Dr. Namandje Bumpus discusses her educational path, and her research career in Pharmacology

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. Namandje Bumpus (pronounced Na-Mon-Jay), of The Johns Hopkins University. On Feb. 1, 2016, Dr. Bumpus granted an interview to discuss her background, the path to her current career, and potential avenues for under-represented minorities to get involved in STEM. I originally published this piece when I wrote for the Examiner, and two years later, I’m republishing here on my blog.

Anwar Dunbar: First Namandje, thank you for this opportunity to interview you. My writings in February tend to focus on Black History Month and as a scientist myself I want to shine the light on other African American scientists and innovators who are currently in the trenches expanding our scientific knowledge. Also being in the biological sciences versus the information technology and robotics fields, it’s not so obvious to the lay person what a pharmacologist is, so for all of these reasons I thought about you. With those things being said, let’s start.

Talk a little bit about your background. Where are you from? Were there any scientists in your family who you were exposed to at an early age? Were you always interested in science? If so, was it always biology or were you good at other parts of STEM, mathematics for example?

Namandje Bumpus: I was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in western Massachusetts. There were no scientists in my family. I had an uncle who spent some time working in a lab as an undergraduate student. He wasn’t a scientist, but he still talked to me about how he enjoyed working in the lab. Hearing about his experiences working in a lab was interesting to me. Early on I liked chemistry. My parents and others in my family started getting me chemistry sets when I was in elementary school because I started vocalizing that I thought science would be something interesting to do.

I worked through them (chemistry sets) and I really liked it, and when I was ten (pre-email), I actually wrote a letter to the American Chemical Society to ask about information for careers for chemists. They sent me back lots of brochures and a letter discussing things you could do with a chemistry background. That really got me even more excited just having all of that information and starting to dream about the things that I would do. So I was really more chemistry focused until high school when I finally took a physiology class, and then realized that I wanted to lean more towards biology and physiology.

AD: Talk briefly about your educational path. We overlapped at the University of Michigan’s Department of Pharmacology. How did you get there? What got you interested in research?

NB: I went to Occidental College, a small liberal arts college and did some research there. We didn’t have many labs so I was doing plant research and I really liked that, but I thought that I wanted to do something that was more directly related to human health and physiology, so I started researching certain fields to see what that would be. I came across Pharmacology and it was something that seemed interesting, so the summer after my junior year, I applied for summer research programs in Pharmacology so I could try it out.

Michigan had a summer program called the Charles H. Ross Program for African American undergraduates to come and work in the Pharmacology Department for a summer, so I applied for that and I got it. That summer before my senior year, I had a really great experience in the department in general. I worked in Dr. Richard Neubig’s lab, and they gave us a short course where I was introduced to the principals of Pharmacology. That really sold me on Pharmacology and since I also had such a great experience in the department, I became really interested in going to the University of Michigan for graduate school.

AD: Not a lot of people understand what doctoral training is like and what it entails. You chose the lab of Dr. Paul Hollenberg which was a Cytochrome-P450 lab and we will discuss that, but what was it like learning how to do research? For example, what was the question you were looking to answer through your thesis project?

NB: In my project I was specifically looking at how genetic variances and mutations that existed in the population could impact their ability to metabolically clear certain drugs that are used clinically. We focused on a drug used to treat depression called Buproprion, and we looked at an HIV drug called Efavirenz. So I was looking at how genetic mutations could affect clearance of the drugs, and how those genetic variances might impact different people having genetic differences in drug-drug interactions.

AD: So would that be in the area of Pharmacogenomics?

NB: Yes.

AD: So as a Postdoctoral scientist did you work on a similar project? Or did you go in a completely different direction?

NB: Yes, my postdoc was somewhat different. I was looking at how lipids and fatty acids are cleared and how we regulate that process. Specifically, I was trying to find which pathways in cells were responsible for the metabolism of fatty acids. In particular, we were interested in stress activated pathways and seeing how activation of these stress pathways impacted expression of Cytochrome P450s that were responsible for metabolism of lipids.

AD: So right now in your own lab, what are you all working on?

NB: Lots of different things. The major focus has still been P450s, but looking at two different areas. The first is seeing how P450s and their metabolites contribute to drug induced toxicities, and to see if there are ways we can mitigate toxicities. We’ve had a focus on drug usage through HIV. The other side of my lab has been helping in collaborative clinical teams to develop drugs for HIV prevention, and trying to figure out how people’s pharmacogenetic variances in drug metabolism can impact their therapeutic responses when they are taking drugs used for HIV prevention.

AD: Now just briefly, from your doctoral studies through your postdoc, were there skills that you had to develop or did you come ready to go with everything? What were your major learning points as you worked through your thesis and your postdoc?

NB: My postdoc was really different. The experimental tools that I learned during my dissertation didn’t really help with what I wanted to do in my postdoc. I wanted to learn something new. Obviously the thinking and knowing how to design experiments was translatable. In graduate school I was doing a lot of mass spectrometry, more chemical-type techniques, and more biochemistry and enzymology. In my postdoc I was doing more in vivo biology and physiology, so I was using mice for the first time. I had never worked with a whole animal before. So I had to do a lot of cell isolation experiments and injections, things I had never done before; so I really had to learn a lot of new techniques for my postdoc. Now in my lab its great because we’re able to combine all of that, so we do a lot of mass spectrometry, biochemical techniques, in vitro mechanistic stuff/enzymology, as well as a lot more whole animal work, and a lot more whole cell work, things that I picked up in my postdoc, and I was able to combine both skill sets to build my program.

AD: And you did your postdoc at?

NB: The Scripps Research Institute.

AD: Did you always have the leadership skills necessary to run a lab or did you have to learn them? Was it a work in progress?

