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Into the World

Alumna Tiffany Lemon on Science, Social Justice, and Asking “Why Not?”
Into the World

Tiffany Lemon conducting research.

When Opelousas native and Ogden Honors alumna Tiffany Lemon first arrived in Baton Rouge to attend Louisiana State University in 2009, she knew that something profound was beginning.

“I remember moving to Baton Rouge and thinking it was the biggest city I had ever been to,” Lemon admitted. “I just didn't have that much exposure outside of small town Louisiana, so it was just a big deal coming to Baton Rouge in the first place.”

Lemon is a first-generation college student and current PhD candidate in the area of Population Health Sciences at Harvard University. In the years following her first glimpse of LSU, Lemon has done everything from working with Teach for America to interning with the Rwanda Zambia HIV Research Group. Her travels and research have taken her miles beyond the biggest city she had ever seen, and led her to explore her own place in the intersecting worlds of science and service.

According to Lemon, her path to success begins and ends with her parents. She shared that during the summers growing up, her mother would buy giant workbooks made for the grade level she was entering in the fall, assign her pages to complete and check her answers after work in the evening.

My mom is the fiercest proponent of education I have personally ever seen,” Lemon said. “Just her success mindset — that you can do anything you put your mind to if you can see yourself there continues to inspire me today. She still continues to see things before I do, and believe in me before I can see that I can do it myself.”

Lemon entered LSU in biochemistry as a member of both the Ogden Honors College and the Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Research Scholars Program (LA-STEM). She cites two LA-STEM leaders – Dr. Isiah Warner and Melissa Crawford – in particular as mentors on the road to her personal and professional success. Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Dr. Warner remembers her well.

“Tiffany was an excellent student who epitomized everything we desired to accomplish through the LA-STEM program,” he said.

LA-STEM Research Scholars Program Manager Melissa Crawford agrees.

“Tiffany leaves a trail of enthusiasm, empowerment, and excellence wherever she goes,” Crawford said. “Her life sends a message that a positive attitude, unquestionable integrity, exemplary work ethic and a passion for serving others lead to pathways for success. She is a remarkable woman who will undoubtedly greatly impact the lives of others as a researcher, social justice advocate and community leader.”

For Lemon, the fusion of the Honors mindset and research focus in LA-STEM provided her with endless opportunities to unveil her potential. In fact, Lemon uses the language of family and support to describe how both spaces allowed her to flourish as a scholar and individual.

“I had a very tangible sense of people believing in me that helped me to also believe in myself,” Lemon said. “I think it’s a critical component of what it means to support diversity and inclusion: recognizing some students don't have that context, and because they haven't seen people like them in these places, there's always the underlying question of ‘Oh, do I belong here?’ And so, in the absence of not seeing that represented, someone believing in you helps tremendously.”

At LSU, Lemon did it all — worked in a lab with biological sciences professor Dr. Anne Grove, served as an Honors Advocate, interned with the Ragon Institute in Massachusetts, received a Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention, conducted research in France one summer at the Pasteur Institute of Lille, and developed a thesis on the “Characterization of MarR Homolog in Vibrio vulnificus.

She was also a distinguished communicator as part of the Communication Across the Curriculum initiative at the university, where she began to question how to frame scientific research in a social justice context.

“Scientists love to use super complicated terms,” Lemon explained. “They're terms that serve a purpose, but I think there's an opportunity to make that technical language more accessible, especially when opening your research up to a larger audience. One thing that science lacks is a multitude of voices to inform how it is moving forward. Outside voices really insert those unique research questions into the conversation.”

While researching HIV and immune system dynamics, Lemon began to ask questions that were slightly removed from science: What about these people and their life experiences? How does life exposure to what they encounter each day also inform the way their immune systems work? These questions, and a feeling that her time in Baton Rouge had not run its course, led Lemon to join Teach for America upon graduation in 2013. Working locally at Gardere Community Christian School, Lemon found a way to continue the tenets of community service, academic engagement, and mentorship that had inspired her undergraduate career.

“I did every job under the sun,” Lemon said, laughing. “One day I could clean a toilet, and the next I could help the school develop a nutrition plan. I am so thankful I decided to take that gap year. If anyone asks me personally, I say take that gap year to just get out. The academic space is amazing, and I love academic spaces but it's not the world. Get out into the world.”

At this point in her trajectory, Lemon realized that her person-to-person work on the ground level was pushing her away from biomedical research and toward public health. Witnessing the effects of mass incarceration and environmental exposures that were unchecked led her to wonder how different factors coupled with location were impacting people’s health. She applied and was accepted to Emory University in 2014 where she eventually received her Master’s Degree in Public Health with a focus in Global Epidemiology.

“Part of my appeal to go to Emory was ‘I'm interested in social justice and I'm interested in infectious disease,” Lemon recalled. “‘What can I do?’”

As it turns out, Lemon could do a lot. Her faculty advisor, a physician epidemiologist who studied HIV among incarcerated persons, gave Lemon the opportunity to explore how implementing intervention to increase awareness of HIV status could lead to prevention. At the end of her program, Lemon entered Harvard University as a PhD candidate in 2016 — a decision to “reject comfort” in order to pursue her passion in a rigorous setting.

In the meantime, Lemon is exploring.

“As I'm getting deeper and deeper into this space and checking out other opportunities, I'm starting to also explore other spaces,” Lemon said. “For instance, this past summer I did an internship at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I also worked at the Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research, and there I worked on a post-incarceration engagement project. That was my summer experience.”

As for the Honors College, Lemon remembers foundational HNRS 2000 courses where she learned about Immanuel Kant or John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, a memorable Shakespeare and Opera seminar completely outside of her area of study, and a community of like-minded scholars open to collaboration and shared enrichment experiences. To the next Honors class, she asks a question.

“‘Why not?’ is always the question that I pose to myself,” Lemon said. “I feel like during my undergraduate experience I had way more time to just explore and to figure it out —  figure out what I wanted to do, and even how I wanted to frame my life philosophy. So go for it, do it, explore. It's the time to do that.”

 

LA-STEM Research Scholars Program

The Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or LA-STEM, Research Scholars Program was a program managed by the LSU Office of Strategic Initiatives. OSI’s vision is to support the high achievements of LSU students, faculty, and staff through education, mentoring and research. LA-STEM provided comprehensive holistic training to scholars in preparation for doctoral programs.

Story by Jacqueline DeRobertis, Ogden Honors College. For more information, email jacquelined@lsu.edu or call 225-578-0083.