A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?

Similar to Pharmacology, the field of Toxicology is centuries old and is very complex regarding the wealth and depth of information available.  It is also still evolving today.  The goal of this post is not to address every detail of the field, but instead to give readers a basic introductory understanding of the discipline.  Further details about the many aspects of Toxicology can be accessed online, or in scientific journals.

When I meet people outside of my scientific circles at career and STEM fairs, Toxicology doesn’t get confused with other disciplines the way Pharmacology and Pharmacy do – I thus won’t open with a story about misunderstandings.  I’ll simply say that Toxicology an exciting field with vast opportunities for individuals who are trained in it.  Following my principle of “Creating Ecosystems of Success”, I wanted to write an overview of the field – particularly for parents and young students who have an aptitude for science and may be interested in Toxicology as a career one day.  As you’ll see later on, Toxicology is an important component of numerous industries, and scientists with this training will never be without jobs.

“The dose makes the poison,” is the popular toxicology adage credited to the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus.  Simply put, given the proper dose, even chemicals and substances considered harmless can be poisonous – too much sugar or water for example.  Dosage or the amount of a substance one is exposed to is a key component of Toxicology – keep this in mind as you read through this post.  Also keep in mind the route of exposure.  Toxicologists are always considering that an individual can be poisoned through oral ingestion, or through either dermal or inhalation exposures.

I think of Pharmacology and Toxicology as “sister” sciences – both dealing with the effects of xenobiotics on living systems.  While Pharmacology focuses more on the therapeutic effects of xenobiotics, Toxicology focuses on the harmful effects – in most cases humans but in some instances other mammalian and non-mammalian species.  These effects can occur on the molecular, cellular, tissue, and whole organism levels. While Pharmacology and Toxicology are separate disciplines, they have several overlapping principles and skill sets allowing individuals credentialed in one to work in the other.

I’ll start my discussion of why Toxicology is important with drugs.  Both biotechnology and large pharmaceutical compan9ies have to understand and report a drug’s toxicological profile to the federal government before selling it to the general public.  Many promising drugs actually never make it to market because they’re too toxic.  Some actually make it and are then recalled – Rezulin for example.

There are also both clinical and research contexts for Toxicology.  Similar to Pharmacology, all medical practitioners (Anesthesiologists, Physicians, Pharmacists, Nurses, Surgeons, etc.) must receive some toxicology training as they all need an understanding of the potential toxicities of the drugs they’ll ultimately prescribe.  They need to understand how much of a given pharmaceutical will be beneficial vs. harmful to patient – a drug’s “Therapeutic Index”.  If the patient is taking multiple medications, “Drug-Drug” interactions can result – toxicities and side effects resulting from one or more drugs being present in the body at the same time causing others be poisonous.  The patient’s current liver and kidney function are critical here as well as they will ultimately determine how long the drugs persist in the body.  In an emergency room, physicians must often determine what a patient may have been poisoned by in order make swift life-saving decisions.

Forensic Toxicologists are instrumental in solving crimes and deaths.  They’re masters of detecting chemicals in the body’s tissues and understanding how they may have led to a victim’s death.  Michael Jackson’s overdose on “Propofol” comes to mind, and is just one of many examples.

In the research context, think about experimentation in laboratory settings – well designed studies run by scientists asking questions and looking for specific answers.  Initial toxicological studies typically involve determining how a toxicant exerts its effect on the molecular and then on the tissue/organ levels – similar to how Pharmacologists identify new drug targets.  After determining a toxicant’s molecular mechanism, there is then the need to determine the toxic dose range of the chemical at the molecular, tissue and whole animal levels.  This is called a “Dose Response” – a critical tool of both Pharmacology and Toxicology where scientists look to determine if increasing the amount of the chemical in question, increases the amount of biological response.  This applies to a broad spectrum of chemicals – pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals alike.

What am I referring to when I say industrial chemicals?  Simply look around your home at all of the products you use daily including: household cleaners, cosmetics, pesticides (Raid for example), and even additives and preservatives in some the foods we consume.  Thus when you think about Toxicology, think very broad in terms of scope.  For this reason, individuals with toxicology training will never be without jobs as everything we use must be screened for safety.  Toxicologists are currently in high demand.

Similar to Pharmacology, there are numerous sub-disciplines within Toxicology.  The following is a list of some of the major areas beyond what’s been described thus far.  These areas are heavily considered by government agencies and private sector companies who all need toxicologists to create new products, determine the safety of those products, and lastly determine the fate of those products once used:

  • Aquatic, Eco- and Environmental Toxicology: While these are distinct disciplines all in themselves, I’ve grouped them together for simplicity. They collectively consider toxicity to non-human life – aquatic, avian, other terrestrial life.  They consider what happens to ecosystems if a particular species is inadvertently killed off.  Some questions involve where the toxicant goes in our environment, how long it stays there, and if it breaks down into something else more or less toxic.
  • Computational (In silico) Toxicology: Uses computational models, to predict mammalian toxicities. “Tox21” is a current effort to minimize animal testing using computational and predictive models.
  • Entomotoxicology: Determines how a given chemical is toxic to insect species. This is very important for the creation of pesticides, and it’s also critical for Ecotoxicology as the chemical designed to control specific insects may easily kill something else unintended.

  • Food Safety Toxicology: Looks at the potential toxicity of man-made or natural ingredients intentionally added to our food. Heat formed compounds are of particular concern – acrylamide and furan are examples which can spontaneously form during the cooking of certain precursor molecules.  Lastly the ingredients in food packaging are also considered as they can be ingested through the foods they are in contact with.
  • Forensic Toxicology: As described above, deals with the solving of crimes – often determining what a victim was poisoned with.
  • In vitro Toxicology: Characterizes how a toxicant works using cell models and protein systems as opposed to whole animals.

  • Mammalian Toxicology: Studies the effects of a given toxicant on mammalian systems – traditionally using animals to model to human toxicity. Experiments can be designed over multiple dose ranges and through any of the three routes of exposure – oral, dermal or inhalation.  Time of these studies can range from hours to days, to years.  Varying indices can be studied such as life-stage sensitivity, cancer potential, or the ability to inhibit one’s immune response.  Mammalian toxicology is very important in “Regulatory” settings described below.
  • Modes of toxic action: Characterizes how toxicants exert their action on the molecular, cellular and whole animal levels. This information can be used to design chemicals to control something like a pest, or to determine how a cancer tumor-type forms.
  • Medical Toxicology: As described above, deals with the prevention of patient poisoning in medical settings.
  • Occupational Toxicology: Involves potential toxicity to workers who are in contact with a given toxicant and may get exposed through their skin or through inhalation.

  • Regulatory Toxicology (Private Sector): When the private sector creates a product, it must work with federal and state government agencies to determine the safety of that product. The products can be: drugs, pesticides, cosmetics, food additives, paints – you name it.  Regulatory Toxicologists in the private sector must understand government laws and guidelines for the products they’re creating – knowing which animal and in vitro studies to run to get their product registered in the most cost efficient way.
  • Regulatory Toxicology (Public Sector): Involves government and state agencies determining the safety of products produced by private industry. This usually consists of considering real world human exposures, and looking at any pertinent data (animal, in vitro, exposure or physical chemical) that might help model those exposures to determine levels of safety or lack thereof.
  • Toxicogenomics: Similar to Pharmacogenomics, looks at the genetics unique to individuals to determine potential increased toxicity for that individual.
  • Toxinology: Deals specifically with animal, plant and microbial toxins.
  • Toxicokinetics: Similar to the description in my Pharmacology post, Toxicokinetics deals with how the body handles toxicants in terms of absorption (entry to the body), tissue accumulation (distribution), biotransformation (metabolism) of the molecule, and excretion (elimination). I will revisit Pharmacokinetics and Toxicokinetics in greater detail in a separate post.

