Tell us about your current career position.
I am a tenure-track, assistant professor of chemistry at Brown University. I joined the Brown faculty in July, 2006.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
The first significant decision in my scientific career was to pursue undergraduate research with Prof. Joseph W. McCray, Jr. at Morehouse College. I worked with Prof. McCray from the summer after my freshman year through my senior year. The three and a half years that I spent working with him were absolutely formative. He cultivated my interests in biochemistry and in structural biology. He taught me how to read the scientific literature and to think deeply and broadly. In addition to my research at Morehouse during the academic year, Dr. McCray encouraged me to pursue research opportunities at Purdue University (with Prof. Thomas J. Smith now at the Danforth Institute) and at Harvard Medical School (with Prof. James M. Hogle) during the summers.
The second critical decision with respect to my scientific career was to attend Harvard University for graduate study in biophysics. At Harvard, I was able to explore my interests in scientific topics that interface between chemistry and biology. My Ph.D. adviser, Prof. Stuart L. Schreiber, played an especially important role- he gave me an opportunity to learn synthetic organic chemistry, which was a great complement to my undergraduate education in biology. My time in Stuart’s research group exposed me to an incredibly broad array of research topics in organic chemistry and biology. The breadth of his research interests and the impact of his research accomplishments continue to inspire my research perspective to this day.
The third critical decision in my scientific career was to focus my research on the metabolism of Streptomyces bacteria. Towards the end of my graduate work, I was looking for a research topic that could sustain at least a forty-year scientific career. I thought antibiotic-producing Streptomyces bacteria would be ideal research subjects, and a meeting with Prof. Arnold Demain (then at MIT) convinced me that this was the case. I sought and was fortunate to be given opportunities to work with some of the world’s experts on the metabolism and genetics of Streptomyces bacteria- Prof. Christopher T. Walsh at Harvard Medical School, and Profs. Keith Chater and Mark Buttner at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England. My decision to study Streptomyces bacteria was a very good one. Through studies of these bacteria, I have had opportunities to carry out fundamental research with implications for antibacterial drug discovery, antibiotic resistance, chemical ecology, and renewable energy.
How did you first become interested in science?
I first became interested in science in elementary school when my parents enrolled me in a summer program sponsored by the Pine Jog Environmental Education Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. This program did not involve research, but it gave me an appreciation of the environment.
Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
From the time I was a graduate student, I knew that I wanted to lead an interdisciplinary research program in my independent career. Accordingly, I changed research directions three times after I graduated from college. My first transition was as a graduate student when I changed interests from structural biology and biophysics to synthetic organic chemistry. As a post-doctoral fellow, I made two significant changes. First, I transitioned from synthetic organic chemistry to protein biochemistry and enzymology. Then, I switched from protein biochemistry and enzymology to bacterial genetics. At each stage, I had a steep learning curve and faced many challenges, but I always kept my focus on my long-term objective.
A particularly challenging time was my training in protein biochemistry and enzymology. I chose to work on an exceedingly difficult project because it was an opportunity to define a new catalytic strategy in enzymology. After more than a year of work, I had produced very little data of any consequence. Fortunately, my transition from biochemistry to genetics provided me with an opportunity to redeem my career. However, the modest productivity from my post-doctoral period did not help my job search or my efforts to get funding. I would advise any post-doctoral fellow to focus on publishing as many papers as is possible- productivity is extremely important.
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
I would advise young people from under-represented backgrounds not to view their gender, race or ethnicity as an impediment. Science is not always a meritocracy. However, in this business, ideas are commodities and publications are the currency. It is critically important to seek out good mentors, empathetic advisers, and a network of supportive peers.
What are your hobbies?
Science is both my profession and my avocation, but I do enjoy playing and listening to music (especially jazz).
What was the last book you read?
The last book that I read was “Duke Ellington’s America” by Harvey Cohen. I am very interested in biographies and autobiographies. The lives of jazz musicians, like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis are especially inspirational, because they point the way towards sustaining creativity and productivity over a lifetime.
Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
My parents were my earliest and most important role models and influences. I consider my scientific career to be the product of good mentoring. At each stage, I encountered great scientists and wonderful people that provided me with critical guidance and support. My first research adviser, Joseph McCray, taught me the fundamentals of scientific research and showed me the significance of mentoring. My Ph.D. adviser, Stuart Schreiber, taught me how to think big and how to pursue research topics across scientific interfaces. My post-doctoral advisor, Christopher T. Walsh, showed me how much can gained from reading extensively and thinking broadly. Chris also taught me a great deal about setting up a successful research program and about communicating science. My post-doc advisor, Mark Buttner, has more fun doing science than anyone that I know. He taught me that scientific research is greatly enhanced by spirited engagement with others.
Two other scientists who I consider to be heroes are Arnold Demain and David Hopwood. Arnold Demain is one of the scientists who catalyzed the idea that industrial microbiology is a science. In addition to a phenomenal scientific career in biotechnology, he has been a model mentor to me and many other microbiologists. David Hopwood is one of the founding fathers of research on Streptomyces bacteria. He and members of research group literally wrote the book on Streptomyces genetics. David’s contributions to our understanding of Streptomyces bacteria and their ability to produce antibiotics are simply too numerous to count. David’s curiosity, generosity, and commitment to research on Streptomyces bacteria are a constant source of inspiration.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
My curiosity about the natural world and fervent belief that science can be used to solve many of the world’s problems keep me motivated.