Kilan Ashad-Bishop doesn’t know where life will take her next, but wherever it is, her curiosity will guide her.
“When I was young my family, but particularly my mother would pay attention to the things that I liked,” she says. As a little girl, Kilan was infatuated with the sky and the planets, and she constantly wondered about human beings and nature. “I was always picking bugs off the ground… She [her mother] let me have my little curious moments.”
With time, that instinctual curiosity would become more and more insatiable. Kilan would go on to get her undergraduate degree in Biology, to later pursue a PhD in Cancer Biology at the University of Miami. “What better field for a curious person that one where there’s all these unanswered questions?” she says, letting out a chuckle. She’s now in her 6th year of studying the genetic causes of triple negative breast cancer, which disproportionally affects minorities, specifically black women.
In her third year, after having to change labs, she began to question the way her career had played out so far. She had spent her entire career between school and labs, and the gaps in her resume had become clear. “I realized that I wanted to be ok if I walked out of there and decided to do something else. That’s the way life works,” she adds. “I wanted the freedom to have that change of heart.”
At the same time, she felt that there was something more out there for her. What’s fascinating about Kilan is how her curiosity expands inwards as much as it does outwards. She can question her processes, her actions, to examine what she needs herself to be, to help others, get what they need.
So, she began exploring possibilities, and came across the Miami New Leaders Council. There she would find the opportunity to learn many of the skills she felt she was lacking from a diverse group of community members. Eventually, through them, she would find the focus she had been searching for.
She calls this focus the “problems of tomorrow.” They involve those issues we inevitably will have to confront as a global society soon and which are a result of a more substantial matter. “Many different maladies will be intensified by our changing climate,” she says. She realized, by expanding her network and consequently the scope of her knowledge, that to talk about things like early detection and screening, or public health, the conversations had to be more holistic.
“Climate is just a big magnifying glass on the issues we already face,” she says.
Through the relationships she formed in the community, she was recommended for the low-income community advocate position at the Miami Sea Level Rise Committee, created to help the city assess all the ways in which it would be affected by sea level rise. At the core of her work continue to be people.
“In science, often helping people is a far-off goal. I do such basic research that it’s very unlikely that my work will translate to a treatment in the next decade. So, I’m not going to spend my days and nights only, exclusively here, under the guise that I’m helping people when there are people suffering outside. When there are people I could help immediately through advocacy work.”
Throughout her career, Kilan has demonstrated what resilience looks like. Her ability to speak candidly about her path isn’t just admirable, but necessary. She describes her time in graduate school as “a little tumultuous,” saying it wasn’t just about adapting to a new class structure and finding a lab home. It was also tough to find the right mentor. “I couldn’t find anyone that I could share my lived experience with.” There were no black people on the faculty; particularly, no black women.
When we can’t find someone similar to us in higher level positions, someone who understands our path farther than the career we’ve chosen, even the most brilliant, talented minds can get discouraged. Here lies the undisputable importance of leaders that represent minority communities. It’s as simple as thinking about who our children can look up to in this world. But Kilan says people, and her love of science, always brought her back.
“I want to help others, and there aren’t many people like me in the field. I want them [those underrepresented] to see that there is help coming from them,” Kilan says. She could have easily questioned her capacity to be on the Sea Level Rise Committee. She could have doubted her knowledge, considered the fact that she’s a PHD candidate, and the only woman on the committee, not to mention the only African American. “If I would have said no, we know what the committee would look like today.”
When we look at human rights movements or at different communities, leadership often comes from those within the group. Someone that understands the culture, the struggle, the weaknesses and strengths. It’s important to include everyone in these discussions, but who moderates them matters. Power, ultimately, comes from within.
“Women don’t need to be empowered, black women don’t need to be empowered, minorities don’t need to be empowered, we need to be EMBOLDENED.”
In a way, Kilan’s work is a tribute to her first emboldener, her mother. It’s also a gracious metaphor for life and how to deal with its unpredictable nature. When something doesn’t go as planned, you keep moving until you find a solution. It speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.