So have I convinced you that toxicologists are literally everywhere?  Similar to pharmacologists, toxicologists can leverage their skill sets to work in other capacities besides academia, and the public and private sectors.  When combined with other fields such as law and business, toxicologists can start their own companies – consulting for example, and in some cases they can create new health-related technologies and innovations.

There are numerous avenues by which to pursue training in Toxicology.  According the website of the Society of Toxicology, training can start as early as high school and the amount of training one pursues (Bachelors, Masters, Ph.D.) will depend upon specific career goals.  As there is tremendous overlap in skill sets of scientists in the biomedical sciences, one need not have a degree in “Toxicology” per se to work in the field in most cases. An exception is the federal government which is very stringent in terms of matching one’s academic credentials exactly with job openings regardless of one’s actual scientific training and expertise.  An individual for example with a Masters or Ph.D. in another biological science, MD, or a DVM for example can receive training in Toxicology through postdoctoral fellowship.

Toxicology also has a unique certification – the Diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology (DABT).  Earning one’s DABT allows toxicologists to be nationally certified which is particularly important in the private sector, and in capacities such as serving as expert witnesses in litigations.  The European Union has a similar certification titled “European Registered Toxicologists” (ERT).

If you are interested in learning more about the exciting field of Toxicology, I suggest that you visit the website of the Society of Toxicology (SOT) – the major professional society for Toxicology.  Click on the “Careers” tab and scroll down to the “Becoming a Toxicologist” tab.  A wealth of information is available talking about numerous aspects of the field.  Similar to Pharmacology, Toxicology has its own annual meeting hosted by SOT where scientists gather to network, discuss their results, employers seek new job prospects, and companies show their latest devices and technologies.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and I hope I was able to shed some light onto what Toxicology is.  A special thank you is also extended to Dr. Chester Rodriguez for his contribution to this post, and sharing the importance of earning one’s DABT.  The next posts in this series will talk about: the research aspect of Pharmacology, Drug Metabolism, Inhalation Toxicology and Regulatory Science/Risk Assessment.

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?

The field of Pharmacology is centuries old and it is very complex with respect to the wealth and depth of information available.  It is still evolving today.  The goal of this post is not to address every detail of the field, but instead to give readers a basic introductory understanding of the discipline.  Further details about the many aspects of Pharmacology can be accessed online, or in scientific journals.

I earned my Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan.  I admittedly didn’t understand the field initially, although I did know that it dealt with drugs and hoped that a degree in it would one day secure a position for me in the Pharmaceutical industry.  Since starting my studies in 1999, completing my degree in 2005, and starting my current career as a Regulatory Scientist, I’ve gotten the same question over and over again, “You have a background in Pharmacology?  Are you a Pharmacist?”  At Career and STEM Fairs, I get this question a lot, and thus following my principle of “Creating Ecosystems of Success“, I wanted to write a brief overview of the field – particularly for parents and young students who have an aptitude for science and may be interested in Pharmacology as a career one day.

“Simply put, Pharmacy is the study of what drugs do to man, and Pharmacology is the study of what man does to drugs,” said one of the Cancer Pharmacology faculty in our Principles of Pharmacology course during my first year of graduate school.  This statement explained in a very simple way some of the differences between the two disciplines.  Pharmacy is the study of the actual drugs administered to patients as therapeutic agents and its practitioners work at various institutions including hospitals, medical centers, and drug stores – CVS for example.  Pharmacists are health professionals, earn Doctor of Pharmacy degrees (Pharm Ds), are experts on medications, and are responsible for dispensing medicines.  Pharmacology is a basic research science that studies the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic effects of pharmaceuticals and potential drug candidates with the goal of developing and testing of new drugs.

All medical practitioners (Anesthesiologists, Physicians, Pharmacists, Nurses, Surgeons, etc.) must take Pharmacology courses as they all need some understanding of the mechanisms of the drugs they ultimately prescribe.  Pharmacologists are the actual researchers performing experiments trying to create new drugs and identify new drug targets.  They further seek to characterize how mammalian systems (in most cases human although they are also involved in developing veterinary drugs) handle molecules at the molecular, cellular, tissue and whole organism levels.  It’s a vast field with many areas of specialization that I’ll discuss in the remainder of this post.

Pharmacology classically can be divided into two parts; Pharmacokinetics, which deals with how the drug is absorbed and eliminated by the body, and Pharmacodynamics, which deals with how the drug exerts its medicinal effect mechanistically.  The following sub-disciplines within Pharmacology generally fall under one of these two umbrellas or, in most cases, are a mixture of the two.  Each of us or someone we know has taken a drug or a treatment which has been impacted by one of these areas.  Any pharmacologist reading this can easily further parse this list out into greater detail, but again this was written for a general audience:

  • ADME/Drug Metabolism: Deals with how the body handles the therapeutic molecules in terms of absorption (entry to the body), tissue accumulation (distribution), biotransformation (metabolism) of the molecule, and excretion (elimination). Another focus of ADME/Drug Metabolism is “Drug Transport” which focuses on how drugs are absorbed and effluxed from cells using membrane channels and transporters impacting their effectiveness.  I will revisit ADME/Drug Metabolism in greater detail in a separate post as me and some of my peers know it pretty well and find it to be a very exciting aspect of both Pharmacology and Toxicology.
  • Antimicrobial Pharmacology: Involves the control of bacteria, fungi, and viruses to fight off or prevent infections.
  • Autonomic Pharmacology: Deals with how the drug interacts with the Autonomic Nervous System (that part of the nervous system responsible for controlling bodily functions that are not consciously directed such as the heartbeat, breathing, and the digestive system) particularly through pathways involving epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and seratonin.
  • Cancer Pharmacology: Deals with drugs used in the treatment of cancer – usually some form of chemotherapy.
  • Cardiovascular Pharmacology: Deals with drugs used in treatment of heart disease and regulation of blood pressure.  A well-known class is the “Statins” – cholesterol lowering drugs such as “Lipitor“.
  • Endocrine and Receptor Pharmacology: Deals with how a given drug binds, interacts or even blockades a given cellular receptor, and then what the receptor does or doesn’t do to impact the homeostasis of that cell or tissue. The receptor can be membrane bound or cytosolic (many hormone receptors).
  • Drug Discovery: Typically associated with the private sector and deals with the identification of new drug entities and the identification of new drug targets. In industry, pharmacologists generally refer to drugs as either “small molecules” which are our classic drugs like Aspirin (~180 g/mol), or “large molecules” (as heavy as 150,000 g/mol) also known as “biologics” which are generally proteins which have therapeutic effects.  An example is Abbvie’sHumira”.  The units “g/mol” or grams per mole designate a chemical’s molecular weight and as you can see the size difference between the two classes is considerable.
  • Neuropharmacology: Similar to Autonomic Pharmacology but deals with all of the other parts of the nervous system such as pain responses – analgesics and anesthetics for example.
  • Pharmacogenomics: This new and exciting field looks at the genetics unique to individuals to determine the best treatments and dosages for that individual.

