounce my name right. It’s a teaching moment, and since I’m global, I try to do the same for everyone else, and to take the effort to learn the names of the different languages. We as Americans demand everyone know our name and say it correctly, but we don’t offer the same respect to internationals. I have a lot of Asian coworkers who would say their name is Steve or Bob or whatever else, and I would tell them, “No, I want to take the time to learn your Chinese name because that’s your given name,” and that’s just basic human respect. I do make it my business now to correct people, but of course I try to do it in a very respectful way!

I think that’s awesome and you’re 100% right for doing it. Like, “No judgment, but you messed up, and it’s okay, I’m gonna help you.” On that note of handling conversations like that, what if I met you in person and was like, “Jeff, it is so great to meet you!” What would you say to me?

I would be like, “I’m not sure who Jeff is, but you may have confused my last name for my first name. My first name is actually Janina.”

That was lovely, thank you for sharing that. I’m curious to know who your role models were growing up, or if you had any inspirations?

My role model growing up was definitely my grandfather. His name is Dr. Morris, Fx. Jeff Junior, and he passed away unfortunately the summer before I went to college. He was a civil rights activist and a public servant, and he was probably one of the first people in New Orleans to really expose the community to Pan Africanism– he really played a role in creating this pro-black community of African Americans in New Orleans. He was also the first PhD in our family, and for a black man to have had a PhD in the ‘70s- it’s crazy, and then one who wears dashikis? I mean, come on!

Now people use this word “unapologetic,” and that’s really what he was. He started out just like most of us– he wore suits and tried to fit into this European-centric idea of what success might look like. But as he grew into his Pan Africanism, he really challenged that, and decided that he was going to be his authentic self and that people were going to have to accept his authentic self. One of the things that really inspires me about that is that everyone should have that freedom to be their authentic self. Unfortunately, though, the harsh reality is that the world is not always ready for that.

I know it’s really negative, but because the world is not quite ready for everyone to be their authentic self, sometimes having the stereotypical idea of success– having a PhD, having credentials, being smart, being educated– really comes as a privilege to helping people accept your authentic self. I think for me personally that a lot of people have been able to accept my authentic self because I have credentials and an education to lean on. But that’s not right. Everyone should have that privilege, and I try to use mine to make that happen for other people. My grandfather was always like that. I was so young when I knew him, but I learned that from him. He would always give me these pro-black books back when I was way too young to read them, really– they were probably highly inappropriate for a twelve-year-old!– but they really helped me to understand who I am, and that’s who he was. He was a public servant and he made it his business to give back to the community whatever he learned through his privilege, and to open that door for other people. He was the first person I had ever seen to do that.

When we talked last for the SGO Podcast, we talked about how you’re a big believer in mentorship. Who inspires you today, professionally?

My undergraduate professor, Dr. Kimberly Jackson, started out as my professor and then has now transitioned into my mentor and my friend. She was the one who really encouraged me to get a PhD and to go to Vanderbilt, and to push my limits and not be afraid.

Then, my PhD advisor– I always say that I would not be here without her. She not only taught me things about genetics, obviously, but she built my confidence, and she always brought me into rooms and gave me a seat at tables that you didn’t see people like me at. During grad school, she would encourage us to talk and to do a lot of public speaking. Little did I know how useful that would be. To be able to be a public speaker is very difficult, and to be a scientist who can do it is really hard. She gave me all these tools to really help lay a foundation for me, and she was never afraid to be the only woman in the room, never afraid to be the only woman of color in the room, and she was never afraid to bring me into that room, even though we’d be the youngest, only women there sometimes. She’s probably one of the biggest mentors that I have.

To transition to now into my post doc, I always worked with a female scientist, who was always unapologetic and always unafraid. She taught me to be fearless and to bring that to the table. Now, as I’m transitioning into a lot of different thing that aren’t in the same sector of what people would identify as “scientists,” I like learning from people who have just perfected their craft– I’m almost obsessed with it. It goes from Beyonce, to James Baldwin, to Oprah… just these people who sort of figured out what their lane was and said, “I am going to make this something that no one has ever seen before, and watch me grow into it.”

