What It Means to Be Black in Science: Pew Scholars’ Experiences

A celebration of leading biomedical scientists of color

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What It Means to Be Black in Science: Pew Scholars’ Experiences
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David Benito Getty Images

Black researchers have been at the forefront of discovery in biomedical science throughout history. From improving our understanding of how the body works to shedding light on lifesaving surgeries and treatments, these scientists have a long legacy of critical contributions to health and medicine.

However, Black people continue to be underrepresented in science, due in large part to barriers brought on by racism and other inequities. A 2021 report from the Pew Research Center shows one way this remains evident today: Just 9% of the United States’ STEM workforce identifies as Black.

Current members of Pew’s biomedical programs are just some of the Black scientists conducting leading research in their fields. To celebrate Black History Month this February, they spoke about their current scientific investigations and shared how their identity intersects with and influences this work.

These quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Alaji Bah, Ph.D. - 2021 Pew scholar

Alaji Bah, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Bah is also a co-founding director of the Postbaccalaureate Research and Education Program at Upstate Medical University (PREP-Up). The program focuses on strengthening the research skills and academic competitiveness of participants in an effort to help meet the critical need for diverse investigators in basic and translational research, particularly individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Alaji Bah
Alaji Bah (fourth from right) poses with members of his lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University, where he’s an assistant professor.
Courtesy of Alaji Bah

What does being a Black scientist mean to you?

As a scientist, I feel I’m part of a long, rich tradition enjoyed by a lucky few humans who have been endowed with a great tool—the scientific method—for tackling problems for the benefit of humanity, as well as the maintenance of our environment. Being a Black scientist, I feel I’m very, very privileged to have an opportunity that many like me didn’t have or have been denied solely because of the color of their skin, how they look or act, or because of where and when they were born.

I hope my career as an independent scientist at Upstate Medical University and as a Pew scholar will inspire all, particularly other folks who look like me (and especially little Black boys and little Black girls all around the world) to pursue science. I hope that my being a Black scientist will continue that legacy of breaking down barriers and providing opportunities for all, especially for the underrepresented minorities in the sciences—not only today but for generations to come. Because every missed opportunity to develop and nurture an aspiring scientist is a great loss for every human!

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in your field thus far?

Thus far, my most significant research achievement is the discovery of a new mode of biological regulation. The traditional structure-function hypothesis posits that the biological function of a protein depends on its ability to fold into a stable 3D structure. However, it’s becoming increasingly evident that intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), which lack the ability to fold into stable states, can play critical roles in various important biological processes. During my postdoctoral training in the Forman-Kay lab in Toronto, my collaborators and I identified how specific chemical modification of IDPs can control how they function. My work directly contradicts, for the first time, the structure-function paradigm of proteins, which has important implications for conditions that are driven by the dysregulation of IDPs such as cancer, diabetes, and neurodegeneration.

Sonya Neal, Ph.D. – 2020 Pew scholar

Sonya Neal, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She’s also an organizer at UCSD’s Biology Undergraduate and Master’s Mentorship Program—BUMMP—which aims to provide underrepresented students with the necessary resources and mentoring to excel in the biological sciences.  

Sonya Neal
Sonya Neal (back row, second from right), shown surrounded by her lab team, is an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego.
Courtesy of Sonya Neal

What does being a Black scientist mean to you?

To me, it’s constantly having to juggle between my work and racial/ethnic identity. I’m incredibly fortunate to be a scientist and professor at an R1 university [a university recognized for very high-level research activity]. This is a pinnacle of privilege to many. However, in the country where I do my job, with a deep-rooted history of systemic racism and violence against Black people, I often must wrestle with not just my research, but also being seen as a problem due to the color of my skin. I live in a country where I’m constantly reminded through personal experiences and headline news about the pervasive violence against Black people. To be a Black scientist doesn’t isolate me from the everyday struggles of being Black in America.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in your field thus far?

My research seeks to understand protein “quality control” pathways, specifically, how cells remove aberrant proteins before they wreak havoc on cellular function. Such quality control mechanisms are critical for cells with lifetimes of a year or more (liver cells) or longer (brain cells). My lab’s particular emphasis is on the pathways that detect and destroy aberrant misfolded membrane proteins.

In the protein quality control field, my greatest achievement was discovering a long-sought dedicated export factor—rhomboid protein Dfm1—which is responsible for removing mutant or damaged membrane proteins from the cell. This study has impacted protein quality control in two ways: (1) it answers a long-standing problem in membrane protein quality control, and (2) it implicates members of the rhomboid superfamily as key mediators in protein quality control. We employ methods uniquely feasible in yeast and mammalian cells for characterization of membrane protein quality control at the mechanistic and cellular level, and bring these studies to the tissue and organismal scale using zebrafish as our vertebrate model.

Aaron Streets, Ph.D. – 2019 Pew scholar

Aaron Streets, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s the faculty director of the Bioengineering Scholars program, an undergraduate research program designed to promote diversity in the bioengineering field, and the co-founder of the Next Generation Faculty Symposium.

Aaron Streets
Aaron Streets (bottom, center) is flanked by members of his lab at the University of California, Berkeley, where he’s an assistant professor.
Courtesy of Aaron Streets

What does being a Black scientist mean to you?

Identifying as Black and identifying as a scientist are two important aspects of my multifaceted self-identity. Being a scientist means I answer interesting questions for a living, and if I’m doing my job well, I can come up with even better questions. It means that I can have an impact on human health through research and an impact on the next generation of scientists through mentoring and education. Being Black means that I share slices of lived experience with a vast diaspora of people who span nationalities, languages, cultures, and genotypes. At the intersection of these two aspects of my identity is opportunity: opportunity to have an impact on society outside my research and opportunity to have an impact on students even outside of the classroom. This intersection also provides both an opportunity and sometimes a responsibility to improve the efficacy of academic institutions through service—lots of service.  

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in your field thus far?

As a bioengineer, I’m interested in how biomedical big data is generated. To this end, our research group develops new hardware and molecular tools to facilitate precision measurements on biological systems in a high-throughput fashion. Over the past few years, our research has focused on pushing the limit of information that can be measured from cells. We’ve invented a suite of tools that integrate microfluidic devices, advanced imaging technologies, DNA sequencing, and machine learning algorithms to measure the molecular composition of individual cells.

With these tools, we’ve helped map the development of important cell types including adipocytes—the fat cells critical for a healthy metabolism—and T cells, which our immune system relies on to fight infection. Furthermore, we developed a new technique called DiMeLo-seq, which will enable researchers to understand genome regulation in DNA regions that have been intractable using traditional tools for mapping the human epigenetic code.

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