Emily Nguyen
Category: 2021 High School Winner

Emily Nguyen

A year ago, I had never even heard of the term “epigenetics.” But after learning about it in my Biology class, I was immediately enthralled. I delved into case studies, its origins, its founders — and it was through this extensive self research that I learned about Ernest Everett Just: the forgotten father of epigenetics.

E.E. Just was born into a society still dictated by the vestiges of the Jim Crow South. As a child he faced immense hardship, living in poverty, without a father and against severe racial discrimination — and yet Just was never deterred. Wanting a better education, he headed off to Kimball Union Academy far from home, carrying only a pair of shoes and a single five dollar bill. He entered as the only African American student but left as one of its best graduates, after which he attended Dartmouth college and graduated as magna cum laude and a Rufus Choate Scholar. However, despite his academic prowess, the American medical world was still a macrocosm largely defined as white, leaving Just to settle for teaching jobs where he could never fulfill his true potential and brilliance. Finally, after tiring of this blatant discrimination, he ventured to Europe where he was able to conduct research. After defying the systematic racism and oppressive constraints of America, Just would make numerous scientific breakthroughs in biology, including experimental parthenogenesis and carcinogenic radiation — but most importantly, he would postulate his theory of genetic restriction, the quite literal foundation upon which modern epigenetics was developed. Peer responses were overwhelmingly negative, shaped by racism, occupational ostracism and prevalence of nucleocentric views but Just never backed down from his beliefs, maintaining his conviction in its validity to the day he died. Had he chosen the easier path of acquiescence to escape the ridicule and derision, epigenetics would not be where it is today and I would still be a teenager unsure of what I wanted to do with my life.

But there was more to Just than his contributions to biology; amongst his academic merits, Just was also a fierce advocate for civil rights. Despite his precarious position in the medical field, Just never shied away from challenging popular beliefs and fighting what he thought was right; rather, he used his credentials as a means of further disseminating his message, as a platform for his decree of equality. Just’s unabashed willingness to fight for justice struck me to the core. I strive to be like that — to speak my mind and fight for change regardless of how terrifying the fall might be.

Just is a source of inspiration to me, not just because of his innumerable contributions to the field of biology nor because he paved the way for one of the most revolutionary fields in science, but because of his courage and dexterity in the face of outright prejudice. As I continue on my own journey to become an epigeneticist, I hope to emulate his values and honor his legacy.