Why Fit in When You Can Stand Out with Kelly Knight

Was it just me, or did anyone else think you had to be a naturally gifted genius to pursue a career in STEM?

I assumed this to be true until I came across Kelly Knight’s Instagram A.K.A Kelly The Scientist. What immediately struck me about Kelly was her style. She was (and is) absolutely FLY.

The second thing that caught my attention was the fact that she is a Forensic Scientist. A stylish, black, female Forensic Scientist? I’d never seen that before. Not only is Kelly a Forensic Scientist, she’s also a Professor at George Mason University, a Science Education Researcher, and a PhD student.

Kelly will be the first to tell you that it’s not about being a genius to thrive in STEM; it’s about having a good work ethic and confidence in your ability.

This month, TCHS caught up with Kelly for a super candid conversation about her career lows, the importance of authenticity, and how she’s redefining what a scientist “looks” like.

Here are five questions with Kelly Knight:

You don’t dress like the average “scientist”. What gave you the confidence to bring your true style to work?

K: When I was first getting into the field, I always tried to fit into what society says a scientist “looks” like. I tried to change my style by wearing clothes that were too big and wore the nerdiest type of glasses. I got to a point where I was just mentally exhausted from trying to be someone I wasn’t. The longer I’ve been in the field, the more comfortable I became with being myself.

I also understand the responsibility I have to help redefine scientific stereotypes. There are different ways a scientist can look. Having people see my accomplishments and see that I still can look fly rewires the scientist “look” stereotype. There is no one look.

When you were in undergrad, you struggled as a chemistry major; what was that time like mentally and emotionally?

K: Oh man, yeah. It makes me so sad to think of how undergrad affected my mental health. Going through my program, I was the only black person. Not just the only black woman, but the only black person.

Regardless of my race, I felt no connection with my teachers. I felt like none of them cared to know my name or why I wasn’t getting good grades in their classes. I felt isolated and it slammed my self-esteem.

If I had a mentor or someone to guide me through that experience, I might have tried to approach things differently.

Although many of the classes I took weren’t designed for student success and I wasn’t necessarily proud of my GPA, I worked hard to finish my chemistry degree.

I also sought out other ways to demonstrate my abilities such as obtaining an internship in a lab and pursuing a Master’s degree. I got involved with research, and, even most importantly, got a mentor in my field who believed in me and gave me the opportunity to completely change my trajectory.

What is your advice to students who base their worth/ability on their GPA?

K: Your GPA is not a reflection of your intelligence. You have to repeat this affirmation daily, weekly, or however often you need. Many things can play a role in your GPA that has nothing to do with how smart you are.

You have to focus on the things you’re really good at, like your work ethic, motivation, or ability to be resilient. Those are all important characteristics of an individual that’s successful in STEM. People in STEM have been so afraid to admit their failure. I tell students all the time about my failures; I think hearing that authenticity helps them.

Why do you think there is this misconception that you have to be a genius or naturally gifted to pursue any STEM field?

K: Two things. First, people have this Albert Einstein image in their head about what it means to be a scientist. Number two, a lot of people aren’t transparent about failure.

As a result, there’s this false idea that you’re innately just dreaming of chemical formulas in your sleep.

A lot of STEM people don’t openly admit that they didn’t get good grades. They aren’t always honest about the fact that they had to work hard to succeed in the field.

When it comes to STEM, there’s more to it than just being “smart.” People don’t realize that brilliant ideas are born because people are creative and not necessarily scientific geniuses. They can think outside of the box, which allows them to come up with creative and innovative solutions.

What is your advice to that minority college girl hoping to pursue Forensic Science?

K: I want them to know that you’re not alone.

You need to repeat affirmations to yourself every day: you are smart, you belong where you are, and you can do this.

Focus on those things that make you stand out amongst other people and remind yourself of those things daily.

Get a mentor because having the advice of someone who has been in your shoes helps you navigate.

Look into getting research or internship experience because a lot of times, especially if your GPA is not where you want it to be, many employers will put experiential things above grades.

Don’t stop pushing; keep chugging no matter how long it takes.

This Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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