How my HBCU led me to my STEM career

The first principle of my blog is Creating Ecosystems of Success, and a major focus is awareness of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. In my post entitled, Who will benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?, I cited data stating that less than 10% of STEM degree holders are African American – a staggering number as these are some of the highest paying careers today. That same data was cited in an article by PBS entitled; African-Americans over-represented among low-paying college majors.

In my post entitled, The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority, I discussed the major learning points during my doctoral studies within the University of Michigan Department of Pharmacology. After completing that post, I realized that I also needed to discuss the role Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) played in my journey. Despite debates over their continued relevance in modern times, many black STEM professionals received their initial training at their Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCU). Thus, in this post, I’m going to discuss how JCSU contributed to my journey towards my STEM career.

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When I arrived at JCSU in the fall of 1995, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do career-wise. I knew that I was inclined towards the biological sciences, but what career would I land in? Would I go to medical school? Would I end up teaching? Would it be something else? When I started my higher education at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), the SUNY College at Brockport, a year earlier, I thought I wanted to be an athletic trainer; but I still wasn’t sure.

During my year at the SUNY Brockport before transferring to JCSU, I figured out how to be a student and earned an ‘A’ grade in my Survey of Anatomy and Physiology class – a very intensive pre-medical course. After earning that A, I knew that I could excel in most other undergraduate Biology courses and that’s the mindset I took with me down to Charlotte. Being 12 hours away from home also gave me a strong sense of focus and urgency.

The professors in the Department of Natural Sciences at JCSU were a dedicated and hardworking group. They were all very accomplished as most of them had a Ph.D. As described in my post entitled, Researching your career revisited: Wisdom from a STEM professor at my HBCU, some of them used a ‘tough love’ approach with us, letting us know that doing mediocre and low quality work would all but shut us out of careers like medicine, to which many of us, at least verbally aspired. Some of us rose to the challenge while others rejected their coaching.

Early on I churned out multiple A’s in my core courses which made me stand out because there were few males there at the time who were doing that. There was a select group of females who were doing it and were on track to get into medical school; as described in my piece about researching your career goals. I was also very malleable and teachable, so I started spending time with the professors in their offices outside of classes to get advice and feedback on material covered in class and potential careers. One professor did something that changed the course of my life.

“What are you doing this summer?” I was in the office of the professor I discussed in the piece about the importance of researching your career of interest. She wanted to know how I was going to spend my summer months. We were midway through the spring 1997 semester.

“I think I’m just going to go back to Buffalo to work security and wait tables at the bar I worked at last year,” I said to her shrugging my shoulders.

“No! You need to do something scientific,” she forcefully replied. “Take this, fill it out and bring it back to me!”

She handed me an application for the Ronald E. McNair Program at UNC-Charlotte. I quickly filled it out just as she mandated. It was a pivotal moment. I was going to go back home to Buffalo that summer because it was comfortable. However, more importantly, I didn’t know what I could do scientifically over the summer. This professor had seen my potential, and then stepped in to help me realize it. I participated in the McNair program over the summers of 1997 and 1999 – something I’ll write about that later. My professor’s actions opened a whole new world for me and led me to my graduate studies at the University of Michigan.

Another professor also impacted my future. He passed away several years ago, so I’ll mention his name. It was Dr. Joseph Fail, Jr., whom I became close to when I was a student. I stayed friends with him after graduating. Like everyone else who met him initially, Dr. Fail came off as a bit eccentric to me. He had a ‘hippie-like’ appearance in terms of how he dressed, and he had a long graying beard. He was the one professor out of the group who had background in the plant sciences; Botany and Ecology for which he was very, very passionate. He was also passionate about the students, and always encouraged our learning how to write and think coherently. He was alarmed by how some students wrote – something he repeatedly shared that with me in my numerous visits in his office.

Dr. Fail helped me secure a two-year fellowship through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) where we proposed to teach Ecology to kids at a local Charlotte school in grades 4-6. I didn’t understand the significance of teaching Ecology to these age groups, but I did understand that my tuition would be completely paid for my final two years, and that I’d receive a stipend. Which meant that I’d no longer have to work an off-campus job. During my first two years at JCSU, I worked at the McDonalds at the downtown Overstreet Mall for spending money.

We submitted the grant the night it was due and stayed at Biddle Hall with members of the administration until 7 or 8 pm that night. The officials at Biddle Hall insisted on a certain level of quality, which caused a big ‘dust up’ as Dr. Fail just wanted to get the proposal submitted. It was my first experience applying for scientific grant funding. In getting those last two years of tuition paid, he impacted me and my family’s future for years to come by significantly decreasing my debt burden. The project was the basis for my senior thesis paper. Whenever Dr. Fail didn’t think that I was working hard enough on it, he was quick to remind me, “You’re getting paid for this Anwar!”

Two other professors in the department both had the last name ‘Thomas’, but they weren’t related. Those who were there knew that their last names actually weren’t ‘Thomas’. It was something close, and I’m just trying to protect their identities. One of them taught our Zoology class – a ‘gatekeeper’ course. He gave us multiple choice questions and frequently tricked the students who’d gotten the previous year’s exams from classmates. These students answered many of the questions wrong because they didn’t understand the principles of what was being asked, though the answers sounded the same. He stayed on us about class participation and continuously prodded the students to participate in discussions.

In my last year, Dr. Thomas encouraged us to revive the Science Club and for me to become the President. Though I had no idea how to be one, nor did I have the desire. I’d gotten used to working on my own and didn’t know how to be the head of any group. I begrudgingly accepted the position, and it was a good experience. I recall having my mentor from the McNair program come over from UNC-Charlotte to talk to us about his research in Hepatic Physiology. We also went to the Asheboro Zoo one day, I believe.

I became close with the other Dr. Thomas toward the end of my time at JCSU. I only scored a ‘B’ in his Biochemistry class, but I was juggling a lot at that time. I asked him to write a letter of recommendation for me for graduate school. He told me many stories about his graduate school days at the University of Cincinnati when things were much, much harder for black people. He encountered a lot of racism as he worked on his Ph.D. in Physiology. He came across as a little eccentric at times, as well, but he cared about the students and in some ways was very misunderstood. He always encouraged me saying, “Anwar, if you don’t get into graduate school, I don’t know what to say because you’re one of the best that we have!”

The Chemistry, Math and Physics professors cared a lot about the students also. In my post entitled, The keys to learning college level general chemistry, I discussed how I ‘turned the corner’ in terms of understanding General Chemistry under the professor who taught it to me at JCSU. The chemistry courses were also gatekeeper courses which derailed many students’ dreams of going to medical school.

As I described in my blog post regarding my experience during graduate school, I didn’t learn the importance of asking questions and scientific curiosity until after I left JCSU. It wasn’t because the professors didn’t encourage it though. Instead, it was because some of my classmates fought it. Unfortunately, in some instances, if the majority of a group isn’t committed to advancing, they can hold back those that are. It turns out that curiosity and asking questions is the lifeblood of any science – medicine included. Likewise if you don’t ask questions, you won’t go very far in any STEM.

