ADI Spotlight: Amari Tankard

Feb. 28, 2022

Amari Tankard

(She/Her/Hers)

Department: Molecular Biology
Program Year: G3
Undergraduate Institution: Columbia University
Hometown: Bronx, New York

ADI Affiliations:

  • Diversity Fellow (current)

  • GSP Mentee (former)

  • GSP Mentor (former)

  • IQI (Intersecting Queer Identities/Queer Graduate Caucus) President

  • BGC (Black Graduate Caucus) Social Chair

 

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in a single mother household in the Bronx, a place that many fear, but is, in my opinion of course, a jewel of New York City. My parents are in law enforcement, so I have always had a sense of justice, albeit perverted from experience as a Black American, and our family has always helped others through social justice work. So, I grew up reading books on the beach and dreaming of a career in the biomedical sciences in an effort to give back. My villain origin story initiated in my second year of college, when the Dean of the undergraduate Chemistry department told me I did not have the grades or the skill to be accepted as an undergraduate researching in any Columbia lab. The mere idea that opportunities were lost to me because I did not conform to the norm of what a good ‘scientist’ looks like was devastating then, but now it’s the spark that fuels me to be my best in EVERY avenue of my life. At my base, I am a Black, Gay, and woman scientist--it is a fun intersection where I am often underestimated and undervalued. But! I have found a lot of joy in the triumph over struggle and being the arbiter of my ship.

 

What are your research interests?  What excites you about it?

Hmm...This is a big question. I begged for my first chemistry set in the third grade after my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. I put my hands to work, believing that if I could understand the disease at a deeper level, I could heal her. I remember screaming with glee that my ‘magic potions’—rather than early 2000s medicine—had caused her remission. As I matured, I learned that deadly diseases like diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure all devastate the Black community, including my family, at rates unparalleled to any ethnic group. Since then, I have poured my energy into understanding why the most debilitating diseases affected my community the most, knowing that to answer this question, I had to dig deeper into the mechanisms of disease. This led to me study Chemistry at Columbia during my undergraduate career, and then on to work at a small pharmaceutical company post-graduation. And now I'm here at Princeton to fulfill my lifelong quest to understand how and why diseases work at a fundamental level. What excites me about this work is that it is endless. I love a good puzzle, and diseases are so varied and so complex that uncovering even little steps feels like a successful climb of Mount Everest.

 

What does your family think you do in grad school?

Make medicine? Pray for them, they're really confused and do not understand why I am nearly 27 and still in school. 🤦🏾

 

How has ADI programming impacted you?

ADI has undoubtedly enhanced my graduate school experience. While I have been dedicated to improving the landscape of every community I have entered, never have I had such a support network of kind-hearted and like-minded individuals as I have with the ADI team. Through ADI programming, especially through GSP my first year, I was able to gain access to a community that has not only been extremely supportive, but also foundational in allowing me to create the programming, and thus the community, I would like to see. Through ADI programming, I have watched networks form across years and departments, and have seen new students blossom into fun, creative, and engaged students!

 

What advice would you give prospective, incoming, and/or first year underrepresented Princeton graduate students?

There is always, always a seat for you at the table. Whether you believe you have earned that seat is sometimes an unfortunate lie we tell ourselves. The situation would not have presented itself to you if you were not worthy and deserving of a seat. So step up, sit down, and make your voice heard.

 

What's been most helpful to you in acclimating to Princeton?

Honestly, just the sheer number of kind and friendly faces at Princeton. It is hard to be genuinely excited to exist in a space where the people are unhappy, and I have never encountered that here. At Princeton, the people who want to participate are engaged and dedicated—it’s a beautiful thing.

 

What activities do you engage in beyond research?

In the wee hours outside of the lab, I love to exercise and work on me! Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people just don't kill their husbands (or their labmates! or their PIs! or their good vibes!). I also love reading at the beach, or barbecuing in summer, or skiing and playing in the snow in the winter. I love to do paint by numbers while watching true crime dramas or solving puzzles and sudoku.

 

What is, or would be, your superpower?

Not needing sleep. 🙅🏾🙅🏾️ Like an ant.

 

What's your side hustle?

Tutoring!  I started my own tutoring company when I was 14 as an effort to give back because I was honestly dismayed at the huge disparities in the quality of education that I was receiving (at a private institution) in comparison to my neighborhood peers. I had access to so many resources but so many of my fellow neighbors and Bronx-residents did not, so I really wanted to do my part in passing along what I knew.

I specifically tutored students with learning and cognitive disabilities, including ADHD and processing disorders, but I also tutored students at the end of their high school career who were looking for guidance to apply to college. I tutored students in a variety of ways—usually using different analytical reading and calculating techniques to really augment the abilities of my students. I also tutored students for the SAT and ACT and, of course, college common app essay preparations. 

All of my students have either drastically improved their reading and mathematics scores, and/or gotten into college. The teachers and parents of my most improved student, R., who was in specialized education for her cognitive delays, wrote letters thanking me for helping her.  R. was able to transition into mainstream classes after two years of working together.

I tutored until I went to college—and even then, I still met with students because I was so close to home—and then after I graduated until I came to Princeton for grad school.

I still tutor now at Princeton, but only twice a week because of my schedule. I honestly think I always will.

What's the most interesting thing about you?

I love learning new languages! I learned French and Chinese in school and lived in Paris for 7 months! I plan to learn Italian and Spanish too.

 

How would your friends describe you? 

Hilarious, honest, intelligent, thoughtful (I asked my friends).

 

What book, show, podcast, game, song, or movie best reflects your grad school experience?

“Live your Life” by TI and Rihanna. The song is upbeat but the lyrics remind you to make choices for yourself, to persevere through your current challenges, and keep your eyes on the prize. I constantly remind myself to see the bigger picture. Grad school is another step in the ascension. My favorite lyric: “I'm the opposite of moderate, immaculately polished with the spirit of a hustler and the swagger of a college kid. Allergic to the counterfeit, impartial to the politics. Articulate.”

 

What should the ADI community know about you?

Hmm...I am not sure there is anything the community should know about me. I am just another graduate student trying to make the most of my experiences and the opportunities that have come my way. I want to be a listening ear and a safety net to all! If there is anything you need, I will try to make it happen.

 

What do you know now that you wish you'd known before?

Graduate school is what you make it. Some will come here with no intention of engaging in any programming, no matter how tailored it is to their experience. Focus on the students that show up with bright smiles and eager attitudes--those are the people you want to care for.