On this day, 10 years ago, I earned my PhD. One of the earliest conversations I had with a member of my dissertation committee, Dr Gary King, after passing my oral exams was that as a doctoral candidate, my PhD was written with a pencil, easily erased anytime. But upon a successful defense, it would be written with a permanent marker never to be deleted or erased. On this day, 10 years ago, following my defense, I understood what he meant.

If earning a doctoral degree is challenging, difficult, full of uncertainties and anguish, it is also hopeful, full of joy, and awe of your unique, innate abilities and resilience despite the gloom of a dissertation process. For me, the most fruitful, urgent, challenging work, I ever completed was my doctoral dissertation. However, I started the journey uncertain about how it would end. I knew from the beginning that I would have to write a thesis. But of what, I had no idea. So I plunged into everything. It helped to be in a department that required, no demanded that all students learn not just the behavioral but also the biological, social, economic, environmental and cultural factors that may impact health. Ours was a truly interdisciplinary department. One I remain grateful and thankful for setting the stage for my career. But none of this, absolutely nothing, would have been possible if not for my doctoral advisor. I am a better PhD holder, a former successful doctoral student because he mentored me. My advisor, Dr Airhihenbuwa saw something in me that I never knew existed. He believed in me, especially when I didn’t believe in myself. Every bit of my success starts with his belief in me, mentoring, informing, positioning me to succeed beyond my even my mildest dreams. Today, I also celebrate him for making this day possible.

Then there are my many other support systems that got me through this journey. I have never known anyone who has gotten through their doctoral program without support. All praises go to my boyfriend turned husband who was right there behind the scenes cheering me on. He was indeed a pillar of support when nothing made sense. My family too. They cooked, they prayed, they listened, they lifted me up when my skies were grey. They there were my friends, from the ones who travelled far to listen to my oral defense to the ones who called and screamed when I told them I passed, every single person were like a solid rock. They all contributed to this success. I am a better researcher, 10 years later because of them. My heart is full of gratitude. So what would the next 10 years look like? I have no idea. One thing though is that I will keep the past 10 years in mind, for they helped paved the way for the next 10 years and beyond.

I participated in a guided reflection today. My first one ever at a university level system. The Catholic in me was excited given it’s grounding in the Jesuit philosophy. It was what my soul needed. We were told to reflect on the challenges ahead, to think of specific concrete things, it’s origins, told to give our anxieties names, and intentionally take the time to understand where it comes from. We were told to think about the things we find challenging. We were asked to allow ourselves to be rigorously honest to the moment. Then beyond the challenges, we were asked to give time to the hopefulness, to opportunities, to joy, to experiences, including things and places that bring us joy. We were asked to think about concrete specific things that bring us joy and light, to dwell on it, on the stillness of those things, those moment too. We also spent time playing out in our minds what might come when we choose hope. Told to give more energies to those conversations that bring hope, joy. How might we engage in those moments to give more voice to opportunities, and spaces that allow us to thrive even in the midst of challenges. Then we concluded with gratitude on the insights and knowledge we have been given about ourselves, insights that were challenging but hopeful, insights that allowed us to know ourselves more deeply. Gratitude, also for being still in the moment to fully understand ourselves.

This is at the core of who Jesuits are. It is also a commitment to a hopeful realism, one that allows us to come to know ourselves better. Ignatius called it a spiritual exercise. It was all about making sure we exercise our spiritual world however we choose to define it and even as it relates to work. Like I said, my soul truly needed this moment. Keep guided reflections.

One of my favorite pictures from homeschooling last year is of my daughter and her brother walking together. My daughter, the artist, describes it as walking their own way, like when we go for walks along Forest Park. I especially love the picture because I see myself in my children, walking my own path, even on this daily blog on parenting and academic productivity. It isn’t ‘or’ for me, but ‘and’. My productivity in academia is very much tied to my role as a mother. And following my path with asking and listening to good questions, make the connection sterling.

My daughter and her brother, walking on their own path.

