HA: “Forgotten Genius” offers a perspective of Percy Julian’s career and also suggests that he made lots of friends along the way, including some overseas in Austria, that came to do research with him in the States later on. Are you in touch with any of them?

KJ: You know, I actually am in touch with a family friend—she's now of advanced age. Her family worked with my grandfather. She now lives in Israel. 

She travels to the U.S. once a year—well, not in COVID times—usually for competitions. She's a scientist herself, and we get together every year when she comes. So there is some of that connection, obviously, because my grandfather now would be very old, and a lot of those connections have now passed. Staying in touch with her [has] really been terrific. And [being] able to hear old stories has been great. 

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HA: It’s interesting to think about how Percy Julian had to go out of the country just to get more research and work experience. 

KJ: And to encounter all of the racism and barriers there—just even to try and live in the community of what he was trying to live—I think required incredible fortitude. 

HA: My family members are immigrants, and we don’t have that sort of long story of a family legacy in America. It’s more like, “Your parents came here to go to school and they made a life for themselves. Any sort of family history is back in Somalia.” 

KJ: I see an immigrant's story in a way very similar to the way you think back to fortitude. How hard it is to leave everything behind, to go someplace new to try and make a better life—whether it's for you or often really for your kids—right? So I see it as very, very similar. I can't speak for children of immigrants, but having spoken to several of my friends, I do think they also feel a big responsibility. It's like, “Wow, my parents went through all of this for me…I have a responsibility to pay that forward in a way.” 

HA: We’ve been highlighting "Black in X" weeks at NOVA, talking about what it means to be a Black scientist. Being a physician, do you find yourself having to explain the most basic inequities in health care or STEM to your peers, where you say something like, “I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but I do?”

KJ: You know, not so much now. Some of that is a function of the stage I'm at in my career, [and] where I'm at, being at UCSF, where I do think people are really looking at health equity in a real way and thinking deeply about it. I do feel fortunate that I am not having those conversations in my workplace, at least presently. I have, years and years ago, [but] I do feel that that's a marker where I am in terms of change. Because I also recognize that's not the case for many, many other people and where they are. 

The current pandemic has just uncovered so much health inequity. And I think people—at least the folks I’m working with—realize that. I do think folks are really looking and thinking about “How can we, as a medical community, make a difference in terms of really trying to eliminate those disparities and help?” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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