This is the fourth in a five-part series celebrating Women in STEM Month.
TJC has been the starting point for many women who have gone on to successful careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Some are just finding their place in the STEM world while others have graduated and are blazing trails of their own. We salute their accomplishments and thank them for setting the pace for future women who aspire to professions in the STEM arena.
Growing up in Honey Grove, a small town in the northeast corner of the state, Jennifer Newton thought she knew exactly where life would take her after high school.
“My husband and I married young; and he was going to be a basketball coach and history teacher, while I was going to be a stay-at-home mom and piano teacher,” she said. “That was our big, life goal.”
For as long as she could remember, music had been her life.
“I played multiple instruments, was a drum major in high school, and got a scholarship to study piano at the University of North Texas in Denton,” she said. “But after a couple of years, I found that it took a lot of the joy out of the hobby when it became my job. It’s a lot of pressure, I was practicing for six hours a day, and I began to hate playing the piano.”
She continued, “At one point, my husband said, ‘Why are you doing this if you hate it?’ That was a good question, so I kind of had that Eliza Doolittle moment from ‘My Fair Lady: ‘Where am I to go, what am I to do, and what’s to become of me?’ Music was all I had ever done.”
So, she reset and changed course.
“Changing my major to undecided was a very big thing for me, because I’ve never been undecided about anything in my entire life,” she said. “It was very unsettling.”
Meeting with her UNT advisor set her on an unexpected path to healthcare.
“I told her that I enjoyed science and my anatomy class, and she suggested one of the applied sciences,” Newton said. “She showed me the pathways, or degree plans, for the classes required for each of those — and I immediately tossed the medical school and PA ones because that seemed way too hard.”
So, she waded in slowly, trying some introductory science classes in the pre-nursing program.
“I thought I would just take a few courses and see how it goes — and I loved it!” she said. “I took chemistry and anatomy; and it came easy for me, I was good at it, and I really liked it.”
In 2001, Newton’s husband, Daniel, accepted a job in East Texas, which led to them relocating to Tyler.
“I enrolled at TJC because I knew they had a great nursing program,” she said, “so, I continued my pre-nursing track and started the second half of anatomy and physiology and chemistry and microbiology.”
She continued, “Lynn Gray was my anatomy and physiology professor at TJC, and one day, about halfway into the semester, she said, ‘If you’re trying to decide where you belong in the medical field, you should come and see me.’ So, I made an appointment and was in her office for about four hours. And at the end of our conversation, she said, ‘You need to go to medical school.’ And I just laughed and thought she was crazy.”
But then, Dr. Gray explained to Newton why she was cut out for med school.
Newton said, “She asked me a lot of questions such as: ‘Do you like making decisions? Do you like being in charge? Do you like bearing the responsibility but also being in charge?’ She asked me a lot of questions about myself, and she looked at my grades, and she said she really thought I should go to medical school.”
After that four-hour conversation, Newton came away with an entirely new trajectory and found her true path.
“Dr. Gray hooked me up with Dr. Rick Rogers, who’s a pediatrician here in Tyler, and had me shadow him,” she said. “Then, she also hooked me up with a midwife at Mother Frances, and I saw my first vaginal delivery. She basically got me around the people I needed to be around.”
Still, there were naysayers who said it couldn’t be done.
“I had so many people tell me negative things about being a female going to medical school. I heard, ‘Oh, you’re going to end up with a divorce. It’s going to kill your family. You’re not going to have time for children, and it’s going to ruin your life. Why would you do that?’ Lots of negativity.”
But a conversation with Dr. Rick Rogers quelled her fears.
“He always had these beautiful pictures of his family in his office,” she said, “and I was telling him about the negative comments I had received, and he just said, ‘You know what? If you’ve married the right person, they’re the right person no matter what you do with your life.’ And it was such a lightbulb moment for me.”
She continued, “And even though I was female, he didn’t act like that was going to limit my ability to be successful in my profession and continue to be successful at home. That was so powerful for me.”
With that reassurance, Newton transferred from TJC to Stephen F. Austin State University to finish her bachelor’s degree, got into her first-choice medical school at Texas A&M University in College Station, and then got into her first-choice residency at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
Today, she is an obstetrician and gynecologist at Four Season’s Women’s Health in Tyler. She and her husband have three children, ages 12, 10 and 6.
“When I think about the most influential people in my life, I would say Lynn Gray is in the top five,” she said. “Had she not had that level of confidence or really saw in me something that I didn’t even see in myself, I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to do that. I probably would have continued on my nursing track — which would have been great — but I think I would have always felt a little frustrated.”
She continued, “I think it just goes to show the power an educator can have in your life. And you think about the number of students those educators see, and they know what they’re looking for. It’s like they have this sixth sense. The role that Lynn Gray and TJC played in my life changed the trajectory of my career and helped me get to where I am today.”