Netonia Marshall recently accomplished the nearly-impossible: finishing a Biomedical PhD in the same number of years it took her to complete an undergrad degree from Princeton! But don’t think that was because she had her nose to the grindstone in the lab the whole time—she’s also the founder of The Ivy Team, a tutoring and college consulting concierge services that serves NY, and NJ. Want to know how she does it all? Read below! And thanks, Netonia, for taking the time to talk with us!
Can you tell us a bit about what you were involved in while at Princeton?
It was little bit diverse. I spent a lot of time at Frist Campus Center. I was a Welcome Desk attendant from October of my freshman year until I graduated, so I got in really early. I ended up becoming the manager of the Welcome Desk by my junior year, and I ended up doing that for two years. People used to make the joke that if you couldn’t find Netonia, go by the desk and you’d find her.
I was always in Frist, either working for the welcome desk, or working for the building supervisors, or managing something somehow, and it was great because I met many people. It’s interesting to me that this is the first year that I will go back to Princeton and I don’t know anybody on campus—I knew somebody from all four years underneath me because people always knew they could find me at the campus center and desk. I felt like working in Frist really led me to and know of my colleagues. So Frist was one thing that I was seriously involved in and was a significant amount of my time.
Working so hard at Frist was also conducive to my passion for traveling. I love to travel and working at the desk allowed me to earn some money to go travel. During almost every break–fall breaks and intercession–I would go traveling with my best friends from Princeton.
Another thing I was really involved in was Tower eating club. I decided to join my sophomore year. My freshman year I wasn’t really involved too much in the eating club culture, and then sophomore year, I was like, I kind of want to meet a new set of people and I kind of want to get out there. So I said, “I guess I’ll join an eating club!” And when everybody was like, “Which one?” on a whim I replied, “Tower!”
When I went to the bicker events, that was the first time I’d actually gone to Tower and I felt like I fit in right away, so it all worked out. Tower was really interesting to be a part of as somebody who hadn’t gone there every day or every weekend during her early years.
As a newcomer, it was a chance for me to meet many new people who I had never ever run into during classes or even run into at the student center! It really expanded my social circle and many of my friends who I still keep in contact with today are from Tower. Some of my closest friends are people who I met and used to eat lunch or dinner with at Tower. Joining Tower was an important move that I made and I kind of made it on a whim, which is very interesting to me to see how important it ended up being as part of my social circle.
I was also really involved in a sorority. I was in one of the few African American sororities on the campus, called Delta Sigma Theta. I felt like that was a great counterbalance to be in an African-American Sorority, but also be part of Princeton’s Tower eating club. I feel like that made my experience very diverse. We did things on campus but we also did things off-campus. So that did really round out my experience and it made me excited to come back on campus and go to Tower and see all my friends from Tower and things like that.
And I was loosely involved in other things, like the Black Student Union, the Princeton Association of Black Women, and the Princeton Caribbean Connection. But I think the majority of my social time was split between working at Frist, and being at Frist or Tower. That was a lot of my experience.
On the academic side, I was in the lab a lot. I was a molecular biology major and I did a lab thesis. The thin about doing a lab thesis is that you have to be in the lab, thus, I spent a lot of time in the lab also.
Talk about what you’ve been up to since Princeton. What are you currently working on? What has the path been like to get to where you are today? What’s next?
I was a molecular biology major and what’s really interesting about the Molecular Biology Department is that a significant portion of the students are pre-med: people who are interested in going to med school. So when it comes down to the people who are actually interested in research, there were not that many. I was one of the few students who was actually interested in doing research. Because of this, I felt like I got a lot of individual attention from the Mol Bio Department professors. They recommended me for many opportunities; they sent me to conferences and they put me in touch me with graduate admissions heads and deans, and more. I think they were very invested in seeing somebody who was going on a slightly different path than the medical students. And it was really special because I was afforded great opportunities: I was in the lab as early as my freshman year.
When you go to grad school, especially for a PhD in biology, normally you take 3-4 years between undergrad and grad to get some research experience. Grad school kind of requires it. But because of my experiences at Princeton and because the professors knew early on that I was really interested in being a researcher, they were able to help me get significant lab experiences during my time at Princeton and I was actually accepted in to a program right out of Princeton. I got into Columbia University’s PhD in Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine Program, which was my first choice.
I remember how supportive Princeton was during my application process for graduate school. Alison Gammie, one of the recruiters for the Princeton’s Biology PhD program, was like, “come talk to me about this when you’re ready to apply to grad school, I’ll put you in contact with the admission heads.” She made sure that they knew I was applying and because of her recommendation these schools began recruiting me. She was very supportive of me during the application process. It was interesting to me too because, for example Yale, whose PhD program was another program to which I was accepted, was corresponding with me before I had completed the application. The representatives from Yale were very supportive; they reached out to me and said “Alison told us you were applying, do you need anything from us?” It was nice to have so much focus and support from Princeton as I applied to grad school and, because of that support, other schools were recruited me heavily.
