After many rigorous hours in a science lab, Antoinesha L. Hollman is reaping the dividends as she prepares to receive her doctorate in environmental science with a concentration in bioinformatics – a field that develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data.
Hollman of Itta Bena also earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from JSU in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology.
After earning her master’s, she had planned not to return to school but had a difficult time finding a job. So, she relocated to Texas, where some of her family reside. Hollman made a pact with friends to eventually reapply to school again. She worked for a short time in Texas before returning to Mississippi, where she enrolled at JSU to pursue a third degree.
She said returning to JSU was God’s plan because “I don’t know if I would have had the type of support at other schools because I already know some of the professors. So, when it became frustrating and I needed to cry and vent I could go to them.”
Taught at Hardy Middle School
Hollman actually got interested in environmental science after getting bored with biology. In fact, she almost considered abandoning the sciences altogether. However, she loved the classroom and had been a faculty member teaching biology and math at Hardy Middle School for three years.
Realizing that she had two degrees in biology, she decided to explore environmental science because “it’s about the air, the water, the land – how they impact us, how we impact them.”
During her doctoral program, she recounted the difficulty of being the only student in the bioinformatics and computational biology lab, sitting behind a computer. “Bioinformatics is interdisciplinary and deals with areas such as molecular biology, statistics and computer science. I had to learn coding, and I had never taken a computer science course. As well, I hadn’t taken a math course since I was an undergrad.”
Her coursework had a biology and environmental component in which she studied lung cancer that is mostly caused by tobacco, smoke, radon and other factors. Her dissertation is titled “Bioinformatics Analysis of Gene-Environment Interactions in Lung Cancer.”
Focused on cancer research
Specifically, her research targeted carcinoma, a prevalent disease blamed for about 85 percent of lung cancer, she said. Hollman wanted to focus on African-American data, but she discovered that most of the findings documented Caucasians.
Interestingly, after getting her doctorate, she will begin teaching biology at Jarvis Christian College, a four-year historically black college in Hawkins, Texas. She laughs at the irony because she’d planned to steer away from biology.
Hollman said returning to the field is not a disappointment because when she taught in Jackson Public Schools she was determined to help her students appreciate math and science. She stayed up late at night developing innovative ways to keep them engaged while also improving her own skills.
Throughout her tough academic journey, she realized that some people just didn’t understand why she was unable to socialize with them because “they think you’re just in school. You really need time away and can’t always attend gatherings, talk on the phone and devote a lot of time helping people with their personal problems.”
Becoming disengaged was difficult for Hollman, who admittedly has a soft spot for helping people. It’s an attribute that she gained from her parents.
Staying afloat while battling losses
“I want to give back and one day build a homeless shelter.” Many of her former public school students lacked basic resources, she said. “They would ask if they could stay after school because they didn’t have food, air or heat at home.” These are issues that still bother her today amid the struggles that she’s faced since leaving Hardy Middle School.
While in the doctoral program, she lost family members. Her emotions particularly ran high while talking about her father, who died in 2017 after becoming ill. He was one of her strongest supporters, and she regrets that he won’t get to see her graduate this spring.
She felt overwhelmed by the grief and from cultural differences with one of her professors. Despite that, she found solace and support from many JSU faculty and staff members.
Throughout it all, she managed to achieve a 4.0 GPA. So, Friday’s commencement is historic because Hollman is the first on both sides of her family to obtain a Ph.D. She plans to teach for a while and, ultimately, become a chair, dean and college president.
Hollman recites a quote from Malcolm X that inspired her journey: “Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”