In the past 15 years I have known my mentor Dr Collins Airhihenbuwa, he has always shared the importance of not only asking good questions but actually questioning the questions asked. To him, we all need to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable especially when asking tough questions. I started grant writing and studying the sustainability of evidence based research, because, like a true mentee, I wanted to become comfortable asking uncomfortable good questions. Like, why, after decades of spending millions on research in resource limited settings, after decades of collecting data, even decades of collaboration with key stakeholders, do most evidence-based interventions, particularly does deemed effective never, ever last? We the researchers collect our data, publish our findings in the most prestigious journals, present our findings in top conferences, maybe even return to present it to key stakeholders and then we move on to the next problem, the next grant even, maybe on the same topic, but with another group of unsuspecting community eager for our expertise without understanding the cost.

Personally, and if there is anything that I have learnt from the pandemic, the time has come for such research to end. Of course we may never be able to solve every problem, of course we may not have the courage to ask the uncomfortable but good questions necessary, of course when we even ask them, we may fail, but I am committed to following my own path to ask them anyway. I am interested in implementing sustainable evidence based research because they are rare, because the communities I work with deserve them, the participants themselves desperately need them and because it is time we actually plan from the beginning for them. Planing for sustainable research is necessary if lasting is going to be more than just technical, more than another data collection exercise. Do I have the answer on how to implement them? The truth is, that is the beauty of following your path. When you look at the possibilities or even the opportunities we have squandered when we don’t think about sustainability, when we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of those we serve, then it should not come as a surprise why we are still in the middle of this pandemic.

I understand the work ahead. I am prepared to try and even fail on this journey. And it’s my path. Every researcher, every research, every good question asked in the service of people, especially in settings constrained with resources, should have an obligation to last. And when you know that she who ask these questions, however difficult or even different they maybe, however uncomfortable they may be perceived, never misses their way, then why not ask them. Keep following your path.

It seems so simple, that people should matter with efforts to curtail a pandemic. Yet we are our own worst enemies. Case in point, an essay I read yesterday on the blog sapiens one why the CDC needs social science. Robert Hahn an anthropologist and epidemiologist who recently retired from the CDC, shared insights of how people actual interact, their behaviors, needs and even concerns, have yet to penetrate the soul of the nation’s top primary health agency. And we wonder why we are in the mess we find ourselves?

As a public health researcher, why people refuse to wear mask for example, remains one of the public health mysteries of 2020, and one that truly lacks any answer besides the fact that we still don’t keep people in mind. Robert Hahn takes this a step further and offers another explanation. The idea that sickness remains a biological concept. As a result, how even sick people react, what behaviors they engage in even while sick is often an afterthought and not a forethought. It’s no surprise then, that this pandemic continues to persist, 10 months later.

I’ll like to add one more thought to his explanation and that is people should be at the heart of every response to public health, especially during and after a pandemic. We also need to do more polylogue or confront people with diverse and sometimes conflicting points of views that require critical evaluation. These forms of engagement with people will be crucial with efforts to ensure vaccine uptake. Myself and my household are ready for the vaccine. But I do recognize that some folks may not be and so it’s our duty to keep them in mind on the journey to end this pandemic for good.

We all know life is too short! It is! Here is another kicker, your tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. It isn’t. So choose to fight for what matters, even if it is risky. Today I had to fight for the right to keep 2 dear colleagues. I took a risk on them last year and it has paid massive dividends even in the middle of a pandemic. So for me, a global health researcher by day, risks is all I know. Risk is all I write about and risks are all I fight about. It is worth it for me. Keep taking risks, another short but apt post, perfect for these times.

I love to talk. It’s presumably why I easily gravitated to a career in teaching. But ever since I started teaching a course I absolutely love, I have learnt first hand why teaching isn’t about lecturing or talking. It’s about students themselves asking questions of subject matter and me guiding them where possible to come up with the answers themselves. Education experts call this inquiry based learning and I adopted it in my class this fall semester. I looked for pictures, books, materials around the week’s topic, presented it as a prompt or trigger and asked for questions and questions only. Suffice to say, good questioning is a rich and complex intellectual skill, that works to help both the teacher and student elicit worthwhile information that matters. It also depends on teachers working with students in inquiry.

