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.

* * *

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 saw 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. This 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 – an important part of science.

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.

* * *

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. Please visit my YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76. 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.

* * *

“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.”

* * *

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 keys to learning college-level general chemistry revisited

The first principle of my blog is Creating Ecosystems of Success, and a key focus is awareness of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. A key class for many STEM-hopefuls is ‘college- level’ General Chemistry, both in high school and college. Some students, particularly those attending very competitive high schools, take college-level Chemistry and struggle with it.

Several years ago when I tutored part-time, I worked with several students in Northern Virginia where taking ‘Honors’ and ‘International Baccalaureate’ (IB) General Chemistry as freshman and sophomores was a normal occurrence. For three to four years, I worked in the former Northern Virginia Tutoring service where I consistently coached lost and struggling students, and helped them confidently finish their classes strong.  The service was run by my mentor and fellow blogger Dr. Ralph G. Perrino (Dr. Perrino’s blog).

I originally published this piece on the Examiner back in March of 2013. I’ve decided to republish this revised version as tutoring was a fun and rewarding experience for me, which also helped me earn some extra income. I myself didn’t fully grasp General Chemistry back at Hutch-Tech High School as a sophomore. It wasn’t until I was an undergraduate at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) that I understood and mastered this exciting quantitative science. I went on to use that knowledge in my graduate studies, in my federal science career, and eventually as a tutor.

* * *

After starting my federal science career, tutoring not only allowed me to supplement my income, but it was a very educational experience for me as well. When applying to work as a tutor through the Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, I listed Biology, Chemistry, and Physics as my areas of expertise. I had some experience with all three disciplines in my undergraduate and graduate studies.

Chemistry by far was the course that generated the most demand for me, specifically ‘Honors’ and ‘International Baccalaureate’ (IB) Chemistry. IB courses are basically ‘college-level’ and can be quite a jump for some high school freshman and sophomores. Even some upperclassmen struggle in them. These classes are particularly problematic when the students fall behind in them early, lose confidence, and when the subject area falls outside of Mom and Dad’s areas of expertise – hence the need for a tutor.

The students who needed my help weren’t ‘slouches’ by any means. Most of them resided in Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax Counties.  Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation – a county with a very strong school system where 90% of its students matriculate to college. The parents’ vigilance and drive to assure that their children do well academically is also a hallmark of this county. This was manifested in their willingness to invest some of their hard-earned money into tutors – sometimes several at one time for multiple children. Those parents were very impressive.

When working with the students, my initial goal was to approach them with a positive and optimistic attitude. Patience, understanding and a bit of humor were parts of my approach as well.  These were particularly important for students who had lost hope. After this initial part, we dove into the actual science and turning their grades around. There were four key principles that I stressed to my students: time management, taking initiative, practice and attention to detail.

The kids I worked with were ‘high achievers’ and typically juggled multiple classes, and in some instances, multiple Honors/IB courses. They were also involved in a plethora of after school activities (sports and clubs of all kinds), which often caused a bit of an overload. In cases such as these, time management for each class, especially the demanding classes, was very, very important.

The next principles I instilled were taking initiative and the importance of practice. College-level courses require students to assume more responsibility for their studies with less coddling by teachers. This is especially important for quantitative sciences like Chemistry and Physics, which are calculation-intensive and require rigorous practice. I stressed to my students that this was the only way to feel confident at test time, when students were tasked with working their way through several pages of complex problems, usually within 45 minutes to an hour.

The argument that teachers aren’t ‘teaching effectively’ in these subjects may be partially true in some instances, but what’s also true is that the teachers can’t do everything. They can’t make the students practice what they’ve learned after hours and on weekends – arguably the most important part their learning. This is where the most meaningful part of students’ learning takes place as was the case for me as an undergraduate when the light-bulb turned on one Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, NC.

Finally, I impressed upon my students the importance of learning to pay attention to several key details. Chemistry tends to start off with ‘concept-based’ learning: the trends of the “Periodic Table of Elements“, the micro-particles that comprise atoms, and then chemical bonding. With the balancing of chemical equations, the class becomes more ‘critical thought-based’.