“You’re the only one from our group who went into science,” a former classmate told me recently at homecoming weekend – something that both surprised me and was very telling. I think everyone in my cohort had the ability to go on to do something scientific, but we all arrived at JCSU with different tools and mindsets. Some also ran into some of life’s other unforeseen difficulties.

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I’m going to close by going back to the science club and the importance of mentoring. At the time I wasn’t sure how to be the President of the Science Club. In hindsight, it was just setting and creating environments/spaces where we could all grow, ask questions, talk science and exchange ideas – things they were doing at Howard and Morehouse.

To help our alma mater, I’m seeking to do that now for the current students, alumni and the university. I’ve started a Facebook page and group both entitled, “JCSU STEM Alumni”. I’ve also started an Instagram account with the same name. Please follow, join and contribute. That goes for Ph.Ds like myself, medical doctors, IT specialists or mathematicians. In terms of the logo, the elements used in the JCSU STEM Alumni logo; Neon, Lithium, Potassium and Scandium are elements 10, 3, 19 and 21 on the Periodic Table. In our alphabet, the numbers 10, 3, 19 and 21 correspond to the letters J-C-S-U.

If you’re a student and have questions about a course or your career, please reach out via a public post or a direct message. If you’re not a Smithite, but have a STEM background and want to participate, please join as well. Also, please help spread the word.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy:

The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority
A look at STEM: What are the Basic Sciences and Basic Research?
A look at STEM: What is Regulatory Science?
The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?

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, or add my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me 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.

Johnson C. Smith University opens its new center for multidisciplinary STEM education and research revisited

I originally published this piece on October 23, 2015 – a shorter version on the Examiner and then this extended version on Dr. Matthew Lynch’s Edvocate. My alma mater Johnson C. Smith University had recently opened its new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) center at Homecoming 2015. It was a very impressive facility compared to those that were available to me and my classmates when I was a student there from 1995-99.

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“The collaboration was strong between the administration, the faculty, and the students to make sure that we had a building that not just reflected the heritage and history of the past, but also what the future would be for this great University,” said Harvey Gantt, one of many speakers on hand for the opening of Johnson C. Smith University’s (JCSU) new Science Center. “Dr. Carter actually had a lot to do with choosing the design approach,” Mr. Gantt continued. “We gave him several alternatives, and when we showed him a rendering of this elevation of the building, in less than 10 seconds, he said, ‘That’s what I want on this campus!’”

On Friday, Oct. 23, JCSU opened its new Science Center with a Grand Opening and Ribbon Cutting ceremony as a part of its 2015 Homecoming festivities. The ceremony took place on the walkways between the University’s new structure and its older Rufus Perry Science Hall. The ceremony consisted of:

• A welcome by Monroe Miller (Chairman of the JCSU Board of Trustees);
• An invocation by current student Sydney Henry (Class of 2017, Biology and Chemistry);
• Remarks by: Steve Keckeis (Vice President of Messer Construction), Malcolm Davis and Harvey Gantt (Principal and Principal Emeritus of Bergman Associates), student Jennifer-Lynn Phipps (Class of 2016, Computer Science Information Systems), and Charlie Lucas (Board Member of The Duke Endowment) and finally;
• Closing Remarks by Dr. Ronald L. Carter (President of JCSU).

“The time has now come to cut the ribbon to a new world experience. I can just hear the voices of the freedman who put the bricks in place by night over at Biddle Hall. As they look over here, I can hear them saying this day, ‘Well done! Well done! Well done! Our future holds high,” said Dr. Carter during his closing remarks prior to chanting three times, “J-C!,” to which the audience replied, “S-U!,” the signature call and response of the University’s students and alumni.

While the new Science Center will now be the hub on campus for all scientific coursework and research, the older Perry Science Hall will now be the home for the new Metropolitan College, JCSU’s new department for educating non-traditional students. Some features of the new Science Center include:

• 10 fully equipped labs for Biology, Chemistry and Physics courses and research;
• Four Centers for new science and technology curricula including: the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainability, the Center for Bioinformatics/Biotechnology, the Center for Medical Informatics, and the Center for Analytical Research and;
• Seven classrooms of various sizes and setups which stay true to JCSU’s commitment to small class sizes and individualized faculty attention.

“This building has been a vision for almost five years. Magdy Attia, Perrin Foster, Monroe Miller, Tom Baldwin and I would sit and dream about it. We knew that it had to be somewhere here on this part of the campus. That vision just had a momentum and Magdy would sentence it in very eloquent ways such that donors started paying attention and saying, ‘This can be done,’” Dr. Carter said afterwards during the open house. Throughout the ceremony, he and the other speakers emotionally paid homage to Dr. Magdy Attia who recently passed away. Dr. Attia, once a Computer Science faculty member and then an Administrator, was a key figure in the conception of the new Science Center.

“Opportunity awaits those who want to work,” said Jennifer-Lynn Phipps in closing to the audience at the ceremony. Ms. Phipps will graduate in 2016, and then work for John-Deere as an Information Technology Integrator. “Remember Smithites we are not only here to smash the mold, but we’re also here to develop ourselves and change the world!”

One of the more intriguing aspects of the new Science Center is the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainability. The Center is focusing its work on: Wind, Solar and Bio-fuels, and Food Security, specifically helping lower income communities have better access to quality food. Dr. Philip Otienoburu is in large part the University’s expert in Environmental Science issues, a distinction once held by the late Dr. Joseph Fail, Jr.

“It’s all about energy sustainability. We’re looking at future generations and how the environment is going to be protected from the different things that we do to it,” said Dr. Philip Otienoburu. “Long-term sustainability involves not only environmental issues but also social and economic issues as well. How are people going to build resilient communities as the climate changes for instance? How are people going to feed themselves? As you will see a lot of our programs here involve, ‘Food Security.’ This is why we have the Aquaponics and Community garden which is a partnership between JCSU and the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Aquaponics is a polyculture system of agriculture where you grow crops and cultivate fish in one closed loop. The waste produced by the fish, which is for the most part Ammonia, is used to fertilize the crops,” said Dr. Phillip Otienoburu discussing a component of the University’s Energy

Sustainability research work. “In Aquaponics, you use bacteria to make the biological conversions to convert Ammonia into Nitrites, and then the Nitrites into Nitrates which the plants need to grow. We’ve been doing this for about three years now during which we have expanded into Haiti, where we were looking to help communities that were devastated by the earthquake in 2010.”

“The science education here at JCSU has become much more technologically advanced since the late 1990s. As you can see in this building the instruments have become much smaller and in some ways more affordable and we’re able to generate more data. That said, it still involves engaging nature, collecting data and constructing good experiments,” said veteran Chemistry Professor, Dr. Timothy Champion.

“While we still have quite a few students coming in wanting to do Pre-Med, some do change their minds and think about getting Ph.D.s once they have a chance engage the science and do some research,” Dr. Champion continued. “At least in the Biology and Chemistry side though, we also need to prepare some of them for the job market. We can’t fall into the trap of trying to produce copies of ourselves – that is more Ph.D.s. If a student doesn’t go to a Graduate or Professional school there are still jobs out there, so a lot of what you’re here seeing is our wanting to build more sellable skills for the students that they can immediately apply to the job market.”

