College of Medicine grad triumphs through tragedy to inspire next generation

As the oldest girl of nine children, Jazmyne Barney always knew she served an important role in her family. She was the “mom of the sibling group,” as she calls it, and because of this, she felt she had the responsibility to succeed so her siblings could have someone to look up to.

Throughout her educational journey, she has kept that responsibility in mind as she has worked her way up to her ultimate goal: receiving her PhD. Barney, now 27, will be recognized as a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology on Friday during winter commencement.

This amazing achievement will bring a bittersweet, emotionally challenging year to a close. Tragically, in March of this year, Barney lost her younger sister, Jaliyah, in a car accident mere months before Jaliyah was set to earn her associate’s degree. The devastating loss gave Barney even more incentive to further her education. She knew it’s what her sister would have wanted.

“Jaliyah was someone who really looked up to me and talked a lot of her plans and her goals,” Barney said. “She valued education a lot.”

Despite this year’s obstacles, Barney also has a lot to be thankful for this year. In September, she and her husband welcomed their first child, a baby girl named Saniyah, into the world. And last summer, thanks to her academic accomplishments and admirable perseverance, she landed her “dream job” as a regulatory toxicologist at Proctor & Gamble, a Cincinnati-based company widely known for its signature brands such as Tide, Dawn, Pantene, and Pampers. She officially started work there this December.

Securing this job is an accomplishment Barney reached by taking time to find the right path after her undergraduate education. In 2014, after receiving a chemistry degree from the University of Cincinnati, she was unsure of the specific route she wanted to follow in her science career. Rather than forcing herself to make a decision at that moment, she took a year off and worked as a contractor at Proctor & Gamble, building connections she would later find beneficial.

By working alongside toxicologists as a contractor, she determined she wanted to become one, too. But to excel, she said she needed her PhD. Barney looked for programs in the region and found the UK College of Medicine to be a perfect fit. 

“I loved how the toxicology program was multidisciplinary and that you can be a toxicologist and also work in different fields like biochemistry and physiology,” she said. “I found out about the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program that would allow me to take classes with a range of different sciences, and I could tell that would be really helpful for me.”

While pursuing her PhD, Barney was able to dedicate two months to a valuable internship at Proctor & Gamble, further enhancing her connection with the company and allowing her to acquire more experience as a researcher. Meanwhile, she devoted much of her spare time to getting involved with other science organizations such as the Society of Toxicology, through which she mentored undergraduate students and kept them on track toward their graduate careers. She also was heavily involved with the UK Center for Graduate and Professional Diversity Initiatives.

Soon, it became clear to her that pursuing toxicology was more than a choice for herself. Just as she served as a role model for her family, she also was meant to serve as a role model for future students.

“I realized that there weren’t many African-American women in research labs, and I want to inspire the next generation,” she said. “I learned about the Center for Graduate and Professional Diversity Initiatives and its focus on inclusivity of graduate and professional students, and because of my involvement, I became part of a very supportive community.”

Bernhard Hennig, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition and toxicology, who served as Barney’s mentor throughout her time at UK, praised Barney’s ability to mentor others. He said he admired her participation as a peer mentor during the Society of Toxicology’s national conference, where she enticed undergraduate students to pursue studies in biomedical sciences. She also volunteered with the Superfund Research Center Community Engagement Core, which allowed her to engage with communities of Appalachia.

“Jazmyne was an enthusiastic member of our laboratory team and a wonderful team player with great leadership skills, which will guarantee her a bright professional future,” Dr. Hennig said.

Now, as a regulatory toxicologist with a company that’s provided her so many opportunities, Barney maintains an important role in promoting consumer safety by ensuring that the products she oversees from the U.S. and Canada abide to state and federal laws.

As Barney’s name is read during the College of Medicine’s commencement ceremony Friday and she officially becomes “Dr. Barney,” she will be by her husband’s bedside as he recovers from heart surgery. But with her career in place and all that the College of Medicine has helped make wildly possible, she already feels equipped to continue being the role model she was always destined to be. 

Click here to watch the December 2019 Commencement Ceremony live.