5 Questions with Stephen M. Jackson, Staff Scientist – Immunology, ABL, Inc.
“5 Questions With…” is a weekly BioBuzz series where we reach out to interesting people in the BioHealth Capital Region to share a little about themselves, their work, and maybe something completely unrelated. This edition features 5 Questions with Stephen M. Jackson, Staff Scientist – Immunology with ABL, Inc.
“Born and raised in gang-infested South Central Los Angeles, I was surrounded by compassionate and risk-taking individuals who recognized and fertilized my love, talent, and academic prowess. Collectively my tribe, for it takes one to raise one, helped provide me with unimaginable opportunities to excel and continue the fight for an abundant life through health, social awareness, and artistic expression. I, a Man who is also Bold and Black, am a product of their courage, compassion, endurance, vision, and love – Stephen M. Jackson, PhD”
1. You’ve been a scientist for a while. Please walk us from your education through the different roles you’ve held over the years.
My education began as a 4-year-old child playing with earthworms asking why they came out of the ground in the rain and seemed longer. I also asked why so many chose to stay on the concrete and turn “crispy” instead of going back in the ground where they were safer.
From there, I went to school in inner-city South Central Los Angeles. It took me a long time to learn the difference between the words “to”, “too”, and “two”, but I eventually grasped it. Though words first evaded me, it didn’t take long at all for arithmetic and science to take root and flourish in my mind’s garden. Recognized for academic prowess, I was bused to a school in the Valley (suburbia) and was awarded a full scholarship to one of the nation’s top institutions, Pasadena Polytechnic across from the one and only Cal Poly.
While in high school, I learned of the high suicide rate among scientists at some of the premiere universities. But growing up a preacher’s kid, who myself delivered sermons before the age of 15, I knew there was more to life than science, math, and misdirected emotions. I wanted more out of my surroundings, demanding deeper explanations than pure logic could provide. After all, there was no logic why I was repeatedly discriminated against and called derogatory names even though my “report card”, GPA, athletic giftings, and community service all demonstrated I transcended the ephemeral shackles others tried imprisoning me in.
By college, I knew I wanted a career in the medical field. A pre-med major, I already mapped out my path through undergrad, medical school, and my internship. Despite great planning, I had a huge problem. The preacher man in me couldn’t stop crying. My bedside manner skills were “horrible” as some would say. I couldn’t just “stick and move” like I did in basketball, football, and track. I realized I would hover too long next to my dying patients at their death bed.
The math logic within me conquered this conundrum. Becoming a physician, I would never reached my goal with 100% success, namely to save every life I encountered. Instead, I would actually have a 100% failure rate since, as macabre as it is, every person eventually dies. Best case scenario, I could merely postpone death, but not defeat it. I contemplated, “There had to be something more”. Fortunately, there was. Quality of Life is as Important for some as Quantity of Life. My goal would eventually expand to include helping others improve Life-Quality, especially through experiencing emotion-evoking arts.
During my undergrad years at Amherst College in Massachusetts, I took up theater and dance to help improve my sub-par social skills. I was a stereotypical geeky science guy with far-from-adequate 1-on-1 conversation skills. My shyness was crippling when speaking face to face, yet I could deliver a sermon across the pulpit or lecture in front of hundreds at science symposia without birthing a single drop of sweat. I decided to switch my focus and became a Biology major and Theater/Dance minor. To this very day (I mean even as I write this) I’ve run a dual career. One as a Director and Performer in my own Dance Company (Stevie J Dance Productions – PORABBA), and one as an aspiring director and executive in biopharma.
After earning my doctoral degree in Molecular and Cell Biology with an Immunology focus (University of Massachusetts at Amherst), I designed and conducted my post-doctoral studies at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City. There, I was immersed in both the academic and biopharmaceutical fields tackling immunodiversity, oncology, biomarker discovery, and translational medicine. Subsequently. My passion for understanding both cellular and molecular interactions in immune reactions and oncological disease development later led me here to the east coast, again working for different biotech, biopharma, and government agencies using my versatile skills and knowledge base in each. These delightful and ever-challenging experiences now continue here at Advanced Biosciences Laboratory in Rockville Maryland.