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As you can see below, I wrote a story about how I earned my STEM degree which focused on my graduate studies at the University of Michigan, post JCSU. I’m currently working on a piece revisiting what I learned at JCSU as it was a also a valuable part of my journey. There were numerous learning points there scientifically.

If you’re a JCSU alumnus and have a background in one of the STEMs, I’m starting a Facebook group called “JCSU Alumni STEM”. I envision it as an ecosystem where we as alumni can give back to JCSU’s current students through: answering any questions, helping them find jobs, and also simply serving as a science forum for the Golden Bull community. If you have something to offer, please join when the group opens up.

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

The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority
A look at STEM: What are the Basic Sciences and Basic Research?
The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences
• A look at STEM: What is Regulatory Science?
• A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?
• A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
• A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?

If you’ve found value here and think it will 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, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. 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.

The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority

“It’s my job to prepare you for wherever you go after you leave my lab. When you go into a company, no one is going to tell you if your presentations and writings are sloppy. You won’t get promoted and you’ll never know why!”

In my post entitled, Who will benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?, I cited data stating that less than 10% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degree holders are African American – a staggering number as these are some of the highest paying careers today. With the first principle of my blog being “Creating Ecosystems of Success”, and one of my focuses being awareness of the STEM careers, I wanted to tell my story.

Thus far I’ve published posts discussing the ‘Biomedical’ sciences I’ve been trained in, ‘Regulatory’ science, the ‘Applied’ sciences, and the ‘Transferrable’ skills learned when earning STEM degrees. In these posts I’ve attempted to make these sciences easily understandable for students and families with backgrounds like my own (see the story of my blog). Potentially the most important story of all though is how one becomes a STEM professional.

I’m a firm believer in teaching the ‘how’. It’s important to encourage participation in the STEMs, but as a student who walked into my training not fully  understanding the opportunity in front of me, I think it’s also important to share what went into earning my STEM degree in a very open and honest way – the good, the bad and the ugly – no fairy tales and no magic. In this post, I’m thus revisiting both my learning points science-wise, and some personal challenges during the process as an African American male coming from Buffalo’s east side. The latter challenges may surprise you.

The majority of the visuals used in this piece are materials from my thesis. Click on any of them to enlarge them. Lastly in this piece I refer to my thesis project without getting into its specifics. I describe it in greater detail in my Basic Sciences and Basic Research post.

Learning how to do science

I fell in love with “Life Science” in the seventh grade at Campus West in Buffalo, NY. I followed that love into Hutch-Tech High School where I majored in ‘Biotechnology’ (AP Biology). At Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), I distinguished myself as a ‘A’ student in my core courses as a Biology major which led to my participation in the Ronald E. McNair Program, where I worked two summers in a Hepatic (Liver) Physiology lab.

It was my first time performing ‘Basic’ scientific research (see my Basic Sciences and Research post). I earned an undergraduate fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency my last two years at JCSU. This precluded my participation in the ‘Minority Access to Research Careers’ (MARC) Program where I would’ve worked on a research project year-round, and would’ve gained more valuable experience.

Having participated in the McNair Program, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Pharmacology, thinking that working in a Pharmaceutical company like Pfizer or Merck would provide stable employment. Thus, the sole focus for my science training was finding a job. While a Ph.D. in Pharmacology would help me get there, I didn’t completely understand what the road to a Ph.D. in this particular STEM field entailed, as I didn’t yet know how to do science fulltime.

“Anwar has never done rigorous scientific research before,” my Graduate Advisor, a fellow Western New Yorker, wrote in my evaluation for my second lab rotation within the Department of Pharmacology of the University of Michigan. He gave me an ‘A’ which I was happy about, though based upon his statement, I wasn’t sure how I’d done in the lab. Did I perform adequately over those four months? Did I underperform, but still received an ‘A’ just because? Either way, he allowed me work under him for my thesis project – perhaps seeing some potential in me.

What made me want to stay in his lab? After my summers in the McNair Program, I knew something about the enzyme my Graduate Advisor’s lab worked on; “Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase” (see my Basic Sciences and Research post). I was also encouraged by two more senior students in another lab to stay based upon my advisor’s: talent, his productive track record and the productivity of his students.

By the way, in the coming years when prospective students would visit our department, my Graduate Advisor was always very adamant about the prospects getting the current students’ perspectives on the department. I think his reasons were that doctoral research is a significant life and time commitment as you’ll see later, and it’s in a student’s best interest not to walk into a department ‘blind’. Ideally, they should have a feel for the overall climate of their prospective department; its culture, its faculty and whether its students go on to establish their own careers.

The Basic Sciences and Basic Research are worlds all in themselves, worlds I initially didn’t know how to succeed in. Aside from some of my teachers in high school, there were no STEM professionals in my ecosystem in Buffalo. Also, once again, while my summers in the McNair Program gave me a taste of this new adventure I was embarking upon, they didn’t show what the experience would be like fulltime.

What qualities and attributes were needed to earn my Ph.D. in the STEM field I had chosen? One very important quality/value I received from my home ecosystem was that of hard work and the importance of doing quality work. I’ll credit my mother for this and her many years of making us do chores at home, which instilled a sense of personal responsibility and pride in my work. Also, the adversity-filled experience on my high school basketball team taught me how not to quit on things when they got hard – another valuable tool. Lastly, I was always naturally very malleable personality-wise, and open to being taught.

My Dad’s words about excelling in my coursework helped me to get into Graduate School and were useful until the end of my coursework. Once the fulltime research phase began however, it was a whole different ballgame, as working for my Graduate Advisor required a host of other ‘tools’.

I myself was a ‘project’ going into my Graduate Advisor’s lab – one which needed to be built from the ground up. There were plenty of challenging times for both of us as my first two to three years were spent literally just figuring things out. Fortunately, he was willing to teach me as long as I was willing to do the work and be taught. What do I mean by figuring things out? The following is a summary of what I learned as I worked on my thesis project:

• Learning to ask questions, to be inquisitive, and to talk about science

I added this learning point in last, but it may be the most important of all. I’ll credit the whole department for teaching me this lesson. One classmate and one professor stand out here. Verbally asking questions is essential to doing science. In my Basic Sciences and Basic Research post, I described how our experiments were questions themselves, but it’s also very important to be able to verbally ask questions of peers about their science both one on one, and in group settings in a respectful way.

During graduate school, I sat in on numerous seminars, and I was initially afraid to ask questions in front of everyone else. Part of it was a fear of sounding foolish. The other part of it was that while I’d excelled in my coursework as an undergraduate, I didn’t regularly talk about science with my classmates at my undergraduate institution. Over time I overcame my fears and got to the point where getting my questions answered superseded everything else.

• Seeing and understanding the science through my Advisor’s eyes

“You’re going to have to drive the project!” My biggest learning point was learning to see the science through my Graduate Advisor’s eyes, and not just in terms of obtaining my Ph.D. and finding a job. There was an ‘art’ to science, a thought process, a methodology, a culture and a lifestyle. It took about five years of training to get to the point where I could start see the science the way he saw it, and even talk about my project the way he talked about it.