For each of these sub-disciplines there is a clinical side and a research side.  The clinical side is self-explanatory – it involves treating patients for various diseases as well as the prevention of illness by the above mentioned medical practitioners.  Think of the many medications you have been prescribed when you go to see medical doctors when you’re sick or for checkups, emergencies or surgeries.  But where do these medications come from originally?  Also, where will new medications come from in the future?

This is where the research side come comes into play.  At institutions like my alma mater, and in the private sector, there are scientists working year round on research projects asking questions about current medications in addition to trying to unlock the secrets of nature to create new therapeutics.  The investigations they perform involve testing molecules using whole animal models, cellular models, and in vitro systems to ask questions at the molecular level (proteins, lipids, DNA and RNA) about what the compound does.  It’s this research that can get very esoteric to the general public and that is published in academic journals including: Drug Metabolism and Disposition, the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Experimental Therapeutics, and Molecular Pharmacology.

Pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Pfizer conduct research as well but instead of doing it strictly to find new knowledge, it’s to create new drugs that they can sell.  The same is true for smaller Biotech companies like Biogen.  Both need scientists with backgrounds in Pharmacology.  The Federal Government also employs scientists with backgrounds in Pharmacology to determine the safety of new drugs before they can be prescribed to the general public.  The same is true for food products and chemicals used in those products, so Pharmacologists are literally everywhere.

Pharmacologists generally receive their training at major research universities.  While undergraduates can get training in Pharmacology – nursing students for example, degrees in Pharmacology are usually conferred at the Masters and Ph.D. levels and support for the student’s educational expenses as well as a modest salary are provided.  Upon attaining these degrees, scientists then determine which sector they want to pursue – academia, the private or public sectors, or nontraditional careers.  With the skills obtained in graduate school, scientists with these backgrounds have the flexibility to combine their knowledge sets with other disciplines to go into a wide variety of areas in addition to drug discovery in pharmaceutical companies and biotechs including: consulting, Toxicology, patent law and even starting their own companies.

If you are interested in learning more about the exciting field of Pharmacology, I suggest that you visit the website of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).  You can then click on the link on Education near the top of the page and once there, click on “What is Pharmacology” on the left side of the page.  In the last paragraph on that page, there is a link to a brochure entitled “Explore Pharmacology”, that provides a great deal of interesting information.  Speaking of ASPET, all scientific disciplines have their own professional societies with annual meetings that rotate cities every year, and where scientists congregate to show their results, and network.  The two major professional societies for pharmacologists are ASPET, and the International Society for the Study of Xenobiotics (ISSX).

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and I hope I was able to shed some light onto what Pharmacology is.  A special thank you is also extended to Dr. Paul Hollenberg, Chair of the Department of Pharmacology at The University of Michigan when I was a student, who graciously looked at this post and gave feedback prior my publishing it.  The next posts in this series will talk about: the research aspect of Pharmacology, Drug Metabolism, Toxicology, Inhalation Toxicology and Regulatory Science/Risk Assessment.

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A Black History month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part two

This is the continuation of my Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), originally published on the Examiner in February of 2016.  Not only is he a scientific peer, but he is also a hero of mine.  In addition to his duties at Howard University, he regularly takes his team out to the schools in the DC Public Schools system to conduct science demonstrations.  He is an example of regularly being visible, and working to fulfill the needs of students in the community.  In part one of the interview, we talked about his scientific path and his research.  In part two, we discussed his efforts to expose the students in the DC Public Schools to science.  Our discussion actually delves into some of the complexities and challenges of teaching science in the DC schools – only someone involved on the grassroots level would know and understand.

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Anwar Dunbar:  At the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference there were numerous Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) panels discussing what needs to be done to get African American kids involved in STEM.  You actually go out and do it on the grassroots level though.  You and Miles Holloman, you guys get the chemistry experiments and scientists together, and you go to the various schools in Washington, DC, which is very, very impressive and it’s very necessary.  How did you all get started doing the Community Science festivals?  Also, what was your motivation for doing so?

Vernon Morris:  We started in 2009 and part of our motivation is that we were seeing fewer and fewer students from Washington, DC who were coming to chemistry, or even coming to Howard and majoring in STEM at all.  Secondly, Miles is from DC. He grew up here and went to Dunbar High School and was thus familiar with the school systems close to campus.  I had become more and more familiar with the school systems and some of the deficiencies that needed addressing: retention in science, challenges to science education, and so it was really a response to the fact that our kids weren’t getting science.  They weren’t getting access to science mentors.  They weren’t getting access to why science is fun and it’s an exploratory kind of thing.  Even when I was young, while I didn’t get encouragement from the school, I was always encouraged to get out and explore nature.  I had telescopes.  I had microscopes.  I had computing machines and equipment that my father would buy.  There was no resource for science that I didn’t have access to in the house.  It’s just that when I went to school, I had teachers shuttle me to things like woodshop.

But here in DC, Howard is sitting right in the middle of the community and there wasn’t an effort that I could readily latch onto that was readily going into the community or to the schools and saying, “Here is a network of Ph.D.s and professionals in STEM, and now here is your resource for your teaching or for your classes.”  I couldn’t find anything, so I said let’s just start going out a little bit.  We can put together some experiments, and it will help both the undergraduate and the graduate students communicate science, and build some of that giving back mindset towards the community.  It has been sustained, which is great, and I think the students have picked up on it and really enjoy it.

AD:  So the kids at the schools you’re going to, they really enjoy it?

VM:  Yes, the kids really enjoy it in addition to the Howard undergraduate and graduate students.  I think we’re getting better at it as well.  At the most recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS science) Day, the coordinator actually came over to our booth, thanked us and told us that we were one of the favorite tables there.  I think we find things that are engaging and bring the science to the kids’ level.  And the community is important.  Its good to have those more polished events and venues to go to, but I think it’s equally, if not more important, to get out into the community because it not only brings experience and exposure to the kids, but we can also talk to the parents about how to support them, and I think that’s what is missed.

All of these diversity programs are great, but the parents and the schools are deficient, we know that.  One of the things I notice about our Caucasian and Asian counterparts is that their parents are heavily invested.  Even for me, without my parents encouragement, it was not going to happen.  And so one of the things we try to stress when we go out is that the parents come.  So before they drop off the kids, or when they’re standing around watching, we always have a student or someone talking to them saying, “Your child really likes this.  Do you know about this or that resource?  We’ve got these camps that they can come and apply to, some of which are free.”  We try to get information to their parents to support their kids, so that’s what the difference is going to be.  We’ve had STEM programs for the last 30 to 40 years, but the percentage of African Americans going into STEM hasn’t changed, and it’s because we haven’t engaged the parents.

AD:  So regarding the low participation in STEM in the DC schools, would that just be in Southeast DC?  And would you say that’s due to budgeting?  Is it an economic or a cultural issue when the parents aren’t really pushing their kids to be involved in or fostering that love for science?

VM:  I don’t think it’s cultural.  I think it’s socioeconomic.  I think you’d find a similar thing across all cultures if the economic stresses are great enough.  If the economic stresses are lower, parents have more time to go to the family science fairs or AAAS for two days.  There may be some cultural aspects, and I wouldn’t say that its limited to southeast, but we know which Wards have the majority African American populations, and we target those Wards preferentially.  The schools we know in those Wards tend to have the least parental engagement and that tends to be the case wherever schools are disadvantaged or challenged.  You find that the parents aren’t necessarily involved and making sure the standards are met.  I think cultural is too strong a way to say it.  I can’t accept that as an African American culture, we don’t expect the highest in educational standards.