The ‘quantitative’ phase starts with the “Stoichiometry” chapter which permeates throughout the remaining chapters. This is the phase in which the calculator becomes one of the student’s ‘best friends’ as they must calculate decimals, express numbers using ‘scientific notation’, and sometimes calculate ‘log’ values. When calculating acids, bases and pH values, students also must be able to use the ‘^’ calculator function in some instances, which admittedly confused me as the tutor once. An important part of this phase is understanding and being able to convert ‘units of measure’ – converting grams to kilograms, and then grams to moles, Celsius and Fahrenheit to Kelvin, and so on.

The calculation of moles, percent compositions, percent yields and so on, leads the class to become highly quantitative and the students then must also keep track of various equations/formulas, and chemical/physical constants, while also integrating concepts from earlier chapters. This continues into the “Solutions”, the “Gas Laws”, “Kinetics” and “Thermochemistry” chapters. While specific calculations are used throughout the course such as the conversion of grams to moles, some chapters have their own unique equations, formulas and units of measure such as ‘millimeters of Mercury’ (mm Hg) in the Gas Law chapter which is a measure for atmospheric pressure.

Examples of chemical/physical constants include “Avagadro’s number”, and the “Universal Gas Constant”, which itself has many different values depending upon the units used. As we progressed through the chapters, one thing I constantly had to remind my students of was always keeping their Periodic Table of Elements handy. I consider this the student’s first best friend in the class, as it has pieces of information about every element necessary to answer questions in even the more advanced chapters.

This all sounds like a lot right? Again, it can be particularly problematic if the parents have no experience in the area. Once lost, students typically need extra help in the form of spending more time with the teacher or working with a tutor. When the above-mentioned keys are introduced and the student buys in, he or she can gain confidence, get back on track and find the class to be fun. Tutoring caused me to have to relearn some material I’d forgotten over the years, and to learn concepts we hadn’t covered when I was an undergraduate.  In some instances I was learning along with the students I tutored.  This was fun for me and created a sense of adventure.

* * *

If you’re a STEM-professional, tutoring is a really good way to generate a second income depending upon the demand for your knowledge set in your area or elsewhere. With the technology available to us today, tutors can work with students remotely in some instances without having to physically be there. In either case, helping students to understand their subject matter, and ‘to get over the hump’, is a very rewarding feeling, and an accomplishment all in itself.  It’s also gratifying when the parents thank you and stay on their children about when their next tutoring sessions will be.

What also helped me out during my tutoring experience was that I could go back and ask one of my veteran undergraduate Chemistry professors questions when I got ‘stumped’.  In some instances, I needed to be refreshed on some of the nuances of some of the problems I was doing with my students. I don’t think he’ll mind me mentioning him, and I’m very thankful that he was willing to provide guidance when I didn’t know what to do. This underscores the importance of not burning your bridges and maintaining relationships with your professors long after you’ve earned you degree.

My former professor also pointed me in the direction of the Chemistry Olympiad Exams for challenging and fun practice problems. You can download the yearly exams as pdfs for free.  The answers are in the back, so you can go over them yourself or with your student, and even work your way backwards to figure out the right answer, if either of you answered the question incorrectly.

Thank you for taking the time out 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
The transferrable skills from a STEM degree in the basic sciences
Don’t Be A Mad Scientist: Avoid These Stupid Lab Mistakes
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?

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.

* * *

“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. Please visit my YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76. 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.

* * *

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on  Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A look at STEM: What is ADME/Drug Metabolism?

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

Similar to the fields of Pharmacology and Toxicology, ADME/Drug Metabolism is a well-established field dating back to the nineteenth century, and it is very complex with respect to the wealth and depth of information available.  It is still evolving today.  The goal of this post is not to address every detail of the field, but instead to give readers a basic introductory understanding of the discipline.  Further details about the many aspects of ADME/Drug Metabolism can be accessed online, or in scientific journals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Scientists with training in Drug Metabolism will almost never be with jobs,” said one of the professors in my graduate department at the University of Michigan.  While we know that there is no job that is 100% secure, this particular professor was stressing that ADME/Drug Metabolism scientists are critical parts of most companies.  The divisions of those companies responsible for these types of studies are typically titled Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics (DMPK).  No matter what disease the company is interested in (Diabetes, Cancer, HIV, etc.), it is essential that they understand the chemical’s ADME/Drug Metabolism profile for their own purposes and when submitting packages for approval by the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies.  The same is true for chemical companies. Depending on the degree level earned and where the scientist is employed, ADME/Drug Metabolism scientists can earn starting salaries of $60,000-$70,000.

