Illinois Ag Student Tristesse Jones Is STEM Education Success Story

An In-Depth Portrait

December 9, 2009

Tristesse Jones working in Illinois lab.As a child, she liked to dissect worms; today, she is a University of Illinois senior majoring in crop sciences and preparing to be a research biologist working to improve the soybean and discover useful medicinal derivatives from plants. As for how she got from point A to point B, Tristesse Jones is a perfect example of how the STEM education pipeline is supposed to work: (1) target youngsters with an interest in science; (2) steer them towards STEM fields in college; and (3) cross your fingers and hope they choose careers in STEM fields once they're out. Currently on target to graduate in May 2010, Jones was lured to the university by her interest in biology (she admits she “really liked taking apart a worm”) and a summer science program at Illinois.

As a child, Tristesse always enjoyed science and math, participated in science fairs, and had a penchant for biology: “I liked dirt and mud, and how things worked. I’ve always liked to see how things work, like, ‘How does this work?’ I know liked worms; I liked dissecting…I really liked taking apart a worm.” What is unusual is for a young person from the inner city who has never seen a farm to choose a profession in agriculture.

Tristesse’s love affair with the soybean began when, as a youngster, she wrote a report for Black History Month on the famous African-American, Percy Lavon Julian, who quickly became one of her heroes. A pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, Julian had 130 chemical patents, many of which were derived from the soybean. Although Jones’ interest in soybean research has undoubtedly been fueled by the work of Julian, her ties to the field of biology and crop science research, in particular, were cemented when her pom-pom coach (who also happened to be a biology teacher), noticed her interest in biology. Although Tristesse wasn’t even one of her students, the teacher invited her on a field trip her biology class was making to Illinois as part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Economic Sciences’ Research Apprentice Program (RAP) outreach. After this initial visit, she was “hooked.”

Jones participated in RAP for two years, researching corn her first summer, but switching to soybeans her second. Her second-year project, “Using CDNA Microarray Analysis to Examine a Soybean,” compared the gene expression of a soybean mutant with that of its parent. One of her tasks was to extract the RNA from the plant and put it on a slide to be examined. Ironically, she hasn’t made it very far from the lab she first visited as a high school student: “I’m still working in the same lab that I was in in RAP. I really love the lab experience, and I found out that I really love research. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life—work in a lab, answer my own questions, work on my own experiment. I was just amazed when I came down here as a high school student.  My project was very simple, but it was just amazing.”

Jones is still involved in the RAP program, but now she herself is mentoring high school students. And it is a source of extreme satisfaction to her that some of the students she mentors are doing research that builds on her previous work. And the faculty member who served as her mentor in RAP, Professor Steven Clough, a soybean researcher himself, has had a long-term impact on her career choice. Jones, who is taking a course with him this semester, describes their relationship: “He’s very open and welcoming and kind. He really helped me and worked with me. He’s just there. I can call him for anything.” Clough not only served as Jones’ RAP mentor, but mentored her when she was a McNair Scholar in the summer of 2008.

Illinois’ McNair Scholar Program prepares promising low-income, first-generation, and/or underrepresented minority undergraduates for success in graduate school. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the program is named after the late Ronald E. McNair, the second African American in space. Prominent in the field of laser physics, Dr. McNair was a member of the astronaut crew of the space shuttle Challenger which exploded in space in 1986, killing all on board.

An eight-week summer research experience, the McNair Program sponsors workshops which prepare students for careers in academia, addressing topics such as the nature of academic life, writing and research skills, and applying for graduate school. In addition, students spend 30+ hours a week being mentored by faculty in their major field of study. These mentors guide the scholars’ research projects and prepare them for more advanced study. In McNair, Jones continued her research in soybeans with Dr. Clough as her mentor, and as McNair Scholars go, she followed the program’s intended script. Equipped with an excellent education from the University of Illinois, she plans to be a research professor and is currently applying to graduate programs.

What Jones didn't plan on was becoming the poster child of ACES. She was recently featured in an ABC News website article about the current upswing in student interest in agriculture schools and careers. She is one of the increasing numbers of students preparing for careers in agriculture which, according to the article, isn’t just for farmers anymore, but encompasses science, biology, chemistry, and environmental issues. For instance, Jones intends to study pharmacology in graduate school. “What I want to do is work with medicinal plants and natural products and create medicines, so I’m applying for pharmacology instead of just agriculture. I want to work with natural products that will go into medicine from plants, living things that can be used to help people. I love plants, and what I want to do is incorporate them, but I also want to be more direct in helping people, even if it takes me 20 years to find one compound.”