I needed to understand the science in its entirety and appreciate the process, and all the challenges involved. I needed to approach my research like a professional; to design my experiments systematically and proactively – to think about the limitations of our experiments and the data we generated, to think of the next steps, and to always think about the final published paper.

• Doing science in the lab everyday vs. learning about it in a classroom

There’s a major difference between learning about science in a classroom setting, and actually doing quality science fulltime. For me that involved being proactive about my work, and being consistent in everything I did experimentally, in my writings and my presentations. Our experiments were questions, the results were the answers, and we needed the answers in a timely fashion. Everything needed to be approached with a sense of urgency, and in a way, time was our enemy. It also involved thinking about the project when outside of the lab – something my Advisor and his peers and competitors did – sometimes at the expense of other things.

I was now out on the edges of science in the ‘trenches’, trying to discover new knowledge. A major part of this involved approaching my thesis project like a job. And in many ways it was, as my peers and I received stipends. It wasn’t a high-paying job in terms of salary, but instead the payment was knowledge and wisdom which would equate to greater financial compensation later.

• Graduate Research is in part a job or an apprenticeship like one of the skill trades

“This is your job now!” My Graduate Advisor and I had this conversation after my completing two years of coursework and starting my thesis project fulltime. I hadn’t made the connection yet that my research involved being in the lab 100% of the time. It required being on time in a job-like setting where I’d work on my project daily at a work bench – sometimes at night and on weekends. The data generated from my project would be published in scientific journals, as well as when my Graduate Advisor sought to renew his own research grants. Finally, it would be the basis for my completed dissertation, in addition to a record of my productivity after eventually leaving his lab.

• Learning to Multitask

I had to learn to work smart, and not just hard. My Graduate Advisor instilled in me the ability to multitask and to, “have multiple things going at once,” as he always emphasized. In addition to working on my own project, I was also responsible for growing the stocks of proteins that the entire lab used, which was a huge responsibility. I was also the lab’s “Chemical Safety” officer who was responsible for all the lab’s waste disposal – chemical and radioactive. Multitasking was what he did on a grander scale all year. As a student, it seemed unfair at the time, but it’s a skill that has transcended our lab into other arenas, as with everything he taught us.

• Learning to Compete

“You have to know where the line is, and then do your best to stay above it,” my Graduate Advisor told me years later after I graduated. Though I didn’t understand it at the time, he was teaching his students how to compete and survive. It’s not widely discussed, but science is about competition, especially in academia where at any given time, multiple labs around the country, and even around the world, are working to make the same scientific breakthrough. It’s an arena where ultimately, the group who makes the finding first gets the fame and notoriety, and future grant funding.

There was such a thing as being ‘scooped’. This is when another lab made the finding first, leaving its competitors to either disprove it, to add something to it, or to work on something else altogether. Because my Advisor was so talented and hungry, it never happened to us, but I saw it happen to some of my peers and their labs. Nothing was guaranteed. Just like he had to fight and claw to keep his lab running, I also had to fight and claw to push my project through to completion. I further had to fight and claw to stay in the department and finish my degree. Science and life are about competition.

“I know that I drove you guys pretty hard,” my Advisor shared with me years after I graduated, which we both smiled about. At times he was very abrasive, aggressive and very demanding of us. It was for a reason though and I realized during my training that working for brilliant and driven people is hard, but if you can stay in the process and take their coaching, you’ll be better off for it later.

My Graduate Advisor attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an undergraduate, the University of Michigan for graduate school, and then the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his own postdoctoral training before becoming a professor at the University of Michigan. We never talked about MIT in my ecosystem in Buffalo, and I just started understanding my Advisor’s pedigree towards the end of my training. His father was a scientist as well, and he thus had exposure to science at an early age, and even earned a couple of patents before starting college. Don’t get me wrong, having parents in the STEMs isn’t a necessity to getting into one of the fields yourself, but the early exposure can pay huge dividends later.

This is a good place to state that my Graduate Advisor, his peers, and scientists at most research universities are driven by their scientific research, and they’re always thinking about it; late at night, and even on family vacations. The argument can be made that their research is their purpose for living. The truly talented ones are further tough enough to withstand any environmental changes such as when the second Bush Administration cut the NIH’s budget, causing many labs around the country to downsize or perish altogether, while others figured out how to survive.

“You all are very different than we were! When I was a graduate student, we fought over the latest issues of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (JPET),” said one of the more senior and celebrated faculty in our department who was jokingly said to have invented the Heart. He felt that we weren’t studying up on our field enough in our spare time beyond our core curricula. Most of us were only doing the minimum reading and studying, something my Graduate Advisor also stayed on me about during my training.

Learning to manage my life outside of the lab so I could do science

The accompanying newspaper clipping is from one of Buffalo’s local weekly black publications, The Challenger. My mother proudly submitted the story and that’s her handwriting on the top of the clipping. It was a big deal back home and she even shared with me that I’d exceeded her expectations which was very gratifying. When looking at the clipping, it’s something to proud of, but what you don’t see there is that there were a host of personal learning points outside of the lab as well – experiences which could’ve derailed the whole thing.

Being African American and ascending in education and a career often leads to discussions of “forgetting where you came from”. So, I want to close with what I learned about how life outside of the lab can affect one’s ability to do science and be a professional. Sometimes it’s actually necessary to leave certain parts of your old life behind. I learned on numerous occasions during my STEM training that I had to protect both my project and my life. That is, I had to make strategic decisions in my personal life that would increase my chances of finishing my degree and surviving to talk about it.

While working on my thesis I got involved in a very chaotic romantic relationship which compromised my mind, spirit and overall well-being at times; nearly derailing my project and potentially adversely affecting my Graduate Advisor’s entire lab all at the same time. There was one day I consider a near death experience – something I’ve discussed with friends and relatives only in bits and pieces. Fortunately, I survived, but this type of thing wasn’t restricted to my significant other.

There were two instances involving two close friends whom I consider my second and third brothers. One incident transpired over a Thanksgiving holiday and the other a Christmas holiday – both of which involved nearly getting pulled into violent confrontations late at night at nightclubs and parties in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. One friend had too much to drink and in the process of having his own fun, inadvertently splashed another guy with his beer. The guy who got splashed was unhappy about it and started following us around the venue. While I thought bullets might fly, my friend got away with just getting punched and knocked out temporarily. Fortunately, we both made it home safely.

In the second incident, another buddy wanted to stay and confront some guys over a female outside of a nightclub. Apparently, he was looking at the guy’s lady and there was an initial confrontation I didn’t see inside the venue. My friend didn’t want to appear afraid and wanted us to take our time leaving. When I realized what was going on, I wanted to leave immediately – something he and I clashed over afterwards. Fortunately again, nothing happened, and we got out of there safely.

Neither of these incidents were worth the potential price to be paid. Neither my significant other, or either of my friends considered the possibility of my showing up to the lab in a cast, with a black eye, or with teeth missing, or maybe being laid up in a hospital, unable to continue my research. The take home message from all of this is that you must be your own best advocate in life. None of us can avoid tragedies, but there are some things we can avoid.