2. Talk about your role with ABL and what it’s like working there.
At ABL, I function primarily as Staff Scientist wearing multiple hats within the department and institution. In the Contract Research Organization (CRO) realm, it is a joy to use many different skillsets to accomplish the universal goal, namely getting the clients’ objectives completed accurately, thoroughly, and on time – The First Time. This involves ongoing insightful (and many times creative) communication with the client throughout the entire project life cycle. Yes, theater and dance play a huge role in helping me interact enthusiastically with each client.
If only my head were like fingers, I’d wear ten different hats at any one given moment – it’s just a matter of which hat(s) are more upstage than others. Nonetheless, they are all on, with many shapes and colors. For me, the CRO is like the United Nations of the biotech industry…a fortified united front striving onward toward the goal, where diversity provides both the necessary strength and wind to succeed.
In short, my responsibilities incorporate many areas including business development, client relations, project planning, experiment design and optimization, hands-on experiment execution, lab management, team manager/supervisor, coach, mentor, sometimes mopping the café floor when I spill my coffee, and oh yes…virtual online fitness and dance instructor on Thursday mornings. I enjoy it all.
3. What has been the most fulfilling part of your career so far? Tell us about it.
The most fulfilling part of my career by far is my time training other scientists to continue to the fight for knowledge and disease detection/eradication. There will always be a new project. There will always be something else to discover. There will always be a deadline to meet. Gauging satisfaction purely by chopping down the “To-Do List” would be meaningful, yet somehow incomplete.
Instead, my various experiences in life brought me to one unwavering focus or mantra, “We are people conducting science, who are driven by our sense of humanity more than our desire to discover, cultivate, and reshape data”. My biggest, most rewarding, and impactful experiment is a human one driven by this hypothesis: The key to our ongoing fruitful present and future on this planet depends on the “intelligence and integrity” of persons fortunate enough to engage in this fight against unknown and unused data. I love people and the lives I help touch both during and after tackling projects for clients.
4. As somebody who has been part of this industry for a while. What advice would you give you and coming scientists looking to grow their careers?
My advice would be simple. Never stop learning and applying what you learn. Develop as many roads to insights as you possibly can, and remain open to the next break-through coming from a direction you may have never seen coming. I love the Batman character with his utility belt. He and James Bond always seem to have the right tool needed for the job. All the while, that “belt” remains uncluttered and sometimes invisible to other on-lookers. Be creative and never shy away from new avenues of learning. Not all avenues have to be evident to people, but you can draw from them within an instant when inspiration hits you. I was once asked if Science is Art. I emphatically continue to sing out, “YES”.
5. If You Could Have Any One Superhero Gift In The World, What Would You Pick?
I’d choose to be Love that Travels as Light. I’d choose Love because even though you can’t describe it succinctly (like me and my personality), you still know when it’s present unequivocally. Regarding Light, I’m awestruck that light is both a wave and a particle. You can both see it and feel it. Through many different body parts, you can tell when it’s there and when it isn’t. What amazes me is this, Light is among the fastest traveling tangibles known, yet it lingers around us for hours at a time and is never really gone, just there in variable amounts.
Combining Love and Light together, I’d accomplish this…Though I could travel faster than all other physical matter, I’d still choose to remain by your side and provide my warmth through unexplainable Love – Love that chooses to remain close and never run away even though I could. Speeding away is well within my capability, yet I’d choose to stay and fight using Love instead of running and leaving behind Hate.
Like all superheroes, I sometimes lose a fight. But a loss does not represent an ultimate defeat. Instead, it provides insight into areas that need to be fortified. As a scientist who is Bold, Black, Loving, and Light, I stand next to you saying both Good Morning and Good Night.
That would be my chosen Super Power.
Thank you to Stephen M. Jackson for participating in the ‘5 Questions with BioBuzz’ series and stay tuned for more interviews with others from across the BioHealth Capital Region and beyond.