When asked what advice she would give to young people—for instance, to her three younger siblings—Jones immediately rattled off several sage pieces of advice, which she has clearly put into practice. “Take advantage of all the opportunities that come your way…Opportunity after opportunity after opportunity just came my way, and if I had been lazy and said, ‘I want to spend my summer at home!’ I would have missed out on all these opportunities.” Jones began taking advantage of opportunities as early as in eighth grade, when she participated in an entrepreneurship program in her school; she started a business called “Keep it Sweet,” selling accessories and beauty products, like socks and rings and lip gloss. When I asked her if she made, money, she indicated that she had, kindly not implying, “Well, why else would I be in business?”

Another piece of Jones’ advice is to: “Work hard. It can be tough sometimes, but you’ve gotta’ work hard. If you see something that you want, try hard to get it. Don’t just be lazy or think everything’s gonna’ be handed to you.” She has followed this piece of advice too. Besides her business, she says she has “always had a job,” such as tutoring in eighth grade, dancing, and working in a souvenir shop and at a community center.

She also exhorts young people to try different things; “Do some research, and see what you like, because I had to find that out. I said, ‘Ok, I’m not doing well in these classes; maybe I shouldn’t go this route. I think I like this area; I’ll try something in this area and see how it goes.’” Tristesse has dabbled in a variety of things, such as dancing, and enjoyed them all. In high school, she participated in an Academy of Arts Program called Galley 37, leaving school for two hours a day to study dance at the arts academy. And she discovered that she was good! This led to a job with the Joffrey Ballet, where she danced as an extra in Romeo and Juliet. And participating in SROP at Northwestern University this past summer led to her choosing pharmacology as a career.

She also advises young people not to be afraid to leave their geographic area—the area they’re familiar with. She urges: “You don’t have to be stuck where you are. You can always go other places, see other things. Don’t be stuck where you are and get accustomed to doing the things you like to do. Put yourself out there. Don’t be so, ‘I want to stay in Chicago.’ No, go elsewhere. There are plenty of options, plenty of people you want to meet, different cultures. There’s just so much more out there. If I can do it, you can do it.” She has put this advice into practice, too. For instance, when choosing which high school to attend, she decided that she didn’t want to go to school in her community (Chicago’s west side) with the people she had grown up with and had known all her life, but wanted to do something new and go to school outside of her community. So she made an hour-and-a-half bus commute every morning (and every evening, of course) to Lakeview High School, making the most of her time by doing homework on the bus ride there and back.

She also advises young people to: “take advantage of networking.” It is clear that Jones has made the most of networking relationships and mentoring. She describes how her grandmother taught her to read and write at the age of three, and the impact her grandfather has had on her life. And she acknowledges that it was through networking, such as with her high school biology teacher and Professor Clough and others here on campus, that many of her opportunities have come.

Her final piece of advice was “to not just be focused on academics, because you have to have that outside ability, as far as social service projects and just being sociable.” Far from the stereotypical nerdy lab rat, she is quite well rounded. She is a member of the Alpha Phi Omega Service Fraternity, the vice president of the Illinois chapter of MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences), and is a dance instructor at the African-American Cultural Center.

As I sat there watching the passion and obvious relish with which she described lab procedures she had performed, amazed at the ease with which she confidently and matter-of-factly spouted crop science jargon, and bemused as a string of bewildering four-dollar words such as mutagenized, oxidative stress, and superoxide dismutase glibly rolled off her tongue, I realized that here was a product of the system—in a good sense. We always hear the negative connotation: kids who have been failed by the system. However, in Tristesse’s case, the system has offered her opportunity after opportunity, and she is taking advantage of every one. When I asked her where she got her drive, her work ethic, her risk-taking nature, and whether she had learned it from her parents or grandparents, her response wasn’t the inspirational nugget I had hoped for. As I prepared to wend my way home that cold early December evening, and she to whatever not-so-typical college students do on a Friday night, she replied, “I didn’t like just sitting in the house watching TV.”

Story by Elizabeth Innes, I-STEM Communications Specialist

More: ACES, STEM Pipeline, Student Spotlight, Summer Research, Women in STEM, 2009