You must protect what you’re doing, sometimes from people around you in your family circle, friends or significant others, because someone else’s selfishness and bad decisions can hinder your life and professional aspirations. In my case it was earning my STEM degree and starting my career.

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“Give a man fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

I included this famous quote from the Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu because the road to my STEM degree was literally like learning how to fish. The opening quote from this piece is from one of my many talks with my Graduate Advisor. In some ways our relationship evolved into that of a father and a son which I’m very, very grateful for as not every student had this. I saw several peers leave partway through their graduate training without their doctorates either due to a loss of hope, or irreconcilable differences with their advisors. Some were African American, but not all were.

This is my STEM story and there are many others out there. I want to point out that the point of telling this story was not for my glorification. As I said in the opening, I think it’s critical to explain all sides of the process in addition to simply encouraging students to get involved in the STEMs solely because of our under-representation as African Americans, and because of the monetary benefit. The how is very, very important. If you’re a STEM professional, I encourage you to also tell your story to STEM-hopefuls in an age-appropriate way.

I’d like to end this story by acknowledging the late Dr. Minor J. Coon.  Dr. Coon was not only a member of my Thesis Committee (on the program above), but he was also a legend and a pioneer the in the study of Phase I Drug Metabolizing Enzymes – Cytochrome P450s particularly.  Dr. Coon actually trained my Graduate Advisor who subsequently suggested asking Dr. Coon to be on my committee – something that surprised me as we all looked upon him with great reverence.  Growing up on Buffalo’s east side, I never dreamt of being a part of such a well accomplished tree of scientists.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy:

A look at STEM: What are the Basic Sciences and Basic Research?
A look at STEM: What is Regulatory Science?
The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?
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, or add my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me 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 are the Basic Sciences and Basic Research?

One of the focuses of my blog is awareness of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Thus far, I’ve written posts covering the “Biomedical Sciences” I’ve been trained in including: Pharmacology, Toxicology, ADME/Drug Metabolism, and Inhalation Toxicology. I’ve also written a post discussing “Regulatory Science” in the Public and Private sectors, in which I discussed the “Applied Sciences” and “Research and Development”. In this post I want to discuss the “Basic Sciences” and “Basic Research”, the foundations from which we receive all our new scientific knowledge.

The foundations of any of our commercial scientific and technological innovations are the Basic Sciences and Basic Research. A simple Google search led me to a site which stated that the four major Basic Sciences are: Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics. Many people consider Physics to be the ‘Grandfather’ of all the sciences because each of the others rest upon its shoulders in some way. Any of the other Basic Sciences fall under one of these four branches.

For Biology for example, many of the sciences underneath its vast umbrella include: Biomedical Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, Environmental Sciences, etc. Within the Biomedical Sciences there are the sciences I’ve written about, as well as: Cellular and Molecular Biology, Genetics, Microbiology, Virology, etc. The same is true for Chemistry under which there are: Analytical Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, etc. While Physics is its own discipline with its own subdisciplines, as you’ll see later, its principles permeate throughout the other major sciences, especially when you’re carrying out ‘Basic’ scientific research.

Basic Research is simply the pursuit of new knowledge and the understanding of a specific area of focus. As described throughout my blog, my Ph.D. is in Pharmacology, with two and a half years of training in its sister science, Toxicology. In the Basic Research world scientists known as ‘Principal Investigators’ run labs at major research institutions, like the University of Michigan, where they have specific research areas of interest.

Principal Investigators ask specific research questions in their areas of focus through their research projects. They arrive at their answers for these questions through experiments and report their results in papers published in scientific journals. To carry out their research, which I’ll describe later, Investigators usually receive grant funding from federal sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or from the Private Sector. As you’ll see there is a business side to research, both in academia and in the private sector.

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As described in my Pharmacology post, there are numerous sub-disciplines within Pharmacology. My Graduate Advisor’s area of focus was ADME/Drug Metabolism which involved some aspects of Biochemistry and Cell Biology based upon the questions he was asking. For the remainder of this post I am going to discuss my thesis project in his lab to give readers a feel for what Basic Research is and why it’s important. Some of the terms I’m going to use will be on the esoteric side, but I’m going to do my best to keep the discussion as simple as possible.

The title of my thesis project was the “Labilization and Proteasomal Degradation of Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase” – a mouthful for anyone unfamiliar with the field. If you google me, you’ll find two ‘first author’ publications that I published in my Graduate Advisor’s lab with the assistance of my lab mates; fellow students, postdoctoral scientists, senior scientists, and technicians. I’m crediting the entire lab because, while I was the first author on these papers and it was my thesis project, my colleagues also contributed their expertise and man-hours. Everything in our lab was done as a team. I also contributed to my lab mates’ work. My two first author publications are:

Ubiquitination and degradation of neuronal NO-synthase in Vitro: Dimer stabilization protects the enzyme from proteolysis published in Molecular Pharmacology and;
Tetrahydrobiopterin protects against Guanabenz-mediated inactivation of neuronal nitric oxide synthase in Vivo and in Vitro published in Drug Metabolism and Disposition.

What does all this mean? In simple terms, our bodies are made up of numerous organs, systems and tissues. These are, in turn, made up of cells, nucleic acids and proteins which do the work on the ground level in our bodies. When we become ill, infected with a bacterium or a virus, poisoned by a toxicant, or develop cancer, there’s an underlying biochemical change that has occurred on the cellular level. It could be the enhanced production of viral particles, DNA damage leading to tumor formation, inhibition of an enzyme’s function, or the breakdown of key cell signaling pathways.

In Type II Diabetes, for example, the cells of our bodies become nonresponsive to endogenous ‘Insulin’, which naturally allows them to take up glucose from our bloodstreams. The breakdown of this intracellular signaling pathway leads to the hallmark maladies associated with Type II Diabetes. Pharmaceuticals likewise exert their therapeutic effect by modulating these same cellular processes. But how do these processes occur? And how do pharmaceutical companies design drugs we use to treat diseases? The answer is Basic Research.

My Graduate Advisor, a Pharmacologist and a Biochemist in training, was very interested in how exogenous chemicals could selectively control the fates of proteins within cells. Prior to my entering in his lab, he discovered that an anti-hypertensive drug called ‘Guanabenz’ could inhibit the metabolic activity of the protein “Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase” (nNOS), and then cause the loss of the protein itself in rat penile tissue. Other chemicals also inhibited the protein’s activity but didn’t cause a loss of the protein. So again, there was something unique to each chemical and their effect on the protein in the cell. There was a trigger that made the protein go away in certain instances. But how was this all happening?

In my earlier posts, I discussed how animals are used as models for studying human health based upon shared organ systems and metabolic pathways. My thesis project investigated this phenomenon in rat penile tissue using an in vitro system, meaning that it all took place in test tubes in a ‘cell-free’ system where we could mimic the cellular environment and control the conditions of our reactions. This allowed us to ask questions we couldn’t ask in cell or animal models.

