Teaser for my next series – My Scientific Journey

So how exactly did I go from a Music major at Duke to Graduate School in Biochemistry and Biophysics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill? How did I go from Biochemistry and Biophysics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Infectious Diseases at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?

My next couple of installments will be about both of those transitions and what I have learned (so much) along the way. First up, going from music to science. Interested? Subscribe so you don’t miss it!!!




What I Learned in Journal Club #1

So this was cool. We discussed this paper in our most recent infectious diseases journal club.

Imagine this, you have spiderman, and he makes this web to catch bad guys. Some bad guys get picked up by the police and go to jail, but some bad guys actually use that very same web, cutting it in various ways, and turn it into a trap for the police. A trap that ultimately prevents those policeman from doing their job. How does this happen? How will you catch those bad guys now? Can you prevent the bad guys from cutting the webbing to hurt the policeman? Won’t someone please think of the children?

spiderman-webbing-wallpaper-free-download_Spiderman_wallpapers_78 2

Believe it or not, this process happens inside of you all the time. Here is a quick immune system primer before I get to how it is done.

Your immune system is really cool. It has various lines of defense. Most commonly, it is described as the primary response and the secondary response. The primary response (innate immune response) sees foreign things and tries to get rid of them with extreme force (usually it eats the pathogen to kill it). It isn’t very specific, it tries to get any foreign thing out fast. The secondary response (adaptive immune response) is the more specific response. Think of it as a group of soldiers that were literally born and bred to attack one thing and one thing only. They lay there waiting to strike until they see it then they take it down. And you can form millions of different groups to respond to different situations.

In the primary immune response, you have many types of cells. Here I will just tell you about two, neutrophils (cells that don’t live very long) and macrophages (cells that live longer). Both try to eat debris or invading pathogens. They also do a host of other things and each have a specialized function. Here is a really interesting video of a neutrophil chasing, tracking down, and killing a bacterium.

Now back to the spiderman story. The neutrophils actually spit out their DNA to form a web AKA a NET (Neutrophil Extracellular Trap) that bacteria can get caught in. This webbing has other things in it as well to help kill invading pathogens. Then the macrophages can come and scoop the bad stuff up and clear it from the body.

Here is where it gets interesting. A bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) has a way of getting out of the netting. Not only that, Staph can cut the DNA in such a way that is acts as a poison for the macrophages. Here is a write up about it. The actual article is subscription based. But if you are at a library or at a place with access, here is that article too.

So how do we get rid of the bad bacteria, we still have those secondary response soldiers. And we have research too, lots and lots of research.


Also, today is my 9 year anniversary. Yay us 🙂

And since you are still reading, make sure to subscribe.

Catching a Football Game with ALL the Black and STEM PhDs

So just how many Black and STEM PhDs are there in the US? And how can we put this number into perspective. Well, I wanted to know so being a scientist, I went to the data. All links will open up to where I got the data in a different window and the stats I am referring to are for people 18 and older.

Here we go…

There has been a 12% increase in Black PhDs from 2011 to 2013 (13% overall)

As of 2013, 0.67% of black people (the national number is 1.47%) have a PhD. This amounts to about 195000 people, or 1 out of every 149 black people. Gender wise, the number is split down the middle with men and women with both listed at 97000 (I know it doesn’t quite add up, they rounded somewhere they shouldn’t have).

About half of the national population PhDs are in the STEM field. So if we make the assumption that this ratio holds true in the black population, that would mean there are about 118000 Black and Stem PhDs.

But the ratio does NOT hold up. The number is really closer to 72000.

To put in perspective, we could all go to see a football game in 37 different football stadiums and all have a seat in the stands.

Here are some more interesting tidbits.

Life sciences, all 44300 people could all catch a game at 9 professional baseball stadiums. This number is actually on par with the US population.

Physical science (34500), Engineering (31800), OR Biomedical (32400) PhDs could catch a Syracuse Orange basketball game. But these numbers are IF the national ratio held true. Sadly, it doesn’t. It looks more like this…

Physical science – 14200 (>50% lower that it should be with in regards to national parity), any of the top 80 basketball arenas.

Engineering – 13300 (>50% lower) even more of basketball arenas.

Biomedical science (which is a sub category in Life science) – 25200 any Major league baseball stadium

Now within the biomedical science population, the 2600 biochemists could “get to Carnegie Hall” with room to spare, but we just need to practice first (You’ll get that joke later, ask a musician or click here).

All the other chemists, a bit over 6000, would have to squeeze into Radio City Music Hall.

How did I find all this out? Well I took the number of current PhDs according to the 2013 census and extrapolated 2011 data on PhDa in given fields to arrive at the current amount. So the numbers are likely within 10% of the real number.

Why does it matter?

Diversity leads to innovation. Innovation leads to better solutions for problems that we cannot solve alone. That problem is cancer, that problem is a new bacterial infection, that problem is autoimmune disease, that problem is heart disease, that problem is solvable!!!

Diverse problem sets require diverse sets minds to solve them. So while we are getting stronger in numbers, there is work to be done to get to the same parity as the national numbers. Let’s rally the troops to inspire the next generation of scientists, and hopefully in a few years, there will be no single stadium that can hold us. #BLACKandSTEM


Conference Recap #3 of 3, What Drives You?

I was lucky enough to be an invited speaker and panelist at the 2014 MidAtlantic PREP and IMSD Research Symposium at UNC. PREP and IMSD are two valuable programs that help (not exclusively) underrepresented minorities transition into graduate school and help them stay in grad school once they get there. They do this by forming a tight knit community that is full of support. Obviously people from the UNC program were there, but Duke, VCU, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, UMBC, NC State, and a curveball of University of Chicago were represented there. Lots of great projects, progress, and people were there.

While serving on the postdoctoral alumni panel discussion, we were asked a lot about our experiences. How we got there? What would we do differently in grad school? What did we want to be when we grew up? Pretty standard questions to which we gave pretty standard answers. The one question that stuck out was about money, and its role in our decision for determining our future career, in science or abandon ship.

And there it was, the what’s your motivation question. For some it is money, some it is fame and recognition, others good will. But the question remains, what drives you?

My answer was an honest one, and I will paraphrase here as I did not have a tape recorder to record myself or the other very qualified panelists.

I told the asker “yes, you have to eat, yes, you have to have a place for you to live, but to a certain degree, you have to do science because you want to do it. There comes a time that you have to do away with the money aspect of your science career choice in order to stop and listen to yourself. What does your passion say? You need to listen and try to follow that passion before you worry about the money.” (I sure am more eloquent here than I remember being on the stage).

Now I realize that I am fortunate that I get paid to do what I am passionate about. I am also fortunate that I know that what I want to do with my career, a tireless pursuit of academia. But believe me when I say that I am not going into academia for the money, I am going because it is where I believe I can do the most good and help people and cultivate the next group of scientist. I think it is far easier to help people up the ladder when you can reach down with two arms extended from the top. There aren’t a lot of people that look like me at the faculty level in science (but that is an entirely different post).

I am not alone in the way I feel. Another panelist flat out said “I just want to help sick kids” and he could not have been more genuine when he said it. Satisfaction will more often be tied more with altruism than with money.

Science as a career might not be for everyone, but the science we do IS for everyone.