You are a woman of the world, having lived in many different places and being exposed to different cultures. Can you tell us a bit about your early life and how that shaped who you are now? When did you become interested in Science?
I faced many challenges during my upbringing that shaped the person I am today. I was born in China, but I moved to Canada with my parents when I was seven years old, initially to Toronto then to francophone Montréal, Québec. These were extremely difficult times. In addition to being uprooted as first-generation immigrants, we did not speak French and struggled to find a community. My parents grew up in the 60s during the communist regime, when food was scarce and rationed by the government. Eventually, the country opened up in the 80s and 90s, which led them to immigrate and seek better opportunities. However, our early years in Canada were not easy ones. My mom was an accountant and my father was an electronics engineer, but they could not find equivalent positions in Canada. Instead, they worked as shop keepers, hotel maid, factory line worker. I knew from a very early age that access to education and a strong work ethic were key to socioeconomic mobility. We lived in Canada for six years, then moved to Pennsylvania, US, for five years.
During my secondary education in the US, I became very interested in biology and medicine. My favourite course was zoology, where we dissected octopuses, cats, sharks, pigeons, snakes – you name it! To this day, I still remember a competition where the winning team would be the one who stretched the longest cat intestine. I think that’s when I knew I would really like to be a surgeon. We also won, with our cat intestine measuring 2.68 m long.
After high school, I wanted to form my own identity. By this time, I had lived in three countries, moved over eight times, and developed a love for science. I chose to pursue an undergraduate degree in neuroscience to become a doctor. Little did I know that this would lead me to pursue research at Oxford and Cambridge in the UK.
So, how did you end up in the UK?
I lived five years in Pennsylvania in the small university town of State College, where the environment was, unbeknownst to me at the time, very competitive. Most of my friends’ parents were university professors. This environment pushed me to go further and develop myself. My peers were conducting summer research internships during high school, and so I decided to try it out. My first research experience was at Pennsylvania State University working on deciphering the structure of histones the summer after my high school graduation.
The year after, I attended Pomona College in California on a full scholarship. I was a pre-medical student, majoring in neuroscience and minoring in chemistry. Throughout my time at Pomona, I completed several summer internships, including evolutionary immunology at Caltech, infectious diseases at UCLA Harbor Medical Center, developmental neurobiology at Pomona, and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. From these experiences, I knew I wanted a career in neuroscience research and medicine. During my third year, I had the wonderful opportunity of studying at the University of Oxford St. Edmund Hall and working part-time as a research assistant in the structural biology department on proteins involved in synaptic formation.
From studying in the UK, I knew that the University of Cambridge had a strong programme in neuroscience, so I decided to move back to the UK for my MPhil in Medical Sciences at the Department of Clinical Neurosciences and Downing College. I started a PhD right after that at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute on a Gates Scholarship. My current research focuses on adulthood brain plasticity and how neuronal activity influences myelin plasticity and remodelling. My serendipitous allocation to Girton College came to play a central role during my graduate studies. Girton College pioneered higher education for women and champions equal access. During my PhD, I served as president of the graduate student body (MCR – Middle Combination Room) at Girton College for two years. In many ways, this spirit of the college inspired me to found my social venture.
Speaking of which, your social venture Emporsand aims to repurpose fashion waste into affordable sanitary pads for women in low- and middle-income countries. This seems quite far from your field of neuroscience. How did this project start?
Cambridge has a very special entrepreneurial mindset and ecosystem, and I caught the entrepreneurship bug very early on. Crashing the Enterprise Tuesday Talks and Venture Creation Weekends at the Judge Business School and completing the Cambridge Hub Impact Labs, EnterpriseTECH PhD+, and EnterpriseTECH STAR programmes made me realize that I wanted to champion my own project. I had a specific interest in women’s empowerment and decided to pursue a high impact project. Emporsand was born in 2019 during the Royal Academy of Engineering Global Grand Challenges Summit, where engineers gathered to tackle current sustainability challenges. I mentored the winning team of undergraduate students that came up with the idea of repurposing fast fashion into sanitary pads at low cost, with the ultimate goal of improving sanitation in low income countries. EnterpriseTECH STAR programme helped define the business model that ultimately shaped the venture.
What is the current stage of this venture and where do you want to take it?
We are still very young and building our brand. Currently, we are planning to launch our product for field testing with partner organisations in India. So far, we have gathered funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering, McKinsey, Downing Enterprise, and the SJL Foundation. Moreover, our venture has been featured at the UK House of Commons for best emerging Start-Up and BBC Look East.
Have you faced any particular challenges related to your gender, age or race that you would like to share with us?
As a serial immigrant and woman of colour, I am no stranger to the barriers towards leadership in science, business, and industry. Growing up in the US and Canada, the bamboo ceiling was always present. Asian women are seen as voiceless, demure, and lacking in agency. This docile behaviour, which is encouraged in Asian culture, acts as a strong negative in the Western individualist society. As a result, voicing my opinion and standing my ground were extremely challenging, and still remains difficult to this day. Founding Emporsand and speaking on behalf of other women has given me a purpose to stand up and speak up.
What are your main drives and motivators?
My main drive is to become a torchbearer for women and to lead by example. When I look at biotech venture capital firms or competitive medical residencies like neurosurgery, I don’t see my profile in representation. At the start of medical school, the gender balance is pretty much 50/50. However, women drop out of intensive residencies. Currently, about 5% of neurosurgeons or head of departments in neurosurgery are women. Someone has to change that, and I have decided to rise above my circumstances and pave a path that others – immigrants, women, people of colour – can follow.
What are your future ambitions?
I aspire to become a neurosurgeon-neuroscientist, after completing an MD/PhD. I hope to use my research background to set up collaborations with industry and commercialize novel therapeutics and treatments. My PhD gave me the foundations for problem-solving and critical thinking and Cambridge gave me an entrepreneurial mindset. I am passionate about leadership and helping my community, and hope to use my ambition in science, medicine, and global health to improve the lives of others.
Do you have any advice to other entrepreneurial women who are starting their careers?
If someone else can do it, you can do it. And if no one has done it, then prove yourself to be the one.
Find out more about Emporsand.
Jennifer was interviewed by Iris Batalha.