My first finding was that our protein of interest had to undergo a major structural change for it to degrade. Chemicals like Guanabenz triggered this structural change by causing the breakdown of the homo-dimeric active protein form to its inactive monomeric form. Other chemicals prevented this structural change and protected the protein from degradation. What was even more fascinating was my second finding. This structural change was triggered by loss of a specific intracellular Cofactor which was important for maintaining the homo-dimeric form of the protein. It was the loss of this cofactor that triggered the subsequent toxicity in the rat penile tissue.

My project was a very ‘mechanistic’ project in that we were going down into the ‘weeds’ to figure out how the effect in the whole animal occurred. Why was this important and what could be done with this information? Several things. It could be used to create new drug targets, and it could also be used to predict and understand similar toxicities by chemicals with similar structures. These are all things Chemical and Pharmaceutical companies, and Regulatory Agencies consider when bringing new products to the market and when protecting human health.

During my thesis I performed ‘Bench Science’. I literally had a work bench and performed experiments every day, working to generate quality data I could publish. As I worked to answer my research questions, I also learned a wealth of research techniques and technologies, in addition to learning how to perform scientific research (discussed in the next post). While it was a biological project in nature, my thesis project involved the use of numerous analytical chemical tools and technologies, many of which involved some understanding of Chemistry and Physics.

In this section I’m going to introduce a few terms commonly used in the research world which were foreign to me when I started. ‘Assay’ for example, is just a fancy term for an established and widely used experimental method. The others will be explained throughout and should be easy to follow. The devices and technologies described are hyperlinked.  The methods, tools and processes I utilized during my research included the following:

Cellular and Molecular Biology techniques: We used numerous cell models to: generate large quantities of our protein of interest for our in vitro experiments, and we had other cell lines to ask questions about the fate of the protein within cells. The latter involved inserting (transfecting) the DNA of the protein of interest into cells. This involved the use of Cellular and Molecular Biological techniques, and the use of Cell Incubators and, in some instances, Orbital Shakers to culture (grow) the cells, depending on the cell line.
Stoichiometry: This key aspect of General Chemistry was a critical part of all our experiments. Specifically, it was central in the calculation of ‘Molar’ concentrations when preparing the numerous ‘Chemical Reagents’ that were used including: buffers, cellular media, solvents, matrices, resins and so on.
Column Chromatography and Protein Purification Methods: We used numerous protein purification methods, particularly Affinity and Size Exclusion chromatographic methods to create clean preparations of our proteins of interest and other preparations. This allowed us to study its activity in isolation, its protein levels and ask questions about any structural changes.
Gel Electrophoresis and Protein Detection Methods: We used electrophoretic and antibody-based detection methods for measuring actual protein levels for visual analysis and quantification. The bread and butter technique of my experiments was called the ‘Western Blot’ analysis, whereby the proteins in my in vitro assay were separated by size, then detected, and finally, quantified using a radio-labeled antibody. One of techniques used in the lab was the Protein Assay, which allowed us to quantify the amount of protein in various preparations using a 96-Well Microtiter Plate Reader; arguably the workhorse for not just our lab, but also for neighboring labs. The Microtiter Plate Reader contained a Diode Array that measured changes in absorbance which helped inform us of the concentrations of the protein preparations (Beer’s Law). One of the 96-Well plates used in the Microtiter Plate Reader is picture below without any dyes or solutions.
Enzymatic Activity Assays: We used numerous assays to measure the activity of our protein. The primary assay used for measuring the activity of the protein was the “Oxy-Hemoglobin Assay” where we measured the conversion of Oxy-Hemoglobin to Met-Hemoglobin. We used this conversion to quantify the amount of Nitric Oxide produced by our protein with and without inhibitors/inactivators. This assay relied u9pon measuring changes in absorbance and thus, once again, the Microtiter Plate Reader was the primary tool for asking questions about the activity of our protein of interest. In some instances, other methods were used to measure activity as described next.
Physical and Analytical Chemical and Detective Methods: Consistent with most ADME/Drug Metabolism labs, a tool we heavily relied upon was High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) – a classic detection tool used for measuring the following: cofactors, molecules, metabolites, and proteins; based on their chemical properties and how they behaved in specific organic and non-organic solvents. Later in my thesis project, our lab purchased several Mass Spectrometers, which is the most sensitive chemical detection tool. However, my projects didn’t require me using them.

In addition to understanding the fundamental principles of one’s field, a major part of understanding Basic Research and Science is understanding the instruments and technologies used. As the researcher, understanding these technologies is critical to understanding what your data are and are not telling you. If you’re listening to a peer’s seminar, or reviewing their publication, understanding the technologies also helps you understand their work. In some instances, a researcher’s understanding of the technologies gives them ideas about combining them to ask unique questions.

What’s the measure of how good a scientist is? It’s their publication and funding records. The top scientists and their labs continuously come up with good ideas, then publish their work in competitive scientific journals. When scientists continually come up with good ideas and continue to publish quality work, they’re more likely to continue to secure funding and ascend in their field. The reciprocal is true for scientists who don’t come up with good ideas and don’t publish.

It’s worth noting here that the rules for publishing are different in the Private Sector vs. Academia. Research projects in the Private Sector are usually geared towards innovation and selling a product. As a result, research findings are considered ‘Intellectual Property’ which companies own and may not want to disclose out of fear of losing a competitive advantage to other companies in their sector. The research projects are also very focused, and the scientists have less freedom in terms of what they can work on. Employment is also heavily dictated by that particular company’s economic health and overall direction.

* * *

A byproduct of training in the Basic Sciences and performing Basic Research is acquiring the knowledge and expertise which the Applied Sciences and the Private Sector use to bring new products to the market. The training can also be used to form Consulting groups (see my Regulatory Science post). If a scientist is thoroughly trained, he or she will also acquire a separate set of skills described in my blog post entitled; The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences. In my case, the discipline was Pharmacology, but this applies to pretty much any of the other Basic Science and Basic Research disciplines.

How long can it take to earn a degree in a STEM? It depends on the STEM. The path I chose took roughly 5-6 years. That length of time was impacted by my first learning how to do research (discussed in my next post), and then working through the complexities of my project. If the systems and tools for asking your scientific questions are already established, then it’s a clearer path. If you’re establishing your methods for the very first time though, it could take a little longer.

If you’re building upon someone else’s work, you must also hope that they’ve reported their methods and results honestly and accurately. If so, their work will be easier to reproduce. The hard part when doing Bench Science is that many experiments don’t work initially, and it can take time to get your systems to the point where you can start generating quality, publishable data. During my thesis, I easily performed hundreds to thousands of experiments. It took time to establish my systems and their conditions, and then it took more time to generate quality, publishable data to answer my scientific questions.

The Basic Sciences and Basic Research are vast. This post just focused on one aspect of Pharmacology – a Biomedical Science. Whether it’s a: pharmaceutical, an industrial chemical, a medical device, a GMO crop, a Blockchain Technology application, or one of Elon Musk’s new SpaceX rockets, someone had to do the underlying research which gave rise to the innovation. I’m going to close by reiterating something from my Pharmacology and Toxicology posts, which is that each Basic Science has its own professional society and annual meeting. Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. I hope I was able to give you an understanding of Basic Sciences and Basic Research.