AD:  Are the schools you go to receiving adequate resources from the school system?

VM:  I think it’s changed over the last couple of years.  Some of the schools have significant investments, while at other schools, there’s not enough.  There’s a big differential in who gets what in DC.  If you look at the overall budget in DC, people argue that it gets more money per student than a lot of other school districts that are performing better.  I think some of that is the culture of the school system and the dichotomy between the governance of the school systems in Washington, DC.  That’s always been vulcanized and it’s tough to enforce standards when the body who generates the standards has no authority over what goes into the schools.

There is a separate body that governs what goes into the schools.  The politics of the DC schools, Michelle Rhee and all of these education gurus, its seen as a big experiment to a lot of people and the investment in the child has not been there, from what I’ve seen until recently, and I think they’re trying to do some good things now.  The turf wars also create a lot of turnover of good people.  It’s tough because the charter school system has degraded the amount of money that goes into the public schools and most of the schools. Now the private schools actually have access to government funding for education in DC.  So you have rich kids who get additional resources, the best teachers and the smallest classroom sizes, at the expense of schools who really need novel solutions to improve education in general, but STEM education in particular.

Dunbar High School did not have a lab.  There was no teaching lab in Dunbar High School until they built the new school a couple of years ago.  You’ve got one of the more famous high schools in Washington DC, and they couldn’t possibly teach a lab in that school.  They couldn’t teach any biology or chemistry.

AD:  So when you say a turf war, are you referring to competing for dollars between public and private schools?

VM:  Typically, you’ll have a public school office and the state, but since DC is a district and not a state, you have two different offices; DC city public office and then you have another office to govern the schools, but it doesn’t make any sense.  You have two offices that are in charge of the public school system.  So the way that it was drawn up I think is that when the schools were failing, the federal government created another office that would then take over.  The authority of that office, however, never quite usurped the powers that the city already had in existence.  The money goes to this other office, so they get to implement programs, but they don’t have the authority to tell the teachers what they need to do.  That comes from the office that doesn’t have the money.

So you have this schism in managing the school system.  And because you have that infighting there, you have the charter schools that have edged their way in, insisting they’re a part of the school system and should get some of the money, and you have the private schools that have been able to make a similar argument, because charter schools are essentially private schools as well.  You have some very elite private schools in Washington DC (the International School for example), but I don’t know that they need the resources from the DC government.  At the same time, you’re shutting down historical schools in the District because there are so few kids left going to them.  The students get shuttled off to another school that gets over crowded as far as teaching goes.  It’s very nuanced here in DC.  It’s different than a state school system where you have counties and districts and where you have a well-defined hierarchy of management.  Here it’s split.  It’s bifurcated.

AD:  What advice would you give to young African American students who are interested in science, or those who have a curiosity about it, but are not sure that they can do it?

VM:  I would say this about a science career in general, it’s a very rewarding career.  I really enjoy what I do and I love coming to work every day.  It’s part exploration, mentoring and teaching, and writing and being creative.  It’s being quantitative and using both sides of your brain.  And you can give back to the community and the nation in a very unique way.  And I think there are so many opportunities in science.  People think, “I don’t want to do chemistry and I don’t want to sit in a lab and mix chemicals”, but there’s a whole world of stuff outside of the lab that you can do.  It’s the same thing for physics or mathematics, or biology.  It’s an area that if you study it, the world is open to you.

If you study science for example, you can become a writer, but if you study writing only, you won’t necessarily be able to become a scientist.  I think you have much greater opportunities if you study science and follow that pathway.  And I think the fulfillment is a wonderful thing for me.  I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  My advice would thus be: do not fear it, really engage it, and see where it can lead you.

AD:  Well Vernon, thanks a lot.  There were a lot of valuable nuggets that you shared and a lot of people will benefit from this.  Keep up the good work and I will definitely see you soon at one of your community science festivals.

VM:  Okay, that would great.  We’d love to have you come out and help out Anwar.

A special thank you is extended to Dr. Morris and NCAS for providing the pictures in this post.  As described earlier part one of this black history month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris was published in a separate post.  If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.  If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.



A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part one

I originally conducted this interview with Dr. Vernon Morris in February of 2016 and published it in both the Examiner and the Edvocate.  Not only is he a scientific peer, be he’s also a hero of mine.  In addition to his duties at Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), he regularly takes his group out to the schools in the DC schools system to conduct science demonstrations.  He is an example of regularly being visible and helping to fulfill the needs of students in the community.

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While Black History should be celebrated throughout the year and not just in February, the month provides the opportunity to not only recognize African Americans who have made significant contributions in the past, but also those who are presently making history.  As there are numerous African American scientists and innovators who are typically celebrated during Black History Month in Science (Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)), there are also quite few African American scientists in modern times that are worth recognizing.  One such scientist is Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University.  On Feb. 16, in honor of Black History Month, Dr. Morris granted an interview to discuss his background, the path to his current career, and potential avenues for under-represented minorities to get involved in STEM.

Anwar Dunbar:  First Vernon, thank you for this opportunity to interview you.  My writings in February tend to focus on Black History Month.  There are African American scientists that we usually recognize such as George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, Mae Jemison and Percy Julian for example, but I realized that there are many African American scientists and innovators who are currently in the trenches expanding our scientific knowledge, and in your case making a difference in the community.  You’re doing great things in and out of the lab so I thought it would great to get your story out.  So with that, let’s get started.

Talk a little bit about your background.  Where are you from?

Vernon Morris:  I’m an Air Force brat so I don’t have a traditional home to claim, because I’ve lived in 14 different places growing up.  I finished high school in eastern Washington State; Spokane.  I’ve been living in Washington, DC longer than any other place, so this is my home now.

AD:  Now growing up, were there any scientists in your family who you were exposed to at an early age?  What got you interested in science?

VM:  No, I actually was not exposed at all.  I never had the chance to do science fairs or any of that stuff.  I think my first exposure to anyone who was in science was actually one of my mother’s friends, Carolyn Clay, who was an engineer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).  I used to talk to her a little bit and she actually got me into an engineering camp late in my high school years.  After that time though, I wasn’t even thinking about going to college to be perfectly honest with you.  Both parents were in the Air Force.  For much of my later youth my mother was a teacher and then a principal.  Truthfully, the only post high school institution I was thinking about was the Air Force Academy because they had a good boxing program.  I loved boxing and I thought I was pretty good.  My decisions throughout most of high school revolved around how to pursue boxing.

As I said, my mother’s friend got her doctorate in chemical engineering from RPI.  She had to be one of the few at that time, and I think she was working at Hanford Research Labs in Richland, Washington, which was a nuclear facility.  She worked there so I would see her from time to time when she would come visit my mother.

I always did well in science, but there wasn’t much encouragement to actually do science.  I liked math a lot.  I liked any kind of science; physics, chemistry, biology, all of those, but I got more discouragement in school than encouragement.  So she was one of the first people to say, “You know, you’re good at this stuff, so think about doing it.”  So the opportunity arose to go to Seattle (University of Washington), a more populated part of the state, where the camp was held and to see that engineering was cool.  I actually linked up with one of my father’s friends (a Mason) who was a steam engineer at the camp.  I apprenticed with him the rest of the summer on different projects.  It was interesting to see how things are being built, and how to apply the science, but it didn’t really change my course.