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

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

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

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and I hope I was able to shed some light onto what ADME/Drug Metabolism is as a field.  The next post in this series will discuss the field of Inhalation Toxicology.  If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?
A look at STEM: Blockchain technology, a new a conducting business and record keeping

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

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

 

A 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.

 

Tokiwa Smith discusses SEM Link and STEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AD: What are you goals for SEM Link?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If this interview, you might also enjoy

Dr. Quin Capers, IV discusses his path #BlackMenInMedicine, and the present landscape of medical education
Dr. Namandje Bumpus discusses her educational path, and her research career in Pharmacology
A Black History Month interview with Howard University’s Dr. Vernon Morris part one
A Black History Month interview with Howard University’s Dr. Vernon Morris part two

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 Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and finally 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 review of Hidden Figures

I recently co-wrote movie reviews with my brother Amahl Dunbar for Marvel’s Dr. Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – both of the Super Hero and Science Fiction genres.  This review will switch gears slightly and focus on a film with more of a historical focus; Hidden Figures based upon the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margo Lee Shetterly.  The film starred Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner.  Unlike the previous reviews which were done in a conversational format, Amahl and I will independently give our thoughts on what stood out to us about the film.

Amahl:  In terms of Hidden Figures, I was impressed with NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer).  In the story, when IBM first delivers the computer to NASA, the engineers figured out how to assemble it, but they couldn’t operate it.  The computer was critical for expediting NASA’s space travel calculations.  Dorothy saw tremendous opportunity and acted on it.  She had the foresight to learn the programming language Fortran (Formula Translation), from a book at a local library.  When she demonstrated she could operate and program the computer, she was immediately promoted and transferred.  She also had the foresight to teach Fortran to the other female African American mathematicians thus ensuring their long term employment at NASA.  So I think her having the insight to see the opportunity in front of her and then the assertiveness to take advantage of it were huge and great teaching points.  These are two very important ingredients for success.

Hidden Figures is as culturally and historically relevant as all the seasons of the Cosby Show.  I can’t wait for it to come out on Blue-Ray.

Anwar:  As a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) advocate and professional myself, a current challenge is getting African American students interested in STEM, and then empowering them to stick with it.  Recently at the kickoff for the Toxicology Mentoring and Skills Development Training program’s inaugural weekend, I had a discussion with the chair of the program and we discussed the difficulties in getting minorities involved in Toxicology (and other STEM careers).  At the same meeting one of the speakers noted that the majority of the time when minority students get discouraged and leave the sciences, they usually change their majors to one of the Humanities or the Arts.  This is not a knock on the non-science fields but instead in part is a reflection of how the sciences are viewed by students of color – especially for those who have no STEM professionals in their families – our case as children.  For me, this is the beauty of Hidden Figures.

Without giving away the plot beyond what my brother described above, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monea) who all greatly impacted the Space Race of the early 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Each of the three leads played key roles in the United States’ mission to put a man in space – optimization of the space craft (Jackson), implementation of the IMB computer to expedite NASA’s calculations (Vaughn), and performing the initial critical calculations for the astronauts’ space travel (Johnson).  Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine Goble Johnson seemed to be the main story line as she was central to working out the calculations for John Glenn’s orbit and re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

Hidden Figures is a valuable film in that it shows African American women portrayed in ways that we’re normally not used to seeing them in media.  While she’s most known these days for playing “Cookie” on Fox’s Empire for example, Taraji P. Henson’s role as Katherine Goble Johnson is arguably a more important as it depicts an African American woman performing complex mathematical calculations impacting NASA’s space missions.  Most importantly, the film highlights the contributions of African Americans to one of the United States’ most celebrated breakthroughs; manned space travel.  Unfortunately prior to the movie it wasn’t widely recognized who all contributed to John Glen’s mission – something that occurs often in US History when it comes to people of color.

Hidden Figures is a very important film to see particularly for young children who haven’t decided on a career path.  If they have an inkling of an aptitude for STEM, films like Hidden Figures can definitely help encourage them to pursue a STEM career.  A film like Hidden Figures would have been very valuable in my own youth though I was fortunate to have the pieces in place to allow me to pursue my own careers in Pharmacology and Toxicology – environment and mentors.  It’s not that way for every child/student.

Our Twitter handles are @amahldunbar and @BWArePowerful. If you liked this review, please do click the “like” button, leave comments, and share it. Please visit my YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76. 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, 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.