My guide to an inquiry mindset

At first, I was uncomfortable. My students were too. But I learnt quickly that we all had to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable with questions more than answers, with pushing paradigms, more than finding solutions. I encouraged my students to first think about the questions they had in mind and not the answers. When all questions were asked, together we brainstormed answers where possible. Some answers were easy, some tough, some I knew, some I didn’t. But the growth and perseverance over the course of the semester had been immense. Knowing that it okay not to have all the answers was humbling to me. I came to academia because I wanted to learn first and foremost and I felt I could learn more from my students. Adopting an inquiry mindset has allowed me to learn, even cultivate a natural love for learning in some of the students I interacted with this semester. From the student interested in rural mental health, to the one passionate about maternal child health or gardening for healthy life, the student focused on provider bias or the one implementing narrative therapy for gun violence survivors, the student exploring how family support matters for kids along the autism spectrum, or multilevel determinants influencing their diagnosis to the student passionate about suicide prevention, sustainability, immigrant mental health, young adult mental health and sexual health literacy or stigma with STI testing, it’s almost like as if I knew all of them intimately and adopting an inquiry mindset allowed me to root for their best work individually. That in essence is the hallmark of an inquiry mindset, that students ultimately grow, that they persevere intellectually and continue to explore their passion more deeply even as the semester ends. Every moment was a learning opportunity, to be better. In fact I was intentional about this, letting them know that inquiry may first lead to failure, but even my attempts at failure (which was more work for me) were all learning opportunities to be better, not a shortcomings or failure. Reflecting and revising was intentional and my attempt to achieve growth and looking back to the start of the semester, my little experiment worked.

As the Fall semester comes to an end, I am completely grateful to my students, every single one of them because they made me learn and in so doing, I became more like them, a lifelong learner, a student, passionate about helping my fellow students thrive beyond their wildest dreams, one class material after another. Keep an inquiry mindset as it’s the most authentic and inspiring learning you will ever experience.

For art this week, my third grader made a unique, ravishingly beautiful but simple depiction in celebration of the Day of the Dead. The instructions were simple. Watch the Festival of the Bones book on YouTube, then draw skeletons in white in an interesting background highlighted with a bit of accent color and gel pens. The cute, funny book, Festival of Bones by Luis San Vincente is a delightful read, apt for her assignment and this weekend’s celebration about the Day of the Dead. But it’s my daughters drawing, her focus on rethinking the architecture of skeletons, to mark out a space where even skeletons can flourish via the possibilities of her imagination, that I keep today.

My daughter’s art assignment

My daughter drew 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night. I asked why a picnic and a snowy night. She simply said it is her drawing, as a result, anything is possible. Why not render skeletons in another light? Not as scary creatures but as delightful beings, doing delightful things even at a time or during a weather vastly different from how people imagine skeletons to act, to be, to live. I was stunned by her description, and her vivid and confident illustrations of the 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night. This same vivid and confident portrayal of skeletons is possible even with motherhood, especially for working mothers.

Two skeletons, a picnic and a snowy night by Lotanna.

My daughter’s artwork helped me to rethink the subtle yet pervasive attachments we may all have to the fabric of motherhood. The need to think about what it means and what it takes to do both, work and motherhood, effortlessly, defiantly, with struggle in many cases and but a rugged ease in some instances. Just today, I not only reviewed four NIH grants in need for funding as a peer-reviewer, but I managed to put on a home-based Halloween party, albeit for four children, while also watching a movie that celebrated my daughter’s art assignment.

The artist herself.

