By Niteace Whittington
Whittington, from Philadelphia, PA, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and took the 2015 SPINES course.

“Why are you here?” It is a question a faculty member posed on my first day at the MBL. At the time I had no answer. I never thought too deeply about what I did in life. I did not know what my ultimate goals were and certainly did not know how to bring them to fruition. I simply did the things I liked to do, but I did not know my purpose. During my month at the MBL, I was forced to address this question head-on, and I now have an answer thanks to the Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics, and Survival (SPINES).

SPINES-NW-1SPINES is a four-week, intensive course held yearly at MBL. It focuses on enhancing under-represented minority students’ success in neuroscience through research, career development, mentoring and encouragement. I had previously attended programs with similar goals; so I assumed that I would learn about cool research, receive tips on career development, and part ways from the group as I had done before. I was not expecting to learn more about myself, make lifelong friends, and have concerned mentors to help map out my life goals. I really thought SPINES would be like any other course. I can honestly say that I am thrilled to find I was completely wrong!

It was one of the course’s co-directors, Jean King of University of Massachusetts Medical School, who asked us “Why are you here?” With this question she challenged us to explore and share our true selves, and assured us that we were not alone in our journeys. Hearing some of my classmates speak, I found that many of us were facing similar trials and some of us had lost our love for research. As I thought about my purpose a little longer, I had some ideas about what I wanted in life but realized I had no direction. Self-assessment revealed that I was not sure that I could actually get to where I wanted to go. According to several depressing statistics, I chose the wrong field for my race and gender: I have a lower likelihood of success because I am a black woman. For a while I let this dictate how far I could go in life.

However, my SPINES family made sure I would never think that way again. One of the most striking aspects of the course was that directors (King, Keith Trujillo of California State University San Marcos and Eddie Castañeda of University of Texas at El Paso) showed continuous love and support for our individual endeavors. They not only worked with us to build our knowledge in neuroscience, ethics, and career survival, but also helped build our confidence, discussed our goals and issues, and helped us develop methods to address these things in beneficial ways.


Throughout the SPINES course, in the midst of coursework reading, lab work, lectures and seminars, we did a lot of self-reflection and addressed our strengths and weaknesses in order to better map out who we are, what we want in life, and how to get there. In the course of one month, SPINES showed me that with the right tools I can do anything I aspire to do, as long as I believe in myself and my capabilities. On the last day, we took time to visualize a goal or dream that we wanted to achieve. And for the first time, I actually saw myself running my own lab and performing award-winning research. SPINES gave me confidence to walk down this road that I envisioned as unpassable. So why am I here? I am here because I have a job to do. Thank you, SPINES!