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Being the Change

Biotechnology and African American studies major takes an interdisciplinary approach to addressing inequity in health care.
Jazmine Richardson works in lab

Jazmine Richardson ’22 was drawn to biotechnology for its interdisciplinary nature and to African American studies for its context of culture and history. She looks forward to applying her education to addressing issues of inequity in health care.

Downstairs from the airy atrium in Syracuse University’s Life Sciences Complex, chemistry professor John Franck’s lab spans several rooms. Here, undergraduate and graduate students move purposefully between the wet lab, where beakers and test tubes line the counters, and equipment rooms dominated by computers, whiteboards thick with diagrams, and a couch-sized electron paramagnetic resonance spectrometer for analyzing molecular movement.

Research in Franck’s lab centers on how water interacts with protein and lipid molecules, examining nanoscale dynamics that could ultimately have implications for human health and the development of lifesaving drugs. Students focus on different components of the research. Jazmine Richardson ’22, a biotechnology and African American studies major in the College of Arts and Sciences, has most recently been working to develop a new instrument to streamline part of the protein expression process.

While Richardson’s research focuses on the microscopic, her goals are anything but.

Interdisciplinary Research

Richardson is from Buffalo, New York, the youngest of 10 siblings in a blended family. Having witnessed several loved ones struggle with cancer, she initially set her sights on becoming an oncologist and started her college journey in the biochemistry department. She was paired with Franck’s lab through the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, which aims to increase the number of students from underrepresented populations in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Richardson works with professor on lab research

Richardson works with chemistry professor John Franck on groundbreaking research around molecular properties and testing methods.

In Franck’s lab, Richardson has been able to develop a project tailored to her studies and interests, and she has gained valuable experience in the nonlinear nature of real research, she says.

But Richardson always intended her work in medicine to contribute to the broader goals of improving health care for the Black community and securing social equity throughout the health care sector. From the outset, she contextualized her scientific inquiry with courses in history, economics, politics and culture.

It was Richardson’s appreciation of the interconnectedness among fields that ultimately drew her to biotechnology. “Through biotechnology, I can engage in conversations that bring in, for example, the intersections of economics and policies in relation to science, and the understanding of how everything plays a part in the bigger picture,” she says. This interdisciplinary approach has broadened her vision of how she might achieve her goals. “I’m on a pre-med track, and my goal is to become a physician-scientist with an M.D. and Ph.D., but what I enjoy about biotechnology is that it’s applicable in such a wide range of fields, from industry to policy to health and medicine.”

What I enjoy about biotechnology is that it’s applicable in such a wide range of fields, from industry to policy to health and medicine.

Jazmine Richardson ’22

Hands-On Practice

Richardson is involved with a range of campus organizations centered on health care and science, such as the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program and the student-run Rebecca Lee Pre-Health Society (named after the first African American woman in the U.S. to earn an M.D.). Through these and other groups, she has discovered ways to engage in various facets of health care and explore her interconnected interests in social issues and science.

For example, she volunteered in the cancer care center at Crouse Hospital, assisting nurses and supporting patients. Last spring, Richardson served as a COVID-19 case investigator and contact tracer. This work provided insight into disparities of medical understanding and trust in the medical system, she says. “It helped me really appreciate how important it is to communicate science in a way that people can understand, and to help people see how that science applies in their own lives.”

Jazmine Richardson looks at MLK portrait

In the Martin Luther King Library, Richardson finds peace, quiet and inspiration.

Richardson’s interest in the intersections of economy, history and health care led her to join the student-run financial organization BLK Management, which gives Black students opportunities for meaningful financial investment. Influence through investment capital is one of the ways historically disempowered populations can shift paradigms in the health care sector, she says.

And it was through an introductory course in the health humanities program that Richardson became involved with locally focused events centered on issues of inequality and health, including Upstate Medical University’s annual conference on health justice. These opportunities disseminate information and help level the playing field for patients and medical practitioners from marginalized communities, she explains.

Delving deeper into her research interests, Richardson spent the summer interning in another lab she was paired with through the LSAMP program, this time working with Matthew DeLisa, a biotechnology professor at Cornell University, on groundbreaking research in the treatment of breast cancer.

Jazmine Richardson poses for portrait outside of campus building.

At Syracuse, Richardson has shaped an undergraduate research project that pushes new boundaries and discovered a range of opportunities to gain professional experience.

Hard Work Rewarded

Richardson says that she has always been drawn to puzzles and problem solving. As a first-generation college student coming from a family where resources were spread a bit thin, she’s had to apply this mindset to every step of her academic journey. Syracuse University felt like home to Richardson from her first campus visit, but it wasn’t until she was invited to become a Student Support Services Scholar that an education at Syracuse became possible. She credits those programs for opening the doors to everything she’s been able to accomplish since. Richardson now gives back by supporting fellow students in both the SSS and the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity programs by tutoring for select science and African American studies courses.

In the Honors program, I found a community that really helped me feel comfortable.

Jazmine Richardson ’22

At Syracuse, her hard work and aptitude have been recognized in important ways. She is a Renée Crown University Honors Program student, which she appreciates for the academic opportunities it offers and the sense of camaraderie it fosters. “In the Honors program, I found a community that really helped me feel comfortable,” she says. “Everyone is curious and really interested in something different, so it’s very engaging.” It was the Honors introductory chemistry course, which included a lab component and the chance to work alongside graduate students, that prepared her to participate in Franck’s lab, she adds.

Richardson was also selected as an Our Time Has Come Leader through an Office of Multicultural Advancement program that offers students professional development, alumni mentorship and leadership training with a community of their peers. And this year, she was named a Remembrance Scholar. She carries the honor of this award, granted in memory of the 35 Syracuse University students who perished in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in 1988, with a sense of reverence. “It is truly a humbling honor to have the chance to represent a student and to be charged with carrying their legacy forward,” she says.

Staying Grounded

Richardson’s academic track can be competitive and demanding. She draws on her faith to help her cultivate resilience and says Hendricks Chapel has been an invaluable source of both spiritual and communal support. “I feel empowered through Hendricks. It’s where I pray and also where I learn about different cultures and connect with like-minded people across a wide range of religious practices.” She has volunteered extensively through Hendricks’ community engagement programing, including as a tutor for the organization Refugee and Immigrant Self-Empowerment (RISE) in Syracuse.

During her first semester, Richardson connected with several other first-year students whom she now cherishes as her core group of friends. The shared principles they recognized in each other are the values that sustain her through challenging times, she says. “We have in common the desire to leave a legacy that others can feel empowered by,” she explains. “We share this understanding that what we’re doing is not just about us and for us. It’s about our ancestors who died because they weren’t able to see this moment right here, and it’s for the future generations who will hopefully benefit from what we’re trying to do.”

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