Rethinking motherhood, for working mothers is a necessity. What I am determined to do is take what is sidelined, the sheer strength, fortitude in all our roles, and elevate it, concretize what it is, outside of fiction, whether rendered or thought as impossible for working mothers like me, who do both work and our roles as mothers effortlessly sometimes or with impediments other times. For us, anything is possible. My daughter’s imagination is a reminder for me continue to work to rethink the piecemeal notion people may have about work for mothers and mothers who work, to lay it bare down to its bones, because every successful advancement, every failure, every hope or every struggle, requires that we all learn and know firsthand that being a working mother, is both possible and meaningful like 2 skeletons having a picnic in a snowy night.

Two days ago, I read a Hollywood News Reporter story (here) on Shonda Rhimes. Here was a woman who produced some 70 hours of annual television in 256 territories; making tens of millions of dollars for herself and more than $2 billion for Disney, but yet in constant battle with her network ABC, over content, over budget for her series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.

In 2017, after 15 years with ABC, she left for a first-of-its-kind, nine-figure overall deal at Netflix. However in February 2018, according to the report, before Rhimes had even found a first project to sink her teeth into, Ryan Murphy, another television shown runner inked a deal, reportedly worth as much as $300 million, or double Rhimes’ then-reported sum, and the media narrative shifted. ‘It was no longer, simply, “Shonda Rhimes, trailblazer,” but rather about the now booming eight- and nine-figure market for producers, with at least a few reporters wondering, publicly, why the Black female showrunner appeared to be making so much less than the white male one.’

After reading this section, I saw myself in Shonda. I saw multiple black women who work extensively but rarely claim their space however they define it. Our spaces are never ours to own. Our spaces are never ours to even brag about. Even Rhimes described feeling obsessed watching Murphy not only claim, but own his space. But when she was awarded for Luminary award at an Elle’s Women in Hollywood event, she came to the conclusion ‘that men brag and women hide, even when they don’t deserve to brag, men brag. When men do deserve to brag, they’re good at it.’ But because of the award, because she was being celebrated for inspiring other women for the first time ever, and on behalf of women everywhere, Shonda bragged and rightfully so. Not only is she a black executive producer in Hollywood, she let it be known that she was ‘the highest paid show runner on television.’ She claimed her space even though it felt uncomfortable. She claimed her space not only for herself but for every other women she inspires everyday.

Coincidentally, claim your space is the title to a paper I co-wrote with colleagues years ago. In it we shared an African proverb to illustrate why leadership and claiming your space matters. The proverb simply states: He who is leading and has no one following is only taking a walk. Leaders we argue, all have to do the necessary work to build up the visions of those around them and not just their own. I try my best to embody this style of enlightened leadership with the students I mentor.

But the African quote on the section we wrote on claiming your space, which simply states: ‘Until the lions produce their own historians, the story of the hunt would glorify only the hunter’– is my favorite proverbs of all times. Shonda Rhimes, is the lion of our times, claiming her rightful space as the highest paid show runner on television. Her story, her resilience, her ability to inspire is the reason why we should all do our part to keep claiming our space and brag about it too.

On an occasional basis, my first son cries. For no reason at times. Just cries. He wants to stop. He asks you to please help him stop. But still he cries. He also laughs. For no reason, just to himself, he laughs. Then another son cannot seem to remember his sight words. I know he is 3 but it’s frustrating to be here again. To struggle once again with another child’s delay even though it’s as trivial as sight words. The significance of the past makes me alert to every struggle. Then there is the baby, another son whom we have to watch. He is only 3 months old, but I want to know early what we are in for with him. Does his eyes follow a toy when you present it across his face? Is he able to sit up on his own or with aid? I am well aware that this is too early also. But if you know what we went through with son number 1, then you will know why we are alert with son number 2 and 3. This struggle, every significant aspect of it is important. It’s the reason why I choose to look on the bright side.