NB: Yes, you always build on it and it’s still a work in progress. I think you don’t necessarily get trained for it in graduate school or as a postdoc, but I tried to participate in things that were extracurricular; the Association for Minority Scientists at Michigan, and in my postdoc I was a part of our postdoctoral association, so I tried to pick up leadership skills by being involved in those other groups; but even still you’re not prepared to run your own lab. You really learn it as you go; you try things to see how they work. You talk to senior colleagues to get their advice and potentially go back and try something else. You take mentorship or leadership classes which I’ve done too, but I think it’s always a work in progress.

AD: We’re almost done. For the lay person, what are Cytochrome P450s and why are they important?

NB: They are proteins expressed in our bodies in all tissues, but mostly in the liver. What they largely help us to do is clear foreign compounds from our bodies. So for instance, if you are taking a drug therapeutically, you take it orally and you swallow it, one of the first places it’s going to go is into your liver. Your liver doesn’t want it to hang around and be inside of your cells forever, so we have these proteins that will change (biotransform) these drugs structurally to make them something that can be removed from your cells and removed from your liver. Thus, P450s are proteins that help us to clear foreign compounds and molecules. Drugs are obviously a large percentage of the foreign compounds that we’re exposed to, so we call them drug metabolizing enzymes.

AD: All of us went different routes after leaving Michigan. Some landed in the private sector in big pharma or the chemical industry. Others like myself, went into the public sector on the regulatory side, and I think I’m one of the only ones from our department to do that. A large chunk of our graduates went into academia which requires a ton of skills: leadership skills, entrepreneurial skills, and teaching skills. It’s also a very competitive environment and I very much admire my peers, such as yourself, who went that route. What made you decide to go into academia as opposed to the private sector or some other track?

NB: I think academia is the only thing that really fits my personality. I really like interacting with and training students. I like having a really close relationship with them where they come and work in my lab for several years while they work on earning a Ph.D. I get to see them grow. It’s similar with postdoctoral fellows. They come to the lab for a couple of years and I help them try to get to the next stage in their career.

I really love the educational aspect of the training. Additionally, I really like the broader training environment. In addition to my associate professorship, I’m also associate dean in the area of education where I get to spend a lot of time with graduate students who aren’t in my lab. I work more broadly with other graduate students helping them decide which lab they should choose for their thesis, and what they want to do next with their career. I further help them identify training opportunities for careers that they might want outside of academia. I really enjoy education training so this is the place for me.

Also, I like that scientifically, if I can dream it I can do it. If we have something that I really want to test in my lab, we can find a way to do it and test it out. I like the autonomy and the ability to be that creative with our science as well, so I think it’s a really good fit for my personality and goals.

AD: Now lastly, what advice would you give to young African American girls or those who are curious about science, but not sure that they can do it, or parents who are reading this and want to expose their kids to science?

NB: I think first knowing that if it’s something you really want to do, then you can do it. I think what’s most important about being a scientist is the passion for it and the interest. It’s not about everyone thinking that you’re brilliant. It’s about being interested and being a curious person and organically interested in science. I think it depends on which stage you’re at. If you’re in elementary school, starting off like me getting chemistry sets and microscopes is a good start – getting kids the type of gifts that will stimulate their interest and curiosity in science. Make them see that they do have the ability to do experiments and explore things on their own, and I really think that can get them even more excited about it. Microscopes, chemistry sets, and telescopes, those are things you start with from five years old.

Often times there are summer camps. At Johns Hopkins we have summer programs for people, middle school students and high school students. At many different stages you can contact local universities and museums to see if they have summer camps for science that kids can go to and that can be helpful. A lot of schools including ours have high school programs. In ours you can spend the whole summer working on a project and I think that’s a great way to see if you like scientific research and really get excited about doing research; so I think there are a lot of opportunities. You just have look out for them. The best place to start is contacting local universities and museums. Most universities will have a community engagement program you can contact for opportunities.

AD: The last question, Namandje, involves something personal you shared with me. The science community recently suffered a great loss, someone who was a mentor to you. Would you like to say a few words in memory of this individual? From what I gather, this person was also a female African American scientist.

NB: Sure. Her name was Dr. Marion Sewer. She was a full professor at the University of California-San Diego, and a Pharmacologist as well. She worked on endocrinology and really did a lot to understand the endocrine system and how it impacts lipid metabolism.

She was just a very highly regarded scientist and she was also someone who cared a lot about outreach. She ran a lot of programs that were focused on diversity and giving opportunities for people in high school through undergraduate school, and really spent time with postdocs to make sure there were really opportunities for people of different backgrounds, including African Americans, particularly for African Americans to have exposure to science. She was someone who was a really great colleague, a really great scientist and someone who also, in a rare way, really cared about people, service, equity and inclusion in science. She really inspired me and helped me to get my first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant by reviewing it for me several times. She was more senior and experienced, and I think a lot of us have that same story where she helped us get started because she was so generous with her time, so it was definitely a really big loss.

AD: Well thank you for this interview opportunity, Namandje, and your willingness to discuss your life and career. A lot of people will benefit from this.

NB: Thank you, Anwar.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. 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 the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. 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.

Dr. Quinn Capers, IV discusses his path, #BlackMenInMedicine, and the present landscape of medical education

One of the focuses of my blog is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and my most central principle is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. While we tend to think of clinical medicine as strictly a ‘Healthcare Profession’, its foundations are actually rooted in the ‘Basic Sciences’. I discovered Dr. Quinn Capers, IV on Twitter one day by chance and started following him when he was tweeting about medical education at “The Ohio State University”. The ‘hashtag’ he used in most of his tweets ‘#BlackMenInMedicine’ further piqued my curiosity. After seeing more tweets and pictures of himself and his medical students, I reached out to Dr. Capers, the Dean of Admissions of the Ohio University’s Medical School, and he agreed to do the following interview. In our interview which coincided with Black History Month, Dr. Capers discussed his own educational path, the ‘hashtag’ #BlackMenInMedicine, and the current landscape of medical education for prospective students.

