Black Microbiologists Push for Visibility Amid a Pandemic

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Black Microbiologists Push for Visibility Amid a Pandemic

A few days before her fifth grade science fair, Ariangela Kozik woke to the overwhelming smell of poultry that was beyond its limits. That was exactly what the young scientist had hoped for.

"Phew," she remembered the thinking back then. "Something is definitely growing here."

She hurried to her kitchen, where a neat stack of glass Petri dishes was waiting for her, each filled with a gelatinous brown slice of beef broth and sugar. There was a hint of what looked like shiny, cream-colored pimples on many of the cow-based concoctions. Each was a fast-growing colony filled with billions and billions of bacteria, including several from the swab of raw chicken juice she had dabbed three days earlier.

Dr. Kozik had conducted an experiment to determine which brand of detergent was best for killing bacteria. (The answer: Joy dishwashing detergent.) But her results brought an even greater reward: a lifelong love of microbes, exquisitely small organisms with oversized effects on the world.

"It felt like I had just discovered a new way of life," said Dr. Kozik, who is now at the University of Michigan doing research and studying microbes that live in the human lungs. "It was so cool."

Two decades later, Dr. Kozik her scientifically fair project, for which she won first place, still as one of her first formal forays into the field of microbiology. In the months after her experiment, she devoured every book she could find on the subject until she wore down her parents with endless chatter about infectious diseases. About 10 years later, she was on her way to a PhD, which she earned in 2018. And on Monday, she kicks off Black in Microbiology Week, the latest in a series of virtual events that showcase black scientists in various disciplines as one of the two main organizers.

As with previous similar events, Black in Microbiology Week is hosted entirely through virtual platforms such as Twitter and Zoom. The event spans seven days of lectures, panel discussions, and online discussions covering a range of topics under the umbrella of microbiology, including the coronavirus, and addressing differences in medicine, education, and career advancement. Everything is free and open to the public and has live subtitles. Registration is required to participate.

"This is really an opportunity to welcome new voices and reinforce those who haven't been heard," said Michael D. L. Johnson, microbiologist and immunologist at the University of Arizona, who will attend the Black in Bacteriology Panel Friday.

The team at the head of the event, led by Dr. Kozik and virologist Kishana Taylor, number 23, most of whom are black women. They have partnered with sponsors such as the American Society for Microbiology, the American Society for Virology, and the scientific journals eLife and PLoS Biology to reward speakers and organizers and keep the group alive in their quest for charitable status. A Twitter account dedicated to the event has attracted thousands of followers. Dr. Kozik and Dr. Taylor said they expected interest to grow and are already thinking about how to keep the momentum going after the campaign has formally concluded.

"Black in microbiology, black in neurology, and everyone else is critical to visibility for younger generations of scientists and for people who have said or thought that talent pool just doesn't exist," said Kizzmekia Corbett, a viral immunologist at the National Institutes of Health, where she is working to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. Dr. Corbett will be one of four experts to be featured in the Black in Virology panel on Tuesday.

Black in Microbiology Week takes place amid months of protests against police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and other blacks.

The campaign also lands amid a pandemic triggered by a deadly virus that disproportionately affects blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Indians. Members of these groups are almost three times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus as their white neighbors and are five times as likely to be hospitalized. Blacks die from Covid-19 more than twice as often as whites.

Much of what underpins these trends can be traced back to systemic racism that has kept adequate information and medical care away from non-white groups. Decades of exploitation of black and indigenous communities by researchers has also undermined trust in medicine. Such rifts could enlarge existing health disparities as new coronavirus tests, treatments, and ultimately vaccines roll out at a breakneck pace.

On Tuesday, Dr. Johnson to his aunt, who was skeptical about upcoming coronavirus vaccines. But the conversation ended positively, he said, because she trusted his expertise: "She said:" If you tell me to take it, I'll take it. "

Strengthening the ranks of the Black Microbiology community could go a long way toward repairing some of these cracks, said Taylor Smith, a technologist at the Georgia Public Health Laboratory, where she has performed up to thousands of coronavirus tests daily. "All the more there is now a need for black scientists to be at the forefront," she said. That visibility, she added, can convey, "I understand why you might be concerned, but we are here to do the job too and you can trust us."

Despite years of progress, blacks remain underrepresented in science and technology. While more than 13 percent of the United States' population is black or African American, blacks make up less than 7 percent of students who have a bachelor's degree in science or engineering and less than 5 percent of those who are in PhDs in microbiology year, according to the National Science Foundation.

The number of black scientists has "largely stagnated over the past decade," said Johnna Frierson, assistant dean of graduate and postdoctoral diversity and inclusion at Duke University School of Medicine. In some areas, representation has even decreased – a trend that has worried experts. "There is something in the system that is not optimized so that we can continue to diversify as we hope," said Dr. Frierson. As a former virologist, she will take part in a panel on Monday that will look at educational differences in the black community.

Dr. Taylor, whose work at Carnegie Mellon University focuses on the new coronavirus, began his infectious disease career in college about 15 years ago. But it wasn't until a year and a half ago that she met another black virologist – Chelsey Spriggs, who heads the Black in Microbiology sponsoring team and virologist at the University of Michigan. It was such a breathtaking moment that the two women snapped a picture together and posted it on Twitter.

"Sometimes I feel like you internalize that there just aren't that many of us, we're not that visible," said Dr. Kozik. "It's hard to explain what it means to know that I'm not the only one in the world."

LaNell Williams, a director of the Black in Microbiology programming team, and Ph.D. The Harvard University student studies physics and virology and spans two areas where black women are extremely rare. During her time at Harvard – a wealthy institution in a progressive community – she has dealt with coworkers who have touched their hair without permission, dismissed their admission to their graduation program as a positive measure, and used racist slurs in their presence. Over the years she said, "I've gotten used to people who don't expect much from me when I walk into a room."

At the University of Georgia, Dr. Taylor the only black graduate student in her department. Her love for science was sparked early on by movies like "Flipper" and "Free Willy," which sparked "an obsession" with dolphins and other whales, she said. After first completing a veterinary degree, she stumbled into the world of infectious diseases and was immediately hooked.

Dr. Taylor said she intends to one day open her own lab, focusing on the intersection of humans, animals, disease and the environment – closely related factors that can each set the scales on an infectious outbreak. But by the end of her PhD, years of toxic interactions with coworkers who pelted her with criticism and condescension had marginalized her. "I was super ready to leave science," she said. "Everything you do is horrible," played over and over in my head. "

The mentoring of new counselors in their postdoctoral fellowships helped change that, said Dr. Taylor. But since then she has fought to prevent the same thing from happening to another student in her position. It is a step in this direction to stand up for their black microbiologists.

"I think a lot of the message is, 'We're here," said Dr. Johnson, who also leads an outreach program to connect black, indigenous and other colored students with academic mentors.

During his postdoctoral fellowship at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Dr. Johnson gave a public talk in 2014 on one of his favorite topics: How copper affects microbes. He was on the ground when a black woman from the audience approached him. Her comment wasn't about microbiology – at least not directly.

"They said," My kid wants to be a scientist, I didn't know a scientist could look like you, "he said." It's important to break through to these communities. I think this week will be a wonderful contribution to that. "

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