I enrolled son number 1 in a daycare right after he turned 2. He was kicked out 2 days later. I cried alone in my car with him that afternoon. How could my own son be kicked out of school at 2? That day, I vowed he would be more than he could ever hope or dream of. That day, I vowed he would excel in all this academic work. That day, I knew I had to protect him from the world, line his being with love for his unique ways, empathize and adapt to his struggles, insulate him when he stumbled, and elevate and praise all his distinct ideas with relating to the world. That day, I also slowed down and did research. This time not for work but for my family, for my son. I read all the evidence-based literature I could find on ways to encourage play, interaction, eye contact, even what to eat whether on a gluten or casein free diet. I took him to the park the next day. Just the two of us. I watched as he swung back and forth on a blue swing. I smiled as he went through a tunnel. The shirt he was wearing said look on the bright side. I did. I have been looking on the bright side ever since. He is one of the best things that ever happened to me, alongside my daughter, my other sons, and my husband. He is the glue to our unique family.

Like the hummingbirds who build and line their nests with silk, my nest is built, lined and surrounded with love, fierce love, and passion, deep passion, with bonding, intense bonding and protection, supernal protection for and from my family. My children and my husband are my secure base through life as a working mother. They protect me from the struggles of academic life, line my being with love for my unique ways called research, empathize and adapt to my struggles and failures, insulate me when I stumble, and elevate and praise all my distinct crazy ideas with implementing sustainable innovations in resource limited settings. Nothing fazes me at work because of them. Nothing surprises or overwhelms me because of them. In fact, I am a great multi-tasker, a better thinker, a better researcher because of them. I am innovative with life and work because of them.

Yesterday at my son’s appointment with Dr Anu, his integrative developmental pediatrician, he was interactive. Something he rarely does. She was amused. He told her he wants to be an astronaut. Named all the planets and noted that he specifically wants to go to the moon. We chuckled. I looked on the bright side. He was kicked out of school at 2 years. He wants to go to the moon at 6 years. The bright side is better to me, sublime in a way, with a future way brighter, way bigger than he could ever hope for or imagine. On an occasional basis he still cries and he still laughs, but this time, even his tears and laughs are brilliant, a sign of his beautiful struggle through life, a sign of my beautiful struggle as a working mother. Like the hummingbirds, my family is my silk and because of them I’ll keep looking always, at the bright side.

Yesterday award-winning author, Dr. Ibram Kendi lectured on ‘How to be an antiracist,’ at Saint Louis University as part of our college’s Social Justice Annual Lecture. In his book of the same title, Dr. Kendi talked about how antiracist must remain ‘fighters, tireless, durable,’ but fight in other to succeed.

There were so many questions I wanted to ask from the book but we only had one hour with Dr. Kendi so I’ll ask them here. What if we fight and still have knees on our neck? What if we fight and still get colon cancer like you did or breast cancer like your wife did all at a young age? How do you fight a system truly rotten to it’s core with tumors in some cases or no chance at life in others, not for George Floyd or Breonna Taylor and the list goes on and on? How do you dismantle the system of its racist policies with tools that are off the system, tools that are focused on self-interest? Audre Lourde said it best, ‘we cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.’ Can antiracists still hold conservative views in 2020? Dr. Amber Johnson’s eloquent question still rings bells in my hears and I am not sure what your actual response was (not your fault my kids were listening too with my 8year old daughter inspired to see a real-life ‘book writer’).

You shared a W.E.B Du Bois quote where he asked Black people ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ To that you replied and in 2020, ‘How does it feel to be a solution?’ I am guessing this is what you mean by antiracists must fight. Antiracists are the solution and the only way solutions have a chance to survive is to fight.

Antiracists fight so that opportunities and outcomes are equal between groups. Antiracists fight so that policies, not people, are blamed for societal problems. Antiracists fight so that nearly everyone has enough. Antiracists fight for power to become mainstream and ideas common sense until success is achieved. Success, Dr. Kendi noted, will be based on what antiracists are ‘willing to do.’

We can survive metastatic racism just as you survived metastatic stage-4 colon cancer and your wife with stage-2 breast cancer. It will take a fight for us all to treat racism like we treat cancer. Listening to you last night, gave me the hope and believe in the possibilities of fighting to become the solution. Fighting to transform our society. Fighting to give humanity a chance to survive. It will take a fight for us all to survive and like you, I am ready to fight.