As I said, I got in to Columbia and that’s what I’ve done since. I graduated last May, class of 2014. I actually finished in December, but I graduated in May 2014 with my PhD in Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine. Currently I am doing a postdoctoral fellowship in Cancer Immunotherapy at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. That’s been my main track.
Outside of my main track, what’s also kind of developed on the side of that is my college preparation concierge service. Living as a PhD student in New York City, it can be very expensive; so, I started off tutoring to get some extra money on the side. That went so well for me, that I started a tutoring company in 2012; a tutoring and college consulting company that has been surprisingly successful. It’s kind of taken off. Currently I have 20 tutors that work underneath me. I’m a little shocked because it was supposed to be something to get a couple of extra dollars, you know? The demand became so high for me and I was like, “ok, I guess I can find people who can do the work and take a percentage or something.”
I started doing that and then people were like, “no, you need to do more of this!” and it just kind of really blossomed into a full-fledged company, especially in this last year. It’s also really exciting because we just opened a second site in Princeton, New Jersey. It’s surprising because it’s not at all what I was expecting to do. Get a PhD, become a researcher full-time, that was kind of my track-and I still do that, I love that–but I also have this business and it presents this whole new sort of challenge and it excites me. It’s something different, you know, something I never trained for.
I’ve been a scientist my whole life. My mother was a computer programmer, so she always had me in these women in science panels or weekend academies for budding scientists ever since I was young. I’ve always been geared to be a scientist, and so this business thing pops up out of nowhere and has kind of taken off. So now we’re opening our site in Princeton and I’m now recruiting younger Princeton students to tutor for me and it’s really exciting and surprising.
Who is a Princetonian who has helped you along the way? Can you talk a bit about how this person has been an influence on your life or career?
There have been several, which is part of the reason I was really excited about going to Princeton in the first place, because I’ve always heard that the network is very strong. It’s one of the strongest assets of Princeton. I previously mentioned, Alison Gammie. There was also my thesis advisor, Daniel Notterman, he was also instrumental in developing me as a scientist.
And, interestingly enough, the job I currently have, I got because I was tutoring a student and I happened to meet her parent. As I was leaving, I saw the PAW on the floor and I said, “Wait a minute, is somebody here a Princeton alum?” He goes–he’s Hearn Cho class of ’88—“yeah, I was Class of ’88” and I was like “Class of ’09!” And he was like, “Wait, wait, wait! Tell me more about yourself! What do you need?” And I told him I was looking for a job and he said, “Oh my gosh, I’ll recommend you to my colleagues. We’ll get you a job.” And three weeks later I had a job! So I’ve been very fortunate to have many great Princetonians who have guided me along my career path.
What about your life now would your Sophomore-year self be most surprised by?
It would be the business. Sophomore year, I was taking organic chemistry, which is a trying and hard class to get through, but I loved it because that was what I wanted to do with my life; so sophomore year, I could only see myself being a scientist. I think I would be most surprised by the fact that I’m also a businesswoman, that I have 20 people working for me. Where did that come from? Never would I have expected it.
What’s your favorite thing about your life right now?
Honestly, I think my favorite thing is that I’m doing so many things that I love and that I never thought I would be doing. Of course, the business, I love that, but I love that I saw a path for myself early in my life and that I succeeded on that path. I went, I got my PhD. It was something I had always said, that I was going to get my PhD in four years. And people said, “That’s not possible. The average is seven years for biology. It’s very naive for you to think that.” And I said, “No, I’m going to do it in four.” And I did it in four. And for me to get my PhD was a culmination of a lot of dreams for myself, but also for my mother. My mother was very supportive of me being a scientist ever since I was young, so you know it was a great moment for us, for both of us, when I officially defended and got my PhD.
And I love what I do now. Right now I work in Cancer Immunotherapy. Cancer immunotherapy are therapies that aim to use your own immune system to cure cancer. It’s so interesting. It’s such a hot field right now. These therapies we’re developing–my boss, he’s actually an MD doctor–so we develop things and he goes and treats his patients with it. We do clinical trials. It’s just so fascinating to see that my long-term dreams have finally come true and that I’m finally where I want to be there. But it’s also interesting to me that I did something that’s completely different and that I love in a completely different way, but I love it equally.
The business is just as challenging, and because it’s new and something that I never really thought long term, it’s something that throws out many surprises. And I love the new challenges and the new surprises it brings with it. So I think my favorite thing is that I’m being challenged in so many different ways now and that I’m doing so many different things. I love it. I’m always active. There’s never not a new challenge between my research and my company. It keeps me energized and busy. There’s never a boring second around here.
Is there anything else you’d like your classmates to know about you?
Going to Princeton was actually one of the most pivotal moments of my life. I think if I hadn’t gone to Princeton, I wouldn’t be where I am today, at all, in every aspect. I think it’s definitely helped me with my tutoring company; the fact that I have the Princeton name behind me, everyone is like, “Oh, she must be very well qualified and very smart.” And in my academic career, as an academic scientist, the fact that I had such great professors that pushed me and really nurtured the researcher in me has propelled along the path much quicker than the other researchers. And even today I got my job off the recommendation of another Princetonian. I just feel like my life changed the moment I got into Princeton, and it’s changed my life for the better.