I ended up going to visit some friends and relatives in Atlanta.  There I saw the Atlanta University (AU) complex a little bit later and frankly speaking, that had a greater influence on me.  I received scholarships to go to other places, and visited them, but they didn’t have the same appeal as the AU Center.  Seeing my father complete his Bachelor’s Degree toward the end of high school, really made an impression on me as well.

AD:  So you went to the famous AU Center.  Did you go to Clark-Atlanta, Morehouse, or Morris Brown?  Which one?

VM:  I went to Morehouse and I had not made up my mind on a major.  I was literally running around trying to find a job and ran into Henry McBay, who is a very distinguished scholar and mentor for a lot of folks who got their chemistry degrees at Morehouse; and he basically offered to buy my books and a calculator, and take care of my school supplies if I would major in chemistry.

AD:  Really?

VM:  Yes, and I didn’t have enough money to say no (laughing).  I said, “Sure, it’s no problem.”  He told me that I would have to major in math if I majored in chemistry so that I’d understand the upper level courses.  And that’s actually how I selected my major in math and chemistry.  It was through Henry McBay.  I was literally running to get to another part of the campus and it was oriented in such a way that the Chemistry Building was my cut through.  He happened to be in the hallway and I almost ran into him.  He literally told me to slow down and then asked me about where I was going, what I was trying to do, asked what my major was, and through that conversation I wound up choosing my major.

AD:  Had the two of you met before?  You must have made quite an impression on him for him to make that offer.

VM:  No, I had never met him before.  It was my first or second week at Morehouse, and he was curious about whether or not I liked Chemistry.  He also introduced me to another professor who actually became my mentor later and who gave me a research job, Mr. John Hall.

AD:  So you earned your Bachelor’s Degree from Morehouse.  Where did you go after Morehouse?

VM:  From Morehouse I went to Georgia-Tech.  My doctoral studies were in Atmospheric Sciences, with applications in physical chemistry, so I took a lot of courses in physical chemistry and all of the core courses in atmospheric sciences.  My thesis was a combination of theoretical and experimental investigations of inorganic chlorine oxides, and the chemistry of the stratosphere.  It involved the application of matrix isolation, infrared spectroscopy, some ultraviolet spectroscopy to look at short-lived intermediates, free radicals that form from low pressure and low temperature reactions.  I performed quantum chemical calculations to help interpret the experimental results.

AD:  And just briefly, what did you find?

VM:  We found that some low temperatures stabilize some novel free radical structures that are completely unstable in the gas phase, and influence some of the heterogeneous reactions, and some of the actual gas phase chemistry that showed depletion.  It was actually related to the stratospheric depletion of the ozone.  At that time the stratospheric ozone hole wasn’t a well-understood phenomenon and they were trying to figure out whether it was dynamic or if it was chemical, and it turned out to be a combination of both.  We looked at the chlorine oxides in particular, extensively, and then some of the nitrogen oxides and how they contributed to the ozone depletion.

AD:  Now one last question about your thesis; what got you interested in atmospheric sciences?

VM:  It was John Hall.  I was again in a quandary about what I wanted to do, but it was either go into chemical physics, which is what he had done, or go into a more applied field.  At that point the ozone hole and stratospheric depletion of ozone in general was a really big deal and there were a lot of open questions.  It just seemed like a really exciting way to take the math, the chemistry and the physics and go after these larger scale environmental problems that were presenting themselves.  A single discipline wasn’t enough to address them.  You had to come in with a very multidisciplinary background.  I liked physics.  I tried to triple major in physics, but I it would have taken too long to finish so I just minored in it, and majored in the other two.  I liked applying chemistry and physics, and I liked understanding the environment.

John Hall actually had a joint appointment between Georgia-Tech and Morehouse, and while he was encouraging me to go to UC-Berkley or to Harvard, or some of his alma maters, the opportunity to go to a different school and still work with him was appealing, and actually my first daughter was born before I graduated, so weighing the prospect of leaving and not being near her sort of factored into my decision.

Anwar Dunbar:  So at Howard University you interestingly go out to the ocean and conduct research there.  Just briefly, talk about your research.

Vernon Morris:  We’re working on a lot of stuff, but the work revolves around trying to get a better quantitative understanding of how atmospheric particulates influence the chemistry of the atmosphere and climate across multiple scales.  These are multiple spatio-temporal scales.  There are time scales because the lifetime of aerosols tends to be days to months, but their influence in the atmosphere tends to range from that time scale to much longer time scales as clouds change their optical properties; that influences radiative balance and seasonal fluctuations.  If you look at particle evolution, once an aerosol is formed and injected into the atmosphere from the ground layer, how does it influence and have these multiplying effects across larger spatial fields as it moves around the atmosphere, and through larger temporal scales as it effects something that has a multiple “follow on” effect?

The ship experimental cruises allow us to look at the transport of aerosols that are transmitted from Africa either from the Sahara Desert or as a result of burning biomass from “Slash and Burn” agriculture.  Particles get into the atmosphere and influence tropical cyclone development, and they influence acidification of the upper ocean. They also influence microbiological transfer, the transfer of microbes across hemispheres.  They influence cloud properties and precipitation properties downstream and food security.  So they have all of these implications that are much longer and much larger than a particular fire, or a particular dust storm.  You have to connect that with field observations, laboratory studies and with space-based observations as well.

AD:  My first time meeting you was here in DC at the 2012 National Organization of Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) annual conference where you won the Percy Julian Award for excellence in teaching.  Was that for your teaching activities at Howard, or was it for the community outreach that you do at various local schools?

VM:  I think it was for the combination of teaching and mentoring.  In fact, I think it was the Henry McBay award actually, though there was a separate award for Percy Julian.  That was very special for me because I was a McBay mentee.  I think it was a combination of teaching and producing students at the university, the outreach internationally, and then the outreach locally, the way we try to get science to the community; the underserved communities in particular.

AD:  I’m a pharmacologist, so my knowledge of all of the notable African American chemists is admittedly limited.

VM:  Percy Julian actually designed the chemistry building here on the Howard campus.  He designed this building, designed the labs, and then laid out everything and then, because of a personal dispute with the provost and the president at the time, actually left before the building was commissioned.

AD:  You know, Vernon, as you were talking just now, I was just reflecting on how important it is to know these things.  A couple of years ago a mentor who himself isn’t a scientist, but who saw that I was trying to develop my own writing and mentoring voice, gave me a copy of Forgotten Genius, the documentary about Percy Julian.  When I was I watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. Julian’s story would have been so valuable to know when I was going through my own doctoral studies.  I didn’t deal with the racism that he endured, but just the scientific process; so many experiments have to be done before you finally get to the ones that actually work and generate quality data.  That documentary conveyed the essence of science, and it took me a while to figure that all out while I was working on my own thesis.  It would have been so valuable to know beforehand.

VM:  We actually screened that film here.  We used to show it on a regular basis to our chemistry majors because it’s very eye opening and shows the commitment that you have to have, in addition to some of the resilience you have to have for things to work out.  That guy was brilliant.

AD:  Yes, and there is a whole culture to what we do as scientists, and the story conveyed that as well.

This interview will continue in part two of A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris.  A special thank you is extended to Dr. Morris and Howard’s NCAS for providing the pictures in this post.  If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.  If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.