Anwar Dunbar: Thank you for the opportunity to interview you Dr. Capers. I stumbled across one of your tweets one day which included the hashtag you often use; ‘#BlackMenInMedicine’. It caught my eye, in addition to the pipeline of black male doctors, you’re training there at Ohio State University. Even though you’re at The Ohio State University and I’m a University of Michigan alumnus, I thought interviewing you would be very beneficial to my audience as I’m a STEM practitioner and an advocate myself. Also even though we typically don’t think of medicine as a science, it very much is. With that, can you talk briefly about yourself? Where are you from? What got you interested in medicine?

Quinn Capers: Thank you for the honor of being interviewed Dr. Dunbar. Speaking of Black History Month, your last name reminds me of my high school in Dayton, Ohio. It’s named after our hometown hero; the first black poet who made a living with poetry, Paul Laurence Dunbar. I actually was born in Cleveland, Ohio and moved to Dayton when I was two or three years old which is where I grew up.

My answer to the question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ was always, ‘a Doctor,’ even as a toddler. I didn’t have any doctors in my family and to be honest, we didn’t see doctors regularly. It was only on an ‘as needed’ basis – i.e. if we were injured or got really sick. I’m not really sure where the thought came from, but I now assume God planted that seed in my heart and mind, as I truly feel I was ‘called’ to this profession.

AD: What is your family’s background?

QC: Though I was born and raised in Ohio, my parents and both sets of grandparents are from Talladega, Alabama. My parents moved to Cleveland, Ohio before I was born, and as stated earlier, we relocated to Dayton before my third birthday. My father is a retired police officer and my mother is a retired postal worker. They divorced when I was very young, and my mother raised my sister and myself. My sister and I were the first in our family to attend college.

AD: Are you the first medical doctor in your family? If not, who inspired you?

QC: Yes I am, but I have a cousin who was studying Pre-Med at the Tuskegee Institute when I was in elementary school. We spent many hours talking about our shared dream of being physicians, and she was always very loving and encouraging. She is now a successful Physician Assistant in New York City.

AD: Describe your educational path.

QC: I attended public schools in Dayton, Ohio on the city’s west side – the ‘black’ side of town. I was always enamored with Black History and read voraciously about black heroes. Because of this, I knew I wanted to attend a Historically Black College/University (HBCU). I wanted to be taught by professors that were making Black History and I wanted to be in the same buildings, on the same campus, walking the same path as so many of the black intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries that I had read about.

I chose Howard University in Washington, DC for my undergraduate studies – one of the best decisions I made in my life. For medical school I returned to my home state to attend the Ohio State University College of Medicine. Since I had attended predominantly black schools from K-12 and then Howard, medical school was my first time stepping foot into a Predominantly White Educational Institution (PWI). People have asked me if being at a PWI after having been cradled in majority black institutions my whole life led to my feeling out of place, or ‘inferior’, or if it gave me an ‘impostor syndrome’. No, it was actually just the opposite. Because I had seen so much black excellence, I felt invincible. After medical school, my residency and fellowship training in internal medicine, cardiovascular diseases and interventional cardiology, took place at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

AD: Were there any particular challenges for you on the road to becoming a medical doctor?

QC: There weren’t any big challenges that stand out other than the need to prioritize studying, not over partying, and delaying gratification. Many of my friends were enjoying being finished with school, buying their first car, first house, and essentially living their lives while I was still in school and/or training. But since the opportunity to work towards an MD was a dream come true for me, none of it seemed like an inordinate challenge.

AD: What is your medical specialty?

QC: I am an ‘Interventional Cardiologist’, which is a heart specialist who specializes in opening blocked arteries and repairing heart abnormalities or defects with ‘catheter-based’ approaches. We repair the heart by accessing the circulation through an artery in the arm or leg, and then threading tubes and high-tech catheters, balloons, stents, and lasers to the heart.

AD: If I recall correctly, former Vice-President Dick Cheney had a series of those procedures. How did you ascend to become the Dean of Admissions at the Ohio State University’s Medical School?

QC: After spending the first eight years of my career in a private cardiology practice, I missed teaching and the academic environment, so I sought a position at my medical school alma mater. In private practice, nearly 100% of a physician’s time is spent taking care of patients. In what we call ‘academic medicine’, doctors work at medical schools and university teaching hospitals and have three responsibilities: caring for patients, teaching medical students and young doctors, and performing research. I thus left private practice to go into academic medicine.

After a short period of time I won several teaching awards from the students. When the Associate Dean of Admissions position opened, a colleague encouraged me to apply for it. My initial response was, ‘No that isn’t a part of my plan,’ which was to impact healthcare and improve people’s lives as the best interventional cardiologist and medical educator I could be. After giving it some thought, I realized that overseeing the admissions process at one of the country’s largest medical schools would allow me to have an even greater impact on healthcare than direct patient care. So, I decided to apply for the position and the rest is history. Now I perform both roles – Interventional Cardiologist and Associate Dean of Admissions, allocating approximately half of my time to each role.

AD: Let’s go back to #BlackMenInMedicine? Where did the hashtag come from?

QC: There are many black male physicians on Twitter. One day in 2017 some of us were having an online discussion about the landmark 2015 Association of American Medical Colleges publication entitled Altering the Course: Black Males in Medicine, which details the current severe shortage of Black males entering the medical profession. According to this publication, there were fewer Black males applying to medical school in 2014 than in the late 1970s and the downward trend continues. This portends a severe lack of Black male physicians in the future.

We discussed strategies to combat this trend and collectively came up with the idea of an online campaign to flood social media with images of Black male physicians at work, at play, and simply living their lives. The primary goal is to be role models for and inspire young men (and anyone) to pursue medicine. Other goals include changing the narrative about Black males – i.e. that not all are ‘dangerous’, but that many are physicians saving lives and serving humanity. We also wanted to speak out about injustice in any form against any group. The name of the campaign is thus ‘#BlackMenInMedicine’.

