NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

STEM Ambassador

NINDS’s Jones Featured in Exhibit on Women in STEM

 Alongside her statue in front of the Smithsonian castle, Jones poses with hand on hip.
On the National Mall in D.C., Dr. Lataisia Jones with her 3D-printed statue

When Dr. Lataisia Jones, a scientific research officer in NINDS’s Scientific Review Branch, first began her science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach efforts she never imagined her work would immortalize her as a life-size 3D-printed statue in an empowering exhibit. But that’s exactly what happened.

“I am still in disbelief that this little Black girl from Virginia who talked too much in her middle school science class could eventually serve as a global role model in STEM and have a statue placed at an exhibit down the street from the White House,” said Jones.

She is one of 120 STEM innovators featured in #IfThenSheCan—The Exhibit, which debuted at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., during Women’s History Month. The exhibit, which celebrates contemporary women leaders from a variety of STEM fields, is the largest collection of statues of women ever assembled together. 

“The most memorable part of the opening weekend was being able to engage with the public and encouraging young girls and even the adults to pursue STEM careers regardless of barriers and challenges,” Jones said. “I especially felt joy from the kids who ran up to my statue, asked me about the brain and told me what they were learning in school. I kept things exciting by having them wiggle or dance to explore the mind-body connection and learn how neuroscientists study that connection.” 

 Alongside her statue in front of the Smithsonian castle, Jones bends down to chat with a young girl of color.
At the Smithsonian debut of the #IfThenSheCan exhibit, Jones greets a young visitor and a member of the target audience for the larger IF/THEN initiative, which is designed to inspire young girls to STEM careers.

#IfThenSheCan is part of a larger effort—the Lyda Hill Philanthropies’ (LHP) IF/THEN Initiative—designed to inspire young girls to STEM careers. LHP partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to select and manage the AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors program, which engages high-profile STEM role models to spark STEM excitement among middle school girls. The exhibit features life-size versions of the ambassadors.

Jones became involved in 2019 when she was looking to start her own STEM outreach activities. She found an advertisement for the IF/THEN initiative and immediately applied.

“At the time, it was advertised as a funding opportunity to support STEM outreach programs created by women in STEM,” she recalled. “It wasn’t until our first weekend of workshops, receptions and meetings that we learned about the amazing opportunity of being featured as full statues.

“The project and exhibit provide a powerful message to girls everywhere that they can be whatever they want. Seeing the statues at the Smithsonian is a bold way of shifting the culture to accept and establish normalcy behind women in STEM careers. LHP and AAAS have taken on this courageous task of exposing middle school girls to their STEM potential. As a result, so many others have been positively influenced by this initiative.”

Jones earned her bachelor’s and master’s, both in science, at Virginia State University. 

“I fell in love with the laboratory setting and being able to answer questions that would advance the field of cancer through experimentation and literature review,” she explained. “This was also the first time I ever met a woman who led her own laboratory.” 

As an undergraduate, she traveled to Ghana where she taught science, English and math. Her work there ignited her passion for exposing youth to STEM topics and careers. She decided to earn her Ph.D. to make her outreach goals more achievable with a supportive network and additional science training. 

In lab coat, Jones stands with arms crossed, a model brain floating in an aquarium at her back.
Jones is one of 120 STEM innovators featured in #IfThenSheCan—The Exhibit, which debuted on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during Women’s History Month.

In 2017, Jones became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in the department of biomedical sciences at Florida State University.

She completed her postdoctoral research at the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Hospital in D.C., where her work focused on the involvement of plexins in corpus callosum development and their association with autism spectrum disorders. 

As a graduate student, Jones studied a debilitating, involuntary movement disorder called levodopa responsive dystonia and developed an antibody that improves diagnostics. 

“In my role at Children’s National Hospital, I created ‘Young Scientist Wednesdays,’ which provided patients with weekly STEM engagement and exposure to diverse leaders who taught them how to extract DNA from strawberries, the science between centrifugation while making pottery and even helped them explore the inside of the brain using augmented reality,” Jones said.

For safety reasons, the program was shut down during the pandemic. Luckily, she came up with another option—Kitchen Science with Dr. Tay—a YouTube show that explores STEM topics using live experiments with materials found at home. This virtual engagement has gained increasing interest and evolved into collaborations with several other organizations and STEM leaders.

Jones also volunteers as a writer and program host for the Association for Women in Science and serves as a national mentor and keynote speaker promoting STEM resources, programs and careers. She has earned numerous awards for her education efforts and advocacy for STEM diversity.

“I often reflect on constantly being the only Black woman sitting at the table,” said Jones. “It takes a lot to stay motivated in careers that lack diversity when you are unable to visually see representation in those spaces. Nevertheless, I encourage everyone to understand that if that one person (whether it is you or someone else) doesn’t take that journey alone and lift others while there, change may never occur.” 

Former NIH Postdoc Also a STEM Ambassador

Taaffe in green protective lab smock smiles in science labroom.
Not so long ago, Dr. Jessica Taaffe was an NIAID postdoc.

Dr. Jessica Taaffe worked as a postdoc in Dr. Patrick Duffy’s Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology at NIAID from 2011 to 2014.

Currently an independent global health and science consultant, she’s also an IF/THEN ambassador and most recently has been working with the World Health Organization and EpiPointe on pandemic threat projects, including SARS-CoV-2. 

At IF/THEN’s initial summit, the ambassadors learned they were going to have their statues made. It was natural for Taaffe both to stand up for STEM and be somewhat center stage during a global health threat.

Taaffe alongside her plastic statue
Recently Taaffe found herself cast in plastic the National Mall alongside other ambassadors for women in STEM.

“I was always interested in science one way or another, but I made the decision to pursue a research career in infectious diseases during the first SARS pandemic,” Taaffe recalled. “I was a college junior taking a virology class, learning about the biology of viruses, including coronaviruses. At the same time, I saw in real time the global health impact that an emerging virus could have, which went beyond its impact on the body. I was fascinated by viruses and infectious diseases and I knew that I wanted to focus on them as a career.”

Her years at NIH prepared her well for the opportunities that were in her future.

Taaffe speaks from NIH podium with seminar title slide projected on screen behind her
As an NIAID postdoc, Taaffe speaks at the first global health interest group symposium.

“I was a postdoctoral research fellow and my project focused on severe malaria in monkeys using P. coatneyi in rhesus macaques to understand the etiology, presentation and pathogenesis of severe malaria,” she said. “I led this project using my background doing a similar type of work from my Ph.D. with SIV in macaques. The work was clinically, immunologically and pathology focused. During my postdoc I also founded and led NIH’s Global Health Interest Group, including holding its first annual symposium, which continues and thrives today.”

Taaffe later returned to NIH as an NIAID contractor (2016-2021), leading outreach initiatives for the TB Portals, a data science and sharing program. She offers this advice to like-minded young people.

Toddler girl smiles widely in front of statue.
Taaffe’s daughter delights in discovering a mommy statue.

“If you’re passionate about something, go after it, even if there isn’t an obvious path for you,” she said. “Be open to new opportunities and what you can learn from them.

"Build a strong professional network, especially among your peers," she concluded. "It is my similarly minded friends and colleagues that have helped me through my most challenging professional moments. Directly engage with relevant professional communities to learn and create a place for yourself. Develop excellent science communication skills—this has been a key reason for success in my career.”

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