Endless forms most beautiful: Exploring evolution & celebrating Darwin day

From Feb. 10-12, the Friends of the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium hosted their second weekend of 2017 titled “Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Exploring Evolution & Celebrating Darwin Day”.  The weekend was dedicated to the study of the formation of life on earth.  On Friday Feb. 10 there was a viewing of the short film “The Origin of Species” which told the stories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.  On Saturday Feb. 11 there was a viewing of the full dome show “Natural Selection”.  On Sunday Feb. 12 there was a second showing of Natural Selection.

In addition to the shows, this Friends’ weekend also featured a lineup of speakers from the science community.  Friday’s and Saturday’s speakers visited the planetarium on behalf of the Michigan State University’s “Darwin Road Show”.  On Friday, students from George Washington University’s Department of Biological Sciences discussed their graduate research projects.   Tiffini Smith discussed her thesis project which focused on “Sexual Selection” and its role in evolution.  Chris Day discussed his project which looked at the abilities of Cancer cells to evolve and develop resistance to pharmaceuticals.  On Saturday, Alexis Garretson of George Mason University discussed her research on native wildlife and ecosystem interactions.  On Sunday, Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., a Professor at the University of Maryland and a Research Associate of the National Museum of Natural History discussed “The Evolution of Dinosaurs”.

The Friends will host special events at the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium one weekend every month until the end of the school year. Each weekend will be geared towards increasing STEM education/awareness for all ages and will feature a specific theme.  For more information, visit the Friends’ website: http://friendsoftheplanetarium.org.  The theme of March’s weekend will be: The Art of Science: The Creative Side of Our Natural World.

A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian

I originally published this piece on Percy Julian in February of 2015 when still writing for the Examiner.  He is someone I would also consider a “Hidden Figure” at least in my life.  Attaining a Ph.D. in the sciences myself, I didn’t learn about Julian until well into my science career.  When I watched the documentary Forgotten Genius, I was amazed not only about what Julian had to overcome, but also everything he accomplished scientifically, and how the very same scientific process I experienced as graduate student was similar to his.  Dr. Vernon Morris of Howard University’s Department of Chemistry and NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS), later shared with me that watching Forgotten Genius is in fact required for Howard’s Chemistry students, and rightfully so.

* * *

My last black history month reflection for 2015 will focus on the legendary Chemist Percy Julian.  Though honored with his own postal stamp in 1993, the name Percy Julian didn’t register in my mind until the annual conference for the National Organization for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) in 2012.  Someone won an award named after him that night, but not being a Chemist myself, I didn’t have a feel for why he was held in such honor in that particular circle.  It turned out that there was an entire pantheon of well-accomplished African American Chemists.

Later on, a mentor gave me a copy of Percy Julian; Forgotten Genius.  The DVD chronicled Julian’s life from his youth in the Jim Crow south, to his collegiate studies at Depauw University, to his doctoral studies abroad in Austria, and then through to his vast research career in the chemical industry which almost didn’t happen due to racism.  What stood out to me from Percy Julian’s story was his perseverance in spite of the racism he encountered, as well as the fact that his original scientific interest was in plants which he later returned to after receiving his chemistry training.

Why is Percy Julian important and what did he do in the field of chemistry?  A better question would be what didn’t he do in chemistry?  Among his many accomplishments were:

  • Becoming one of the first African Americans to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry by isolating the active ingredient in Corydalis Cava and identifying its structure. In the pre-civil rights era, Dr. Julian wasn’t admitted to any graduate programs in the United States, so he had to travel Austria, where he studied natural products chemistry under Dr. Ernst Spath at the University of Vienna.
  • After being denied professorships at universities in the United States, he was hired as the director of Chemistry for Glidden’s Chicago Chemistry labs. For African Americans, this breakthrough occurred ten years before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball.  At Glidden, Julian isolated the alpha protein from soybeans, the first plant protein to be produced in bulk in the United States.  The alpha protein led to the generation of oils that were used in both food and industrial products of all kinds.
  • Discovering how to isolate large scale quantities of stigmasterol from the calabar and soy beans and then developing an industrial process for using it to generate progesterone in large quantities. This led to numerous hormone therapies and therapeutics by allowing pharmaceutical companies to industrially synthesize other sex hormones in large quantities making them more affordable (testosterone, estrogen, etc.).
  • Creating processes to mass produce Compound S (which could be converted to Cortisone), which at that time was a novel but expensive medication for arthritis and inflammation. Julian’s discoveries made the drug affordable for the general public and greatly improved the qualities of life of many people.
  • Starting his own company (Julian Labs), which mass produced hormone intermediates for the major pharmaceutical companies but potentially more importantly, gave jobs to African American chemists who couldn’t get work anywhere else due to racism. He also made himself a millionaire in the process.

In addition to his many scientific achievements and victories in the realm of chemistry, Percy Julian became highly involved in the Civil Rights movement and with the NAACP.  In the latter stages of his life, he was celebrated with more than 18 honorary degrees and more than a dozen civic and scientific awards.  He became only the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.

Julian’s story is important for several reasons.  First it shows what can be accomplished with great perseverance.  Second it is a testament to how much talent was and is wasted in urban communities based due racism, but needs to be salvaged.  Julian’s story is very important for African Americans pursuing advanced degrees particularly in the sciences.  When watching Forgotten Genius, much of what Julian went through during graduate school reminded me of my own experience.  Seeing his story years ago would have helped me better understand the significance of my own graduate studies.  Today his story can help inspire younger generations of potential African American scientists, and innovators in a world where STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is becoming increasingly important.

Thank you for reading this post.  If you enjoyed it, please do share it, and leave comments.

Tokiwa Smith discusses SEM Link and STEM

One of the goals of the Big Words Blog Site is advocacy of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) awareness for under-represented minorities, and starting discussions about increasing access. I personally try to get involved in these types of efforts whenever my schedule permits it.  In the fall of 2016, I assisted Dr. Vernon Morris and his team from Howard University’s NOAA Center for Atmospheric Sciences (NCAS) at the Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link’s (SEM Link) First Annual DC, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) STEM Career Fair.  Recently I had the opportunity to interview the Founder and Executive Director of SEM Link, Tokiwa Smith.  We discussed the organization, its inception and goals, and the current challenges of exposing under-represented minorities to STEM education which would lead to their ascension into these careers.

Anwar Dunbar: First off Tokiwa, thank you for agreeing to talk about your background and very important for individuals from our backgrounds to openly discuss our careers and how we got to where we are. With that said, let’s start with you.  Talk about your background.

Tokiwa Smith: I have a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering from Florida A & M University. I’ve used my STEM degree to help inspire and train future STEM professionals – pre-college and undergraduate students – through my work at various academic institutions, non-profit organizations and government agencies.

AD:  Most of my African American peers in STEM had a mentor (myself included), someone who recognized their potential and encouraged them to pursue a STEM career.  Was there a mentor or mentors along the way who encouraged you to study Chemical Engineering, or were you always interested in that discipline?

TS: Even though I grew up in a college educated family and most of the adults in the village that raised me were college educated, there were no STEM professionals in my network, other than my aunt who was a Microbiologist for the Food and Drug Administration. I was a girl who always loved and excelled in math and science.  My 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Richardson, noticed my aptitude for math and science and told my mother to encourage me in those subjects. So throughout my formative years, I was encouraged by my mother and my teachers to excel in math and science.  I thus always had confidence in my abilities in STEM.  It was in 10th grade, in Mrs. Shy’s chemistry class, that I discovered my favorite STEM discipline was chemistry.  In 11th grade as I was getting tutored in physics by a friend’s father who was a Cosmetic Chemist, and I discovered that I didn’t want to be a chemist.  I did some research and learned about chemical engineering.  I decided to major in Chemical Engineering because it combined my love of chemistry and math.