AD: This is an optional question, but based upon today’s climate, have you gotten any pushback because it acknowledges just men and not women?

QC: Very little that has been openly stated, but we are sensitive to the fact that there are likely some who feel it’s divisive and not promoting unity. We think that it’s possible to promote Black men in medicine while supporting many other groups. Many of us also tweet using other hashtags that preceded #BlackMenInMedicine, such as #WomenInMedicine, #ILookLikeASurgeon (which promotes images of women in surgery), and others. We took this on because the low numbers of Black men in medicine, in academic medicine, in leadership roles, and amongst medical school applicants has reached a crisis. I should also point out that we, the original creators of this campaign, do not feel that use of the hashtag is proprietary. Anyone who wants to promote diversity in medicine, and particularly encourage Black men to pursue medicine, is welcome to use the hashtag. In fact, we encourage it.

AD: Are there particular programs at The Ohio State University for minority medical students?

QC: Yes. At the Ohio State University College of Medicine we believe that diversity drives excellence in healthcare, and we have several strategies to recruit and support diverse students and women. We’re proud to be leaders in educating women and underrepresented minority physicians. The last four entering classes have been predominantly women, and according to 2017-2018 AAMC statistics, OSU ranks sixth of nearly 150 medical schools for the number of enrolled black medical students. We also have a post baccalaureate program called ‘MEDPATH’ that is focused on increasing the number of underrepresented and/or disadvantaged students entering medical school.

AD: When I was an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith University in the late-1990s, many of us pondered practicing medicine, but few of us understood what it took to get into medical school – something a particular professor reminded us of regularly. Aside from the necessary academic credentials, what are some of the personal qualities aspiring medical students need to be successful?

QC: Today, most medical schools judge applicants using the Association of American Medical College’s ‘holistic review’ framework, which recommends balancing the applicant’s: experiences, personal attributes, and academic metrics (MCAT and GPA) when making a decision about their candidacy. While the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) and GPA are self-explanatory, it’s important that aspiring physicians understand the importance that past experiences and personal attributes will play when your application is being reviewed. You will need to have a track record of compassionate community service, healthcare-related experience (shadowing or volunteering/working in a healthcare setting), leadership, and often research.

Regarding personal attributes, medical schools desire students who are: compassionate, collegial, curious, and who are self-directed learners. While the exact attributes and experiences may vary by school, medical school hopefuls need to ensure that their experience portfolio is full and that their recommenders can speak to the attributes mentioned. Often the difference between the applicant who gets accepted to medical school and the one who doesn’t is not their MCAT score or GPA, but more so a matter of which applicant had the better strategy. Gaining acceptance to medical school is very competitive and applicants should have a well-thought out strategy. Some examples of strategic questions that students should think through include:

• Will I take a “gap year”?
• If I plan to take the MCAT in spring of my junior year, when should I take Physics?
• Which leisure-time activity will demonstrate the attributes that medical schools seek?
• Should I apply before my MCAT scores return?
• If my undergraduate grades are low, should I plan on graduate school? If so, what discipline? MPH or Masters Degree in a biomedical science?

I consider it part of my mission to provide the answers to these questions to students as early in the pipeline as possible. We do this via our OSU College of Medicine website (https://medicine.osu.edu/admissions/md/tips-and-advice/pages/index.aspx), by speaking to students via webinars (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_7B3qUjuJs), and via social media.

AD: Describe the landscape today in terms of getting into medical school versus when you were aspiring to study medicine yourself.

QC: I applied to medical school in 1986. At that time, the weight of academic metrics was definitely more than 1/3 of a candidate’s application. Community service was almost ‘optional’ at that time. Academic achievement is still very important, and always will be when evaluating medical school applicants. However, it is very unlikely that a student will be accepted to medical school today without a record of compassionate community service and healthcare-related experience. Also, many medical school curricula employ both group-based learning and independent learning, so schools look for evidence of collegiality and self-directed learning to provide evidence that a student will be successful.

AD: Okay, Dr. Capers, that’s all I’ve got. Thank you again for this opportunity to interview you, and also for providing the pictures to go along with this interview. I understand that your time is very valuable. Perhaps we can do follow up interviews at some point. Do you have any other parting comments or thoughts?

QC: No. Thank you again for giving me this opportunity, Dr. Dunbar. I’d be delighted to do this again, or even to make it a recurring feature. Good luck to all of your readers!

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. 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 the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. 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.

Who will have the skills to benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?

Two of the principles of my blog are “Creating Ecosystems of Success” and “Long-Term Thought”. While my scientific background is in the biomedical sciences Pharmacology and Toxicology, it’s imperative for me to keep my eyes on what’s happening in the other Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-fields. This allows me to use my platform to help guide others career-wise, and also for investment purposes (see my Facebook and Bitcoin post). In this post I want to discuss both STEM and careers, and the impacts of the new tax bill on the ‘Tech’ sector, as well as others.

My goal is to keep this post short. I actually have another post in the works regarding the new controversial ‘Tax Reform and Jobs Act’, but a recent development involving the company Apple prompted me to craft of this piece. I’ll start with a recent purchase involving one of the other ‘Four Horseman of Technology Stocks’, Amazon. Shortly after the holiday season, I ordered a copy of economist Dr. Thomas Sowell’s “Trickle Down” Theory and “Tax Cuts For The Rich”. I didn’t buy the book strictly because the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was recently signed into law, but because I had an Amazon gift card and thought it would be an educational read. I’m also admittedly one of Dr. Sowell’s biggest fans as he embodies most of the principles of my blog. He empowers his readers with the economic laws and theories, and historical facts to interpret current events, government policies and political discussions with a more complete perspective, independent of your political affiliation or background.