Can you tell me a story of a particular triumph that you’ve had?

I came to Vanderbilt from Spelman College, which is an all women’s black college. It’s like being in the womb, you know; it’s nice and warm and cozy and you’re surrounded by women of color in science, and you feel like this is normal. A lot of my professors were black women and all strong and great scientists, and I was surrounded by a lot of people who looked like me and who shared my same experiences, both culturally and academically. So when I went to Vanderbilt, it was a complete culture shock, and it really fed into my imposter syndrome. There’s normal imposter syndrome of, “Oh, I’m not good enough, I don’t belong here,” but there’s another layer when you’re a person of color and there’s no one at your school that looks like you.

I struggled with that a lot, and I think I internalized it so much that I was never going to finish school and that it would be so crazy if I did, almost like it was something that wasn’t for me. I can acknowledge that now, but at the time I didn’t realize that. I studied for weeks for my qualifying exam, and I failed it. When I look back now on that experience, it’s kind of tied in with when I came into that consciousness that my anxiety and my imposter syndrome was this fantasy that I created in my head. I felt that I didn’t belong there, and that I wasn’t smart enough, and that I couldn’t be friends with the people in my program because I couldn’t connect to them culturally, and I felt like an outcast and I felt alone. Failing that test and getting that validation from my professors made me start to realize that all of those things weren’t really true– and that they were just things that I was afraid of, and that I was holding myself back.

I wasn’t free, and because I wasn’t free, I couldn’t really express what I learned in my classes or for the exam. The anxiety of sitting in a room with six other scientists who were also getting PhDs in genetics literally held me back– and I kind of self-sabotaged it. It wasn’t that I didn’t know anything, a lot of it was all of these anxieties and when I overcame that and finally decided (after therapy and a lot of soul-searching) that I am good enough, I was able to start to really succeed.

With my qualifying exam, I had to realize that I took all the same classes everyone else did, and once I tapped out of that insecurity, I passed with flying colors. The department chair actually said that it was the best qualifying exam he had ever sat in, and it was then when I got out of that fantasy of the imposter syndrome and started to be able to push out all of those things that were holding me back, and to realize that the only thing that was really holding me back was myself. Now when I look back, I don’t ever feel insecure about failing that exam, because I know it was a self-sabotage experience as well as a learning experience that I needed to have in order to remember that I actually do belong here.

What’s something that keeps you up at night, and how do you define success?

What keeps me up at night is that I’m obsessed with finding out how I can best use my privilege for good. Luvvie Ajayi wrote this book called I’m Judging You: The Do Better Manual, and it was kind of an eye-opener for me, who felt so not privileged. It helped me realize that I’m educated, I’m able-bodied, and also I’m a black woman who is fair-skinned, which carries a lot of privilege. I think when you acknowledge all of those privileges when you talk to someone who is less privileged, you’ve created a safe space for them. I’m obsessed with learning how I can open doors for someone else, and right now the vessel for doing that for me has been my podcast. The goal for the podcast is to really create trust between the research community and communities of color, but also to educate and give access to these communities in a way that’s culturally relevant that they can hear, understand, and relate to.

That’s literally what keeps me up at night, and I equate it to success. For the first time in my entire life, I feel like I am growing into my authentic self doing this. It sounds crazy, but every time I was in grad school or giving talks, I had to code switch to be someone who was socially or professionally acceptable in these rooms. Finally, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like my authentic self is acceptable in these rooms, and that I can echo things that I’ve learned to build this bridge with the community. I really do equate success with being your authentic self– it doesn’t come with degrees or status, but just with being able to wake up and be fully comfortable with who you are and just be happy with that. What society defines happiness as for a woman might not be happiness for me, and just being conscious of that has helped me to really be able to be myself.