I didn’t meet a female African American Chemical Engineer until my sophomore year in college. The following year I took my first class with professor Dr. G. Dale Wesson, the only African American professor in the department.   I was further exposed to Chemical Engineering through his mentorship and his taking me to my first STEM professional conference. At that conference I was able to meet a myriad of people – students from other colleges and universities, and STEM professionals who made me aware of the possibilities for career options that I could pursue with a Chemical Engineering degree.

AD: What is SEM Link and how did you start it?  Why did you start it?

TS: Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link, Inc. (SEM Link) is a tax-exempt national nonprofit organization, which I founded in 2005 in Atlanta, GA, on the premise that exposure to members of the STEM communities is critical to student achievement and career exploration in math and science.  Our programs and events enhance the STEM educational experience for K-12 students by providing them with opportunities to engage in hands-on STEM activities, exploration of STEM careers and learning about real-world applications of STEM in their classrooms and communities.

The idea to start SEM Link came to me in 2002 while working at a school in Atlanta. I saw many brilliant students who had the aptitude to pursue STEM careers, but weren’t considering them because they didn’t know any adults who were STEM professionals.  I had people in my network that I started inviting to the school for various activities (career exploration activities and tutoring, etc.) to provide opportunities for students to meet and interact with STEM professionals.

In 2005, I decided to create a nonprofit organization to expose more youth to STEM education and careers; specifically to provide opportunities for them to meet and interact with STEM professionals and to engage in hands-on STEM activities. I chose the name Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link (SEM Link) because, at the time, there was no focus on technology (T).  I wanted the organization to be the link (connection) between K-12 students and the STEM community.  Our vision statement is, “Unveiling potential through exposure,” because the inaugural Board of Directors and I thought it best described the vision that we had and the work that we wanted to do as an organization.  We could help create the pipeline for the future STEM workforce by exposing youth to STEM education and careers.

AD: What are you goals for SEM Link?

TS: SEM Link currently serves two urban areas, Atlanta and the DMV. It is our goal within the next five to seven years to expand to six additional areas. The urban areas we are looking at expanding to include: Chicago, Dallas, Miami and other urban areas on the east coast, in the south and midwest. In addition, we are in the process of transitioning from a startup phase to a sustainability phase. The process includes recruiting new members to the Board of Directors, increasing the number of individual donors, building and maintaining relationships with corporate partners, and starting a major gifts program in the next fiscal year.

AD: What are the challenges in getting under-represented minorities involved in STEM?

TS: Minorities, especially African Americans, come from cultures that have had scientists, engineers, mathematicians and inventors dating back to Ancient African civilizations.  African Americans have continued throughout history and today to make an impact in the STEM fields as professionals and inventors.  The first challenge to me is representation; minorities don’t see enough folks that look like them who are STEM professionals.  Students aren’t told enough of the stories of the successes of former and current minority STEM professionals.  They aren’t exposed often enough to opportunities for them to meet and interact with STEM professionals of color.

The second challenge is that students don’t get an opportunity to engage enough in hands-on STEM activities inside the classroom and during out of school time. Although it’s important for students to learn and master STEM concepts and theories, it isn’t limited to a textbook.  It’s hands-on and it asks and answers questions that we may or may not already have the answers to.

The final challenge is that at times we only encourage the “smart” kids to pursue STEM careers. There are children that have a natural inclination towards STEM and you can observe it based on their interests and how they play. For example, a kid that collects insects for fun has a natural inclination to be a biologist even if they may have academic deficiencies in school.  We should also encourage those kids to pursue STEM careers and provide them with the academic support they need to overcome those deficiencies and excel academically.

AD:  That’s interesting.  I can confirm the lack of STEM role models.  In my youth in Buffalo, NY, I don’t remember seeing any STEM professionals of color.  Biology was my favorite course and I just naturally followed it.

In terms of being careful not to only focus on the “smart” kids, one of the things my father, a retired science teacher, told us once was that individuals who grow up in inner cities and substandard conditions are actually very creative and inventive out of necessity. Malcolm X also discussed this in his autobiography regarding the wasted intellectual talent in our inner cities.

I was talking to a fellow toxicologist about how it’s more difficult to give students a good look at parts of the biological sciences because you have to take them to research centers to see the experiments being performed versus computers, cell phones and designing apps and video games – the more “techie-stuff”. Have you found that students seem to flock towards one more than the other?

TS: I think the reason that kids are flocking towards techie stuff is because of the current trend to push teaching all kids to code. The reality is not all kids have the ability or are interested in coding and tech.  However, coding and tech are easy to push because it is something that the general public can understand because, unlike other STEM disciplines, they can easily see the connections to their everyday lives.  Those of us that work in other STEM disciplines must do a better job of telling the stories of what we do as STEM professionals and help the general public to see the connections between STEM disciplines and their everyday lives.

I disagree that the only way to expose kids is to take them to places where professionals in engineering, biological and physical sciences work. Although that would be nice and it is a great experience for the students, it isn’t always feasible.  Kids make decisions on what they will become when they grow up based on the careers of the adults in their lives; even people that they may meet only once.  A child meeting a STEM professional one time and learning what is possible for them can change the entire trajectory of their lives.  So the first step is for STEM professionals to get out of their workplace and go to where the kids are – schools, community events, etc. – and talk to the kids about what you do, why you do it and your career path to get there.

The second thing is to talk to kids about how your fields connect to their everyday lives. For example, a toxicologist can talk to students about things like lead poisoning and how it can be detected in one’s body. The final thing is that STEM professionals can engage students in hands-on and/or project based activities that can expose the students to their field.

AD:  Well, Tokiwa, those are all of the questions that I have.  Do you have any parting comments?  Would you like to tell the readers how they can learn more about SEM Link, and where they can contact you, on Twitter for example?

TS: My parting comment is the keys to getting kids interested in pursuing STEM are encouragement and exposure. We must encourage students to engage in activities in the STEM disciplines for which they show an aptitude and passion.  We also must encourage students to engage in out of school activities – doing hands-on STEM activities on their own. We must expose them to as many STEM disciplines and out of school time activities as we can. As adults, we must be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and sometimes go against the trends.  If we do these things, we will allow our children to discover a passion and aptitude to pursue STEM careers.

To find more information about SEM Link, you can visit our website at: www.semsuccess.org, and sign up for our mailing list. You can follow us on social media as well. Our Twitter handle is @semlink.  We are also on Facebook and Instagram.  Lastly, you can connect with me on Twitter.  My Twitter handle is @tokiwana.

AD:  Well thank you, Tokiwa, once again for your willingness to discuss SEM Link.  It’s very important work and myself and others look forward to seeing your effort grow.  Also thank you for providing the pictures used in this piece.

If you enjoyed this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below. If you’d like to receive my most up to date content as it gets published, please subscribe.