The very short book discusses the famous ‘Trickle Down Theory’ which is a hotly debated topic among economists, media pundits, and politicians. Coincidentally, according to Dr. Sowell, it isn’t a formal economic law and never has been. Instead it is a term used to demonize any cutting of taxes which have historically sparked economic growth in our country, as opposed being a means of making the rich richer and ignoring the needs of those on ‘Main Street’ – the way tax cuts are typically depicted by their opposition. As expected, leading up to its passing, the Tax Reform and Jobs Act was accused of solely being a tax break for the wealthy by its opposition. Recently however, numerous sources are now reporting that it’s actually going to benefit people on Main Street as well. But what will the new law do for the national economy itself on a macro level? On January 17, 2018, Yahoo published an article titled Apple says it will invest $350 billion and hire 20,000 workers in the U.S. over the next five years.

While this is an opportunity for some to boast to the opposition that they had the bill all wrong, my focus is on who will benefit from Apple’s repatriation of its earnings, and its $350 billion investment in the United States. It seems to me that those who are trained in the technologies Apple is working on, and currently has in its pipeline, stand to benefit significantly in terms of career, earning potential, and upward mobility. Those skills may involve things like writing applications for ‘Blockchain Technology’, and/or ‘Quantum’ computers among others. Those who are not trained in those areas will only benefit from the products Apple produces, for the most part, solely as consumers.

As a STEM professional and advocate myself, this is a very appropriate time to discuss some data I recently found published by US News & World Report in 2016 titled Report: Black Students Underrepresented in High-Paying STEM Majors. The article cited data from a Georgetown University Study titled African Americans: Colleges Majors and Earnings, which discussed how black students tend to cluster in fields like social work leading to lower paying careers. The data in the Georgetown study showed that 20% of degree holders in human services and community organizing were black, and earned a median salary of about $40,000 per year. By contrast, only 7% of degree holders who received STEM-related bachelor’s degrees, and earned a median annual salary of $84,000 or more, were black – a very low number considering that blacks are only 12% of the total population in the United States.

This low percentage of participation in STEM, in addition to Apple’s repatriation of earnings, and its investment back into the United States, underscores the importance of having the necessary skill sets at critical times to take advantage of environmental changes imposed by laws like the Tax Reform and Jobs Act. Malcolm Gladwell covered this phenomenon extensively in Outliers. Right now in the United States there is considerable debate about discrepancies in wages based upon race and sex. The question has to be asked though, do those discrepancies exist due to discrimination, or is it majors chosen leading to the acquisition of skill sets for which there is high or low demand from the economy at that particular time? Are we essentially running up against the ‘Law of Supply and Demand’ as we often do? After all, the economy typically dictates what’s needed at a given time, and how much individuals in the workforce should be compensated.

How many more companies will return to the U.S. to repatriate their earnings, invest in research and development here in the U.S., and subsequently hire U.S. workers? Right now it’s unknown. But if other technology giants like Apple return, clearly some groups of people will benefit more than others. The question is will the beneficiaries strictly be based upon to race, sex and class, or will the skill sets possessed by certain well positioned individuals have something do with it? And who will possess those necessary skills once there is an increased demand for them?

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, you might also enjoy:

A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is ADME/Drug Metabolism?
A look at STEM: Blockchain Technology, a new way of conducting business and record keeping
• Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
Your net worth, your gross salary and what they mean

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 the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on  Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. 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: Blockchain technology, a new way of conducting business and record keeping

Two of the principles of my blog are “Creating Ecosystems of Success” and “Long-Term Thought”. While my scientific backgrounds are in the biomedical sciences Pharmacology and Toxicology, it’s imperative for me to keep my eyes on what’s happening in the other Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-fields. This allows me to use my platform to help guide others career-wise, and also for investment purposes (see my Facebook and Bitcoin post). I was encouraged to visit and discuss a new technology called “Blockchain” which is the buzz of the investing and technology worlds right now. Blockchain is actually not new for those who are already familiar with it, though it’s still early in its implementation. Not being in the “Tech” sector, I had to do some homework to be able to discuss what blockchain technology is, and I must say that it was well worth the research as it’s going to play a huge part in our lives going forward. As a testament to just how early we are in this technology, I couldn’t find a single book on it on a recent visit to Barnes & Noble.

So what is blockchain technology? Simply put, blockchain is a “Distributed Ledger” technology. Those are the exact words from two more senior gentlemen I overheard discussing it while at a happy hour in Old Town Alexandria recently. Because my mentor had alerted me to what blockchain technology was, I perked up when I heard their discussion. I was able to follow some of what they were talking about, and I eventually butted into their conversation.

They were also discussing “Bitcoin”, the new leading “Cryptocurrency” which runs on blockchain technology, and is currently highly deliberated in investing circles. Some people are skeptical that Bitcoin is an actual investment for numerous reasons. While it’s not clear what the future holds, as of now Bitcoin has turned into a very lucrative purchase for those who were exposed to it four or five years ago. By the way, while Bitcoin is receiving most of the press attention right now, there are other cryptocurrencies which share its similar basic attributes which I’ll highlight later in this post. They include: Litecoin, Ethereum, Zcash, Dash, Ripple, and Monero. Similar to Bitcoin, all of them run on blockchain technology.

Let’s start with a short discussion of how blockchain technology actually works. Again as my background is in the biomedical sciences, this look at blockchain technology is not designed to get into the nuts and bolts of coding and developing, but instead to provide a comprehensive look at what appears to be the next major technological advance, and to give those a chance to participate in it, who otherwise wouldn’t have it.

