Dr. Sylvia Bartley is always searching for answers. She is a scientist, a world traveler, and a well-known volunteer leader in the local African American community. As she notes, people might be puzzled by her connection to both science and spirituality; however, once she tells her story — who she was as a child and how she came to be where she is now — it isn’t difficult to understand how those parts of her life kept her focused and determined to succeed, despite social and economic challenges.
She speaks about growing up in the U.K. and her passion for studying chemistry; attending a predominantly White, English Catholic school; getting married at an early age, eventually getting divorced; and struggling to raise two children as a single parent. For 10 years, her little family lived “hand to mouth.”
She knew very little about Black Americans in general and nothing about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or the civil rights struggles going on in the United States. Seeing the movie Roots was her first real awakening.
She once chaired the board of a large childcare agency for single parents; other than her, the agency’s board and staff were all White, serving customers who were typically Black and people of color. She had attended one of the agency’s annual meetings and felt compelled to get involved.
“They needed someone to represent the customers they served. There was a bit of racism there.” It was her first step into community service and, later in the United States, working with African American communities and education reform.
Bartley’s first job as a research technician was at a medical school in the east end of London. It was during those 13 years working there that she “found love for neurophysiology,” the study of how the brain and nervous system affect daily functions. There were challenges as Bartley was earning a Bachelor of Science in pharmacology and, later, a doctoral degree.
“Despite…misogyny and bigotry, I had to get my head down and get on with it and get myself educated,” she recalls of those times. In 1999, she earned a Ph.D. in neurophysiology and became Dr. Sylvia Bartley: yet another accomplishment.
Bartley moved to the U.S. in 2010. She joined Medtronic in sales in 2001, and moved up through the ranks to her current position as global director for the medical education division of the Restorative Therapies Group and Global director of philanthropy. When she moved to Minnesota in 2010, she found disparate socioeconomic conditions in the Twin Cities’ African American community and a large educational achievement gap among young African American students.
With a steadfast commitment to the community, Bartley became co-chair of the Education Work Group for the African American Leadership Forum (AALF) to improve educational outcomes for African American children. She also served on the boards of directors for Habitat for Humanity, Harvest Network of Schools Charter Management Organization, and AchieveMpls, a Minneapolis Public Schools program that manages career and college readiness programs.
With all her accomplishments, she realized it was time to tell her own story and share how others in similar circumstances could overcome obstacles and work through the stigma of depression. In her new book Turning the Tide: Neuroscience, Spirituality and My Path Toward Emotional Health, she created a work pulling together all her personal and emotional ups and downs, including how she copes with her depression using meditation, spirituality, and a healthy lifestyle.
The MSR wanted to know about the connection between neuroscience and spirituality in her life. She said it all went back to spiritual consciousness and her trying to understand her purpose. Bartley kept asking herself how she, a Black girl from the U.K. and a working-class family, ended up in a prestigious White environment with some of the leaders in her field.
“That’s not a connection anybody would make. It wasn’t my desire, and it wasn’t some advice to follow. The question becomes: ‘What is my path and purpose?’” It was a question she often repeated in our interview.
The emotional health part was her depression and learning to manage it with nontraditional practices such as exercise, eating right, meditation, and seeking power and purpose. Her “crazy kind of lifestyle” and heavy traveling exacerbated the depression. She needed to understand why she kept doing the job. She addressed this need by centering herself and through meditation leveling out negativity.
The MSR asked Bartley when she realized she wanted to become a writer. She said it wasn’t so much about aspiring to be a writer, but by the time she reached 30 with so much going on in her life, someone said she should write a book. About 10 years ago the first seed to write was planted; three years ago, she finally gave the mission serious thought.
Her first draft was about spirituality, in which she shared very little about herself. However, her position at Medtronic provided opportunities to expand the focus by working with some of the best minds in the industry in epilepsy, depression and Parkinson’s disease. She gained a deeper understanding of the illnesses and began tying it all to her spirituality and practice.
Bartley learned there were too many gaps in that first draft. Moreover, why would readers care about her message without a deeper understanding of who she was? Revising the manuscript to disclose more of herself and talk about her depression was painful, she says. There were so many tears that, at times, the keyboard was wet.
People perceived her as confident and smart. Little did they know she was working through depression. But, as she put it, being vulnerable was part of her healing process.
As Bartley continues her journey sharing her skills and knowledge in person and in writing, she hears feedback from friends, family and the public that her book is life-changing. The lessons learned academically, spiritually, and informally have been life-changing for her, too.
Dr. Sylvia Bartley says there were a lot of people who helped her along the way with answers to so many questions. “I don’t have all the answers, but I really question a lot.”
Judith Hence welcomes readers’ responses at email@example.com.