Citizen science and astronomy

From the Jan. 27-29, the Friends of the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium hosted their first weekend of 2017 titled “Citizen Science and Astronomy”.  The weekend was inspired by NASA’s current efforts to incorporate the astronomy work of citizen’s into its own research.  On Friday Jan. 27 there was a viewing of the full dome show “Undiscovered Worlds” following the Friends’ annual meeting.  On Saturday Jan. 28 there was a viewing of the full dome show “Oasis in Space”, which was followed by a talk titled “The NASA Solve Program” by Dr. Amy Kaminski.  Dr. Kaminski’s talk was followed a showing of “Journey to the Center of the Milky Way” by the European Southern Observatory.  On Sunday Jan. 29 there was a second talk titled “How You Can Get Involved in Citizen Science” by Dr. Jessica Rosenberg (National Science Foundation and George Mason University), followed by a showing of the “Magic Treehouse”.

“The thing I’ve become really passionate about is this idea at NASA of how we can connect, share and involve people in the work we do in aeronautics and space exploration,” said Dr. Amy Kaminski.  “How do we bring that to the American and global public?

NASA has a fabulous public affairs office, and great education programs where we’re continually informing people about the latest and greatest coming out of NASA – when we are launching – where we are landing.  We have internships for students of all ages but the thing I’ve gotten particularly excited about is the idea of citizen science, and how we make people active contributors to the program.  Then it’s not just about education, but it’s also about making science more accessible to people – making everyone a participant in the space program, because after all it is the nation’s space program.”     

Dr. Kaminski’s talk started off highlighting how science first became its own career path in the nineteenth century and how in the early twentieth century it involved encouraging citizen involvement.  She then discussed the NASA Solve program which provides numerous opportunities for citizens to get involved.  She further highlighted NASA’s three motivations for encouraging citizen involvement before going into detail about the individual projects within NASA Solve:

·         An abundance of data and the ability of humans to interpret data in ways that computers can’t and;

·         A recognition that great ideas can come from anywhere, including out of aerospace disciplines; and

·         The world is now highly connected and interfaced in terms of the internet and the ability to share data.

 NASA Solve is like a marketplace,” Dr. Kaminski said describing the program’s website and the multitude of available projects with the potential for citizen involvement.  Some of the exciting projects within NASA Solve include: Globe Observer, Aurorasaurus, and Disk Detective.  To learn more about NASA Solve and to become involved the opportunities available there, visit:   https://www.nasa.gov/solve/index.html.

The Friends will host special events at the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium one weekend every month until the end of the school year. Each weekend will be geared towards increasing STEM education/awareness for all ages and will feature a specific theme.  For more information, visit the Friends’ website: http://friendsoftheplanetarium.org.  The theme of February’s weekend will be: Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Exploring Evolution & Celebrating Darwin Day.

 If you liked this article, please do share it, and leave comments.

The Toxicology Mentoring and Skills Development Training program hosts inaugural weekend

“Going forward, by 2050 we’re going to have to double food production to feed the population – a tremendous responsibility. The biggest threat in my mind to that grand challenge is contamination to our water and our soil from various chemicals and toxins,” said Dr. Patrick Halbur.  “We need people focused on that area to prevent and solve that problem, and so there are tremendous opportunities in Toxicology.

“We live in a world with infectious diseases and that’s always a big threat, but we almost always figure out ways to eradicate them or develop a new vaccine to solve those diseases. But the grand challenges I think are in Toxicology.”

From January 14-15, the Toxicology Mentoring and Skills Development Training Program (ToxMSDT) hosted its inaugural weekend at Iowa State University. The program was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Iowa State University, Tuskegee University, The Ohio State University, the Leadership and Mentoring Institute (AABHE), and the Interdepartmental Toxicology group (Tox).

Just briefly, Toxicology is the science of characterizing the effects of poisons (toxicants) on living organisms. The ToxMSDT program itself entails pairing up mentors in the field of Toxicology from both the public and private sectors with students from Iowa State and Tuskegee Universities.  Mentors and mentees established contact prior to the weekend before meeting in person at the inaugural weekend.  The weekend consisted of full slate of talks and workshops including:

  • Welcomes by Lisa Nola (ISU College of Veterinary Medicine), Patrick Halbur (Chair, Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine), Richard J. Martin (Chair, Interdepartmental Toxicology), and Wilson Rumbeiha (ToxMSDT Program PI);
  • A keynote presentation: Career Choices for Toxicologists by mentor Robert Casillas, Ph.D., Vice President, Strategic Global Health Security, MRI Global and the Hispanic Organization of Toxicologists (HOT);
  • A training titled Developing a Mentoring Relationship that Works by Barbara Johnson, Ph.D., Director of the Leadership and Mentoring Institute, affiliated with the American Association of the Blacks in Higher Education;
  • A student poster competition and;
  • A Bioethics Talk titled What is Done in the Dark? By Deloris Alexander, Ph.D. of Tuskegee University.

Toxicologists are the guardians for human, animal and environmental health,” said Dr. Wilson Rumbeiha, Professor of Toxicology at Iowa State University and Coordinator of the ToxMSDT program. The goal of the ToxMSDT program is to support educational activities that complement and/or enhance the training of a diverse workforce to meet the nation’s biomedical, behavioral and clinical research needs.  While Toxicology is an essential component of the nation’s biomedical research enterprise, there is a lack of under-represented minorities in the field where there coincidentally is a shortage of scientists in general – especially Doctors of Veterinary Medicine/Doctors of Philosophy (DVM/Ph.D.).

Toxicologists are in many places, and the field impacts many, many lives around the world. Toxicologists make the world a safer, healthier and more sustainable.  That’s a message I want you to take as I proceed through my presentation,” said Colonel and Dr. Richard Casillas, one of the mentors in the program.  Dr. Casillas’s talk described his educational and career paths which led him from the world of academic research to the military, and then to the private sector.  A major theme of his talk was the career flexibility that his training in Toxicology afforded him.

To learn more about Toxicology and the ToxMSDT program, go to: http://www.toxmsdt.com/.

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An astronomer looks for the Christmas Star 2016

hypatia-of-alexandria_121216From the Dec. 9-11, the Friends of the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium hosted their final weekend of 2016 titled, “Science and the Christmas Star.” Each day of the weekend there were showings of the show titled: An Astronomer Looks for the Christmas Star.  The program was created in house by the Friends, and focuses on the phenomenon of the Christmas Star which according to biblical texts led the three Wise Men to the baby Jesus Christ in the manger.

Friday Dec. 9 was member appreciation night where all members were admitted for free.  There were standard showings of the program on Dec. 10 and 11.  Following each showing, Friends’ board of director, astronomer Jennifer Bartlett, Ph.D. portrayed Hypatia of Alexandria.  Her portrayal featured of a monologue where she argued for an alternative explanation for the Christmas Star.  Following Michael Molnar’s, The Star of Bethlehem, she argued that the “star” was a powerful horoscope including the lunar occultation of Jupiter in Ares at dawn on April 17, 6 BC.

“The mystery of the Christmas Star has been a mainstay of Planetariums for years during the Christmas Season,” said Friend of the Arlington Planetarium, co-creator and co-narrator of the program, Dr. Alice Monet.  The program itself discussed the potential explanations for the Christmas Star; a planetary conjunction, a comet, a supernova, or what is more believed in nonscientific circles, a Miracle.

The Friends will host special events at the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium one weekend every month until the end of the school year. Each weekend will be geared towards increasing STEM education/awareness for all ages and will feature a specific theme.  For more information, visit the Friends’ website.  The theme of January’s weekend will be: Citizen Science & Astronomy.