To understand how blockchain works, first envision a generic transaction taking place involving a group of let’s say nine participants either in one organization, or in different locations around the world – maybe even outer space one day with the way astronomy and space travel are going. The participants or members of the network are involved in the transaction through interfaces called ‘nodes’ which are simply their own individual workstations. Documentation of all transactions is captured using a ‘shared’ or ‘distributed’ ledger. This ledger is ‘decentralized’ and isn’t under the control of any one party. All communication inside the network takes advantage of a ‘cryptography’ to securely identify the senders and the receivers. When one of the nodes wants to add facts to the shared ledger, a consensus is formed within the network to determine if they in fact should be added, and this consensus is called a “block”. A series of these blocks comprise the ‘chain’ which all participants can see, and which no one can change once it’s created.

In terms of concept, an example of how a blockchain would work is the “SharePoint” web-based collaborative platform that ingrates with Microsoft Office. Document sharing technology allows multiple permissioned individuals to craft and edit the same document simultaneously on the same platform in real-time. This technology removes the need to circulate drafts of a document to the members of the team via email making production less cumbersome and giving the authors absolute control over the drafts. Those who have permission to work on the document can also see who else is making edits thereby giving the collaboration transparency. Overall, this leads to increased efficiency, and the saving of both time and resources.

At this point, I’ll summarize the three advantages of blockchain technology. I’ve pulled them from a very informative video by IBM about ‘Hyper-Ledger Blockchain’ technology. Most descriptions of the technology involve these three core attributes:

Creation of a distributed record: All parties involved in a particular transaction or business activity have a shared record of those activities. No one person or organization has ownership of the system.
Addition to the chain is permissioned: All parties must agree on a new record or block being added to the chain. This adds trust to the transactions making them tamper resistant and highly secure.
Transactions are secured: No one can change or delete a record from the chain making it permanent and eliminating the opportunity for fraud. A hacker for example cannot corrupt the records once it’s created.

It’s important to consider how blockchain will affect all of our lives, and it will do so in multiple ways. Let’s start in the context of banking/business. Anyone who checks their bank accounts as regularly as I do understands that many transactions don’t post/reconcile immediately – checking deposits for example. Money deposited from checks typically doesn’t transfer from one account to the other until the next businesses day – the check has to ‘clear’. In a blockchain transaction, the transfer of funds is instant once it is approved by all parties. Currently in many business transactions, a third party intermediary is necessary which adds costs and additional levels of complexity to the transactions in addition to the potential for fraud. Blockchain technology eliminates the need for these intermediaries, and in addition to making the most mundane banking transactions more efficient, blockchain will also impact more complex transactions like the buying and selling of publicly traded securities like stocks.

My first example involved banking but blockchain’s application potential spans far beyond that. The other major impact will be in industries where it’s important to track ‘supply chains’ for products of all kinds. The IBM video described above highlights blockchains’s application in the supply chains of diamonds.  However the most important supply chains it could impact could be those involving agricultural commodities and other food sources. In instances where there is an E. coli contamination for example, such as the one experienced by Chipotle recently or Burger King before that, blockchain technology would make it much easier to track the sources of those contaminations and pull them out of the market. With my backgrounds in Pharmacology and Toxicology, it can also be used to accurately track supplies of drugs and other industrial chemicals. It’s also currently being implemented into federal and state government agencies to help make their functions more efficient – the distribution of welfare checks for example.

I’ve described two uses for blockchain technology, but its potential applications are vast. Industries that can be impacted by it include:

• Smart contracts
• The sharing economy
• Crowdfunding
• Governance
• Supply chain auditing
• File storage
• Prediction markets
• Protection of intellectual property
• Internet of Things (IOT)
• Neighbourhood Microgrids
• Identity management
• Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know Your Customer (KYC)
Data management
• Land title registration
• Stock trading

The demand for blockchain developers is currently high and is increasingly growing. In terms of salary, many developers make over $255,000 per year. Still being in its infancy, those individuals who gain the skills to develop blockchain applications today will be on the forefront of the technology in years to come. They will work within businesses and government agencies where they will act as supervisors and directors. In the private sector they will create and run entire firms and companies similar to how Steve Jobs and Bill Gates captained Apple and Microsoft respectively. For the younger generations, not knowing about blockchain will be particularly disadvantageous in terms of gaining employment and being able to compete in the new global and highly digital world economy.

Where can one learn to develop blockchain applications? Once again, we’re still early the technology, but some universities and companies have responded by offering a range of blockchain related courses which vary from online formats, to traditional lectures, as well as privately run boot camps. Some notable universities offering training include: MIT, Stanford, and Princeton. Companies such as IBM have courses as well. There is also an abundance of blockchain conferences scheduled in the next year in the United States and around the world.

As described above, knowing about blockchain will benefit those who learn to develop it through future employment and through working in the technology. For the lay person, it presents tremendous investing opportunities. Blockchain is only going to continue expanding in terms of its usage and application. It’s thus important to keep an eye on who is using it, and how they are implementing it, as it may lead to a similar phenomenon to what we saw with Facebook and Bitcoin. Those opportunities started off small, but those who were prepared to take advantage of them were greatly rewarded later on.

Understanding technologies like blockchain or just knowing they exist can be life changing. One of the recurring themes of my blog is that I had no STEM professionals in my own family, so I’m fortunate to have landed where I’ve landed career-wise. It was all predicated on someone realizing that I had the aptitude for science, and then encouraging me down that educational path. Thus just as it was important for me to do the research on blockchain to be able to prepare this post, it’s equally important if not more so, for readers to share this information with students and families who can benefit from it, or with individuals who can actively and creatively disseminate it.

A special thank you is extended to my mentor who will remain anonymous, for challenging me to learn about blockchain and also for encouraging me to craft this post on this very exciting and important emerging technology. Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, you might also enjoy:

We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An investing story
Your net worth, your gross salary and what they mean
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is ADME/Drug Metabolism?

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, at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. 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 ADME/Drug Metabolism?

“If you swallow a pill and it simply sits in your stomach, and then passes out through your feces, it technically wasn’t absorbed into your body.”