The next posts in this series will talk about my personal journey towards becoming a Scientist and earning my STEM degree. If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy:

A look at STEM: What is Regulatory Science?
The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?
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, or add my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me 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 Regulatory Science?

The first principle of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”, and one of the main focuses of my blog is awareness of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers and fields. Up to this point I’ve written several posts discussing the ‘Biomedical Sciences’ which I’ve been trained in: Pharmacology, Toxicology, ADME/Drug Metabolism, and Inhalation Toxicology. In this post I want to discuss what “Regulatory Science” and “Regulatory Affairs” are – the scientific interface between the ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ sectors where the safety of commercial products sold to the general public are determined – a science not well understood by the general public despite its importance to our everyday lives – myself included initially.

“You can always go into ‘Regulatory’,” a classmate who I’ll refer to as Greg said, during graduate school at the University of Michigan. I was feeling the stress of working on my thesis project which consisted entirely of ‘Bench’ or ‘Basic’ scientific research, and lamenting that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in academia once I finished my dissertation. Greg had worked in one of the bigger Pharmaceutical companies, and understood everything that comprised them. At the time I wanted a career with a ‘regular’ schedule which is something I’ll describe more in depth in my next blog post which will discuss the ‘Basic Sciences’. I, coincidentally, did start a career as a Regulatory Scientist by accident, depending on your belief system.

When giving my annual Toxicology lecture at SUNY Albany, I always tell the class that Regulatory Scientists are ‘Watch Dogs’ or ‘Gate Keepers’ who evaluate new products generated by the ‘Private Sector’ to make sure they are safe for the public. What types of products am I talking about? You can start with anything in and around your home, whether it be food products, pharmaceuticals, or industrial chemicals, air fresheners, household cleaners, paints, or cosmetics. These are just the chemicals which we consume, or are exposed to on a personal level. Another context is the environment. For every product generated, questions must be asked about what that product will do to wildlife, their unique ecosystems, lakes, oceans, the air, etc. Here think about coal and petroleum products as good examples.

The term ‘Regulatory’ is rooted in the ‘Regulations’ put in place by Federal and State governments – laws and statutes which dictate how and when the government should act in the general public’s best interests to ensure that the products they are being sold are safe. Going back to the previous paragraph, there are regulations for example for registering the following: crops and commodities, livestock and poultry, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, industrial chemicals, industrial materials and textiles, and energy products such as petroleum and coal. We’re very close to the use of ‘Nanomaterials’, so products that contain them are of particular interest now.

Here is a good place to think back to the 2016 Presidential election where the then candidate, Donald J. Trump, discussed the need to rollback excessive, costly and burdensome regulations put in place by the Obama administration to allow private businesses to grow and thrive. Having an understanding of Regulatory Science and Regulatory Affairs is the essence of that discussion because it takes resources to demonstrate the safety of products; otherwise it can cut into profits if their uses are restricted. Important questions to thus consider are: 1) is there such a thing as over-regulation; and 2) is there a happy balance between business and keeping the public and environment safe? Some food for thought.

Regulatory Scientists work in both Public and Private sectors. On both sides each must understand the Federal and State government laws and regulations. Scientists in the Private sector must understand the regulations and provide the government with the data it needs so that their companies can efficiently register their products. Scientists in the Public sector must understand the regulations to ensure that the companies trying to register their products are in compliance, so as to not cause injury to individuals in the general public and create subsequent litigation. While this post is about Regulatory Science, it’s also worth noting here that most of the private companies also have scientists working in the ‘Applied Sciences’ and ‘Research and Development’, which is where their new products come from – examples are the Food, Pharmaceutical, Biotech, and Crop-Science companies.

Where do Regulatory Scientists receive their training and what types of skills do they need? Most Regulatory Scientists receive their training in the ‘Basic Sciences’ at major research universities, such as the University of Michigan, where I received my training. This means that they first become trained in specific scientific areas of expertise – Pharmacology and Inhalation Toxicology in my case – and they then use those knowledge sets in the Regulatory world to make safety decisions. The same is true for the Applied Sciences where that expertise is used to create new products. As you can see these worlds are closely interrelated.

The four Biomedical Sciences I’ve discussed in detail – Pharmacology, Toxicology, ADME/Drug Metabolism and Inhalation Toxicology – are all basic sciences which translate to the Applied Science and Regulatory sciences. Scientists trained in these fields and others can either remain in academia, or take their skill sets into the Public or Private sectors. See my post entitled, “The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences” to get a feel for what skills are necessary to work in the Regulatory Sector or Regulatory Affairs. Just briefly, a couple are of the skills are the ability to: 1) work on teams; 2) write; 3) plan; and 4) speak orally, as there are lots and lots of meetings.

There are typically two contexts for Regulatory Science – one which takes place in a classic laboratory setting, and the other which takes place in an office setting. In the lab setting, experiments are carried out to test products safety. In the government office setting, scientists interpret the results generated on specific products using the above-mentioned regulations and policies which each scientist has to learn when starting in the field. It’s worth noting here that science is constantly changing and evolving, and thus a challenge to working in the Regulatory sector in government settings is staying current on new and relevant scientific breakthroughs and methods. This can be done in any number of ways including attending national meetings, and participating in special ‘work groups’, for example.

A third context for Regulatory Science is consulting. Many scientists, after working in the Public or Private sectors, eventually opt to the start their own consulting companies. These consulting groups typically work with Private sector companies to get their products registered swiftly and efficiently, with the goal of keeping their costs as low as possible.

What do Regulatory Scientists make in terms of salary? That is in part dictated by one’s degree level, and whether the scientist works in the Public or Private sectors. Scientists in both sectors can start out making $70,000. Federal and State Regulatory Scientists are typically paid according to the ‘General Schedule’. While Regulatory Scientists in Private Industry are paid according to what that company determines the individual is worth, and the mutually agreed upon salary.

In closing, when you think about Regulatory Science, think globally. While the United States Government has numerous agencies to protect the general public – the EPA, FDA, USDA and the NRC to name a few – other countries around the world have them as well. And there are actually global partnerships and cooperatives amongst nations which are important when it comes to international trade and commerce, in addition to environmental protection. A career in Regulatory Science thus has the potential to touch not only the lives of those in your immediate circle, but also those in faraway places.

The next posts in this series will talk about what Basic Research and Science are, and then my personal journey towards becoming a Scientist. If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy:

The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?
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

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. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me 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.

The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences

I originally published this piece in The Edvocate in the summer of 2015 under a slightly different title. When I set out to earn my Ph.D. in Pharmacology, I wasn’t clear on what I was supposed to be getting from my doctoral research besides the degree itself, and hopefully a job at the end of it all. It turned out that in addition to the expertise gained in my thesis project, there were several other important skills that the University of Michigan’s Department of Pharmacology sought to instill in me and my classmates.

