Most days, from the wee hours of the morning until late into the evening, you can find Lynika Strozier in a molecular genetics and cell biology lab at the University of Chicago, poring over a microscope, conducting experiments with cells.
To look at Strozier now, you’d never know what she’s been through. She will tell you that although the trial-and-error process is the cornerstone of science, it has also been the story of her life.
“You get knocked down so many times, you learn how to pick yourself up,” said Strozier, 27, whose research interest is in molecular biology and microbiology.
University of Chicago, 5730 S Ellis Ave, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
Strozier has become quite skilled at picking herself up.
When she was 6, she had to live with her grandmother Sharon Wright because her mother, who was addicted to drugs, couldn’t care for her. Strozier’s father was never a part of her life.
Strozier was 8 when she was diagnosed with a learning disability. She struggled with math, but reading was even more of a challenge. When she read aloud, it was in such a halting manner that it sometimes sounded like she was gasping for breath.
During elementary school, Wright arranged for Strozier to spend her Saturdays meeting with a reading instructor and her summers in class so that she wouldn’t be so far behind the next school year.
“Every time I thought about giving up, my grandmother just kept pushing and pushing,” Strozier said.
In high school, she performed well enough to earn a full scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa. But she failed to make the adjustment and flunked out after the first year and lost her scholarship.
She said her disability and her mother’s travails with drugs had hollowed out her self-esteem years before. But having to return to Chicago, to the Edgewater community where she grew up, made her feel only worse.
Still, Strozier began taking classes at Truman College. Two years later in 2005, she was on campus when her grandmother called to tell her that her mother had overdosed on drugs. She died in the hospital a few days later.
“I was struggling academically, in part because I was grieving,” she said.
She also hadn’t yet settled on a major. A teacher introduced Strozier to Yvonne Harris, who at the time was Truman’s director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and the Advancement of Technological Education. Harris suggested Strozier try the sciences.
“My philosophy is that we’re born scientists and mathematicians and we experiment and observe the world around us all the time,” Harris said. “Having the ‘A’ students is nice, but we wanted people who had tenacity and determination, a refusal to fail.”
Although Strozier doubted she had the proper training or the ability to be “a real scientist,” she tried it anyway and wound up working in a lab caring for a Chinese hamster ovary cell line.
“Every Saturday morning, I had to get up to (feed the cells),” Strozier said. “My grandmother would say, ‘Where are you going?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m off to feed the cells.’ I got the nickname Madam Cho. I loved doing it. That’s when I knew I wanted to go into the sciences.”
Harris said that early on she would go over data with Strozier and realized that she could verbally explain the results to her experiments, but had a difficult time writing up papers.
“After about a year, she shared with me that she had a disability, and I said, ‘I understand. You see words as pictures, so draw pictures and then translate the pictures back into words,'” Harris said. “And that seemed to help her.”
Strozier said she also learned to rely heavily on her memory and do calculations longhand rather than plug numbers into computer programs. She said that helps her to see where she’s going and understand her mistakes. She also keeps up with experiments by arriving at the lab early and staying late.
Harris said one of Strozier’s greatest transformations was in the way she presented her findings to large audiences. Strozier went from being someone with a quaky voice who was afraid to address her professors and peers to a sure-footed presenter.
“Her last presentation was at Argonne (National Laboratory), and she was a totally confident person with such an amazing presence,” Harris said.
Strozier earned her associate’s degree from Truman in 2008 and earned her bachelor’s degree in 2011 from Dominican University, where she met another mentor who encouraged her to apply for the Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program at the U. of C., where she’s now applying to colleges to enter a doctoral program.
Recently, she was part of a team from the Field Museum that published a paper on the genetic relationship of early land plants. She hopes to one day teach microbiology at a community college or a four-year institution.
I told Strozier I was attracted to her story because not many people who start out with the hand she was dealt fare as well as she has.
“Sometimes, it’s about hard work and faith, and having people who can help push you forward,” she said. “Sometimes, that’s all you have to go on.”