Similar to the fields of Pharmacology and Toxicology, ADME/Drug Metabolism is a well-established field dating back to the nineteenth century, 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 ADME/Drug Metabolism can be accessed online, or in scientific journals.

In my Pharmacology and Toxicology posts, I briefly discussed Pharmacokinetics, Toxicokinetics, and the Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism and Excretion (ADME) of drugs and other xenobiotics.  These areas collectively comprise the exciting field of “Drug Metabolism”.   Whenever a new drug or industrial chemical is produced, several key aspects of the chemical must be characterized; how much of it gets absorbed into the body, where it goes in the body, and how long it stays there.  The answers to these questions are collectively known as the molecule’s “ADME” profile, and a tremendous amount of work goes into this type of research.  It’s very critical information as it helps characterize the chemical’s subsequent pharmacological or toxicological effectiveness and properties.  As you read through this post keep a couple of key questions in mind.  How much of the molecule gets absorbed into the body?  Where does it go once absorbed?  How long does it stay in the body?  Is it transformed into something new?  How does it leave the body?

Before walking through the ADME acronym in greater detail lets first talk about the three organs that impact a chemical’s ADME profile the most: the Liver, the Kidneys and the Small Intestine.  As described later in this post, other organs can impact a chemical’s ADME profile but these are the three major players.  I will try to explain these organs in the context of this post in the simplest way possible.

“If you take a pill and it simply sits in your stomach for a brief period of time, and then passes out through your feces, then it technically wasn’t absorbed into your body,” said the same professor from my Pharmacology post who distinguished the discipline of Pharmacology from Pharmacy.  This anecdote described how drugs and man-made industrial chemicals in the classic sense must be absorbed into the blood stream to actually have been absorbed into your body.  There are other ways a chemical can get into the body (inhalation and dermal exposures), but for this post I’m focusing only on oral absorption.

If absorbed in the small intestine, the molecule of interest then passes through the “Hepatic Portal Vein” into the liver where any number of things can happen to it (described in greater detail below).  After leaving the liver and entering the general circulation, the molecule is for the most part cleared through the kidneys via the urine, but in some cases it can be deposited back into the GI-Tract and leave the body through the feces.  Molecules can also be exhaled depending upon what they’re transformed into once absorbed.  Any molecule not absorbed by the small intestine leaves the body through the feces.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the liver and kidneys which both perform numerous critical functions in the body.  For this particular context, the normal function of both, are critical to the body’s handling of both endogenous and exogenous chemicals which is why physicians, nurses and pharmacists inquire about their function early on when patients are admitted for care in clinical settings.  With that in mind, I’ll now break down the ADME acronym and why these skill sets are so valuable for scientists who gain an expertise in them:

  • Absorption: As described earlier, the “Absorption” aspect deals with how much of the chemical is absorbed into the body following oral ingestion, passage into the small intestine, the liver, and finally into the blood stream. The properties of the chemical itself can dictate how much of it is absorbed – particularly its size and for simplicity whether it’s charged (+ or -) or neutral.  As described in my Pharmacology post, pharmaceutical companies designate molecules as either “small” or “large”, and many large molecules can only be administered by injection into the bloodstream.  While there are several experiments that can help characterize a molecule’s oral absorption, “Pharmacokinetic” and “Biliary Excretion” studies (discussed below) are the most specific.  Just briefly, by treating animals (usually rodents) with radio-labelled compound, the amount of compound absorbed can be determined by quantifying the amount of radioactivity in the blood, urine and feces over time telling scientists how quickly the molecule was absorbed in addition to the amount absorbed and if these two metrics change with increasing dose.
  • Metabolism: Once in the body, molecules can undergo “Biotransformation” – that is, classes of proteins called “Enzymes” can transform the structure of a given molecule by breaking it down into multiple pieces or adding on new “Functional Groups”, altering its properties so that it’s more readily eliminated from the body (discussed below).  In some instances, this biotransformation turns the molecule into something toxic which can cause injury to the liver or other tissues in the body.  The Metabolism aspect of ADME, involves a separate discipline called “Enzymology” which focuses just on the enzymes themselves; their levels in cells (Protein Expression), the rates of their reactions (Kinetics), their structures, etc.  There are actually multiple classes of drug metabolizing enzymes but the most prevalent class at least as it relates to the liver, is the “Cytochrome-P450s”.  Pharmaceutical companies pay particular attention to this class of enzyme (and a host of others) as they greatly impact the “Bioavailability” of the drug.  The “First Pass Effect” or “First Pass Metabolism” occurs when a drug is significantly metabolized before it gets into the general circulation due to metabolism by liver enzymes.  Some of the clinical aspects of metabolism will be further discussed later in this post.  By the way, while Cytochrome P450s were classically associated with the liver, we now know that they are expressed throughout the human body as well as all plants and animals.
  • Distribution: Once in the body’s general circulation, the molecule can travel to many of the tissues of the body and can accumulate there for short- or long-periods of time depending upon the tissue and the properties of the molecule itself.  If the molecule is particularly non-polar (neutral), it can accumulate in fatty tissues or for pregnant females, it can partition into breast milk and be transfered to nursing offspring.  Molecules can also bind reversibly to blood plasma allowing for an increased internal dose.
  • Excretion: Excretion refers to how the molecule is eliminated from the body.  Typically the urine and the feces are measured to determine how the molecule is eliminated.  Detection in the urine indicates that the molecule was absorbed to some degree into the bloodstream as the kidneys filter out aqueous waste from the blood.  Poor kidney function can actually lead to a prolonged bioavailability and subsequent toxicity which is why clinicians always inquire about it as described earlier.  Not all of the absorbed chemical exits the body through the urine though.  It turns out that absorbed chemicals can empty out back into the GI-Tract from the liver via the bile and then be eliminated through the feces.
  • Drug Transport: This aspect doesn’t traditionally fall under the ADME acronym, but it’s an important field that is now being actively researched in academia and industry.  It deals with how cells may concentrate the chemical in tissues or remove the molecule from the target tissue before it can exert its function.
  • Pharmacogenomics/Toxicogenomics: These new and exciting fields look at the genetics unique to individuals to determine the best treatments and dosages for that individual. Genetic differences in levels in the drug metabolizing enzymes mentioned above can result in drastically different effects of treatment with a given dose of a drug depending on the individual.  The same is true for an individual’s reaction to a toxicant.