These skills – some of which took time and effort to learn are actually very critical in any of the “Biomedical” sciences that I’ve recently written about: Pharmacology, Toxicology, ADME/Drug Metabolism and Inhalation Toxicology, and others. They’re further critical in any of the ‘Basic’ research sciences.  All Ph.D.s are not the same, nor are all Ph.D. programs the same and you may have learned some or all of these skills in yours. The following piece discusses the transferrable skills scientists in the Basic research sciences receive during their training which are very valuable in: Academia, and both the Public and Private sectors.

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July 8, 2015 marked the ten year anniversary of the earning of my Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy degree) in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan. It was a tremendous accomplishment educationally and scientifically for a kid from Buffalo’s eastside. Coming from my community, it had far reaching effects and implications socially that I didn’t understand at the time.

On June 2, 2015, the University of Michigan’s Department of Pharmacology hosted its annual Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Career Day. The event was designed to expose the department’s current students, to the multiple career options available to them following their doctoral and masters level trainings. As a key component of the day, select alumni (myself included) were invited back and asked to discuss their careers and share their experiences.

Going back to Ann Arbor is always like going home. Six of my most of the most meaningful years were spent there learning about science and life. My graduate advisor for example taught me lasting lessons not only about pharmacological research, but also how to be a professional and how to survive in this world. In a lot of ways, he was like a second father.

While I experienced tremendous growth during graduate school earning my degree, some of the most meaningful lessons about my doctoral degree itself took place after leaving Ann Arbor. College towns like Ann Arbor are unique in that the University is a major part of the town’s culture, and as such there is an unusually high concentration of highly educated individuals there. Needless to say every place isn’t like that, and you don’t realize it until you leave.

Once I left, I discovered that my degree touched people in many different ways. I actually wrote a ten part series for the Examiner titled “Pursing a Ph.D”. One part of the series was dedicated to the social implications of the degree, specifically some of my biological father’s words of wisdom.

“I wouldn’t tell people that you’re a doctor when you first meet them. They’re going to expect you to have certain things and look a certain way.” Upon moving to Albany, NY for my Postdoctoral fellowship, my father gave me this stern recommendation. I didn’t understand why he was encouraging me to keep my great accomplishment a secret, but to make a long story short, he was afraid of other people’s expectations, and there was some validity to his fears.

Our society associates the title of doctor with wealth, no matter what kind of doctor the person is. The late Dr. Thomas Stanley, author of the Millionaire Next Door series discussed in his books that being a high-income professional, and the accumulation of wealth don’t directly correlate. Wealth building involves: sound money management skills, financial literacy, and in some cases delayed gratification – components that not all doctors have.

“I wasn’t aware of Dr. Dunbar’s level of education when I met him so I was unable to address him by his proper title,” said a teacher at a Career Day at a local elementary school in late May. I casually revealed to the class that I earned a Ph.D. but didn’t introduce myself as “Dr. Dunbar”. As best I could, I tried to humbly explain to her class of sixth graders that success, in this case earning a doctorate, is a door that swings both ways.

That is, some people will instinctually be happy for you, celebrate your success and look at you with reverence, while others will unfortunately feel threatened and insecure about it and behave as such. This can be relatives, friends, significant others, coworkers, etc. There are numerous stories I could tell about this both good and bad, but there isn’t enough room in this piece.

In any case let’s circle back to the University of Michigan’s Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Career Day. What does having a doctorate in the basic sciences actually mean, and what does it actually empower one to do particularly in the sciences? As the lone government Regulatory Scientist at the Career Day, I interestingly drew the first time slot for the morning speakers.

I had no idea what my peers were going to talk about, but surprisingly most of our talks shared similar core themes. Each of us in our own way, communicated that in addition to becoming experts of our thesis projects, in my case the “Ubiquitination and Proteasomal Degradation of Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase”, there were a host of other skills that we had all learned that were applicable to our current careers and other areas, particularly the Public and Private sectors. Among them were:

• Critical thinking/Problem solving skills
• The ability to multi-task, organize and coordinate multiple projects at one time
• The ability to write clearly
• The ability to speak and present clearly
• The ability to work on teams
• The ability to adapt and understand new systems

My classmates had all gone on to do some very impressive things. Each of us worked on research projects in the areas of: Cardiovascular Pharmacology, Receptor Pharmacology, and Drug Metabolism, just to name a few. However after graduation, not everyone had taken the traditional path of becoming tenure-track academic researchers.

Some had gone on to: work in the pharmaceutical industry, start their own companies, become consultants, become academic professors or administrators (at small teaching colleges), or science advocates. Our varying careers spoke in part to our department’s openness to prepare its students for the potential for other careers, in addition to the versatility of the skills that we had acquired. See my Pharmacology blog post to get a feel for just how vast the field is.

In summary, earning any doctorate whether it be in the sciences or the humanities is a tremendous accomplishment. That being said, it’s what one does with the skills they’ve acquired during their thesis research that makes them great, not the degree itself. In the sciences, in addition to mastery of one’s area of expertise there a core set of skills learned. And it is these skills that make that person exceptional no matter which field they go into.

I’m going to end this differently than the original piece by saying that with a simple Google search, the publications I proudly generated during my research days I believe are all still available online for those curious individuals. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy:

A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?
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

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. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me 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 look at West Indian Archie

I originally published this piece on the Examiner in February of 2016.  It’s not about a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) practitioner or inventor per se, but instead it’s a look at an individual who had the potential to practice science.  Because of life choices and circumstances however, he used his intellectual gifts for criminal activities.  This person is an example of the wasted intellectual ability in the United States’ inner cities and also something my father talk about which was that, “people in the inner cities are naturally creative and inventive often times out of necessity.”

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West Indian Archie was portrayed by Delroy Lindo, in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington.  Though he was a minor character in the movie and in Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, West Indian Archie holds several significances, particularly in the realm of science.  Many of these significances are extremely relevant today in an era where there is a great push to get underrepresented minorities involved in STEM.

Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) first met West Indian Archie in New York city prior to converting to Islam and dedicating his life to Civil Rights.  West Indian Archie was one of the bigger players in the ‘Numbers’ game in Harlem who had done time up the Hudson River at Ossining State Prison best known as “Sing Sing”.  He eventually took Malcolm under his wing and taught him the Numbers game, and used the novice in his illegal activities.  West Indian Archie had the amazing ability memorize long sequences of numbers such that he never had to write them down.  He in fact warned Malcolm never to write his customer’s numbers down to minimize the potential for incriminating evidence should he get apprehended by the police.  As with most street partnerships, theirs eventually crumbled due to greed and ego, and Malcolm X eventually fled Harlem to save his own life.

After Malcolm X converted to Islam, he later found West Indian Archie close to death and the two reconciled their differences.  After educating himself in jail and gaining a new perspective on the world, Malcolm X came to the realization that someone like West Indian Archie with his ability to memorize numbers, could have used his talent to become any number things particular in the sciences; a physicist, an astronaut, a mathematician, etc.  He realized that in blighted urban areas all over the United States there were similar minds with the abilities to practice science that were wasted and used in things like criminal activity by default – a challenge we still face today.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog 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.

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.

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.

*  *  *

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.