So why is all of this important?  Whether in a hospital setting, a pharmacy, or in the chemical industry creating a new food additive, pesticide, or cosmetic, it’s important to have as clear an understanding as possible of where the molecule goes in the body and what its fate is following ingestion.  As described above, physicians, whether in general practice or in the emergency room, have to gauge a patient’s liver and kidney function as those two organs will dictate how long the pharmaceutical stays in circulation – again, its “Bioavailability”.  Even a pharmaceutical designed to be therapeutically beneficial can be toxic if it remains in the body too long, if its levels exceed a certain dose level, if it’s transformed into something toxic, or if there is a drug-drug interaction.  “Drug-Drug Interactions” are typically the result of one drug causing an increased internal dose of another drug due to inhibiting or preventing metabolism by the enzymes described in the metabolism bullet above.  In graduate school we learned about the classic case of Terfenadine causing abnormal heart rhythms that could lead to death by increasing the amounts of circulating Erythromycin – both of these drug molecules normally work by with non-cardiac mechanisms. Terfenadine was removed from the market once it’s ability to cause this deadly drug-drug interaction was recognized.

Chemical, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical companies all have to know what happens to their molecules in the body for several reasons.  A drug can be highly effective at preventing cancer cells from multiplying in a laboratory setting in dishes and flasks, but unless it is readily absorbed in the intestines and can actually get to its target tissue in the body as its untransformed structure, it’s useless.  In some instances, a drug can get to its site of action, but the cells of that tissue can adapt and effectively expel the molecule before it gets a chance to exert its function as described earlier.  Pesticides which are sprayed on agricultural commodities often make it to our dinner tables in low levels where we do ingest them to some degree.

Another very important context for ADME/Drug Metabolism is actually “Food Safety” which is a key consideration for food and beverage companies like Pepsico and Quaker Oats.  As a matter of fact, at a family dinner earlier this year, a discussion of about Trisodium Phosphate (TSP), a preservative used in “Cap’n Crunch” cereal which had other industrial uses, caused a stir amongst my relatives.  I had to remind them that both the ADME and toxicity profiles of this preservative had already likely been characterized and cleared through extensive studies by the company and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

We’ve discussed what ADME/Drug Metabolism is, but where do these scientists work and where do they receive their training?  ADME/Drug Metabolism scientists work in Pharmaceutical and Chemical companies, and in government performing “Regulatory” functions (visited in an upcoming post).  They receive their training for the most part in academic settings in labs specializing in Pharmacology and Toxicology, both of which have ADME/Drug Metabolism as a major component.  There are some labs that strictly study one of the many aspects of ADME/Drug Metabolism but they are in the minority of the research groups in the biomedical sciences.

“Scientists with training in Drug Metabolism will almost never be with jobs,” said one of the professors in my graduate department at the University of Michigan.  While we know that there is no job that is 100% secure, this particular professor was stressing that ADME/Drug Metabolism scientists are critical parts of most companies.  The divisions of those companies responsible for these types of studies are typically titled Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics (DMPK).  No matter what disease the company is interested in (Diabetes, Cancer, HIV, etc.), it is essential that they understand the chemical’s ADME/Drug Metabolism profile for their own purposes and when submitting packages for approval by the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies.  The same is true for chemical companies.

There are numerous scientific tools and technologies that ADME/Drug Metabolism scientists use, but I’ll mention two of them briefly.  The first is the Mass Spectrometer also known as the “Mass-Spec”.  Mass-Specs are not used solely in ADME/Drug Metabolism studies, but they’re very important to the field because they can detect and identify molecules in whole blood, blood plasma, tissue samples, urine, and fecal samples at very, very low levels.  More importantly they can detect changes in the structure and identity of molecules once they have gone through the body and can help to predict a drug/industrial chemical’s efficacy or toxicity.

Technologies and methods are always changing and evolving but the Mass-Spec is currently a very important tool for ADME/Drug Metabolism.  Currently, Pharmacology and Toxicology scientists in industry are moving towards decreasing animal usage and towards more in vitro and in silico methods which are giving rise to the use of Physiologically Based Pharmacokinetic Models (PBPK) where the fate of molecules can be predicted using various constants and inputs into computational models.  We’re currently in the early era of these methods.

If you are interested in learning more about the exciting field ADME/Drug Metabolism, I suggest that you visit the website of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).  You can then click on the link titled Education & Careers.  In the right hand column, there is a link titled About Pharmacology, that provides a great deal of interesting information.  Speaking of ASPET, all scientific disciplines have their own professional societies with annual meetings that are held in various cities (eg. Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Washington,etc.) every year, and where scientists gather to show their results and network.  The two major professional societies for ADME/Drug Metabolism scientists 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 ADME/Drug Metabolism is as a field.  The next post in this series will discuss the field of Inhalation Toxicology.  If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

A special thank you is extended to Dr. Paul Hollenberg and Dr. Chester Rodriguez for their contributions to this post.  I also want to acknowledge Dr. Yoichi Osawa of the University of Michigan’s Department of Pharmacology for the picture of the Mass Spectrometer used in this post.

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, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page.  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 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.  If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

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.

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, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. 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 Education & Careers link near the top of the page.  In the right hand column, there is a link titled About 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.  If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

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.

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, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page.  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 Howard University’s 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.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview.  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’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 at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. 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 Howard University’s 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’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 at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page,  on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. 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.

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.