Tell us about your current career position.
I am an Associate Professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California San Diego. I lead a research lab of graduate students, postdoctoral scientists, undergraduate students, and pharmacy students. The main goal of our research is to define the mechanisms that control steroid hormone biosynthesis. I also teach pharmacology to pharmacy and medical students.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
I majored in biochemistry as an undergraduate student at Spelman College. While at Spelman I was participated in research as a Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Scholar. The MARC program allowed me to engage in varied research disciplines, ranging from environmental organic chemistry to biomedical renal physiology. These experiences solidified my love of research and helped me determine what type graduate studies I wanted to pursue. I attained my PhD in pharmacology from Emory University where I investigated the factors that control the expression of enzymes – cytochromes P450 -- involved in drug metabolism. While at Emory I was able to attend several scientific meetings and interact with other researchers in the area with similar interest in cytochrome P450 enzymes. These interactions greatly influenced my decision to pursue postdoctoral studies in a laboratory at Vanderbilt University that also studied how cytochrome P450 enzymes were transcriptionally regulated. During my postdoctoral tenure I learned a wide variety of molecular biology techniques and expanded my knowledge of biochemical and analytical approaches used to study gene expression. After my postdoctoral fellowship, I joined the faculty in the School of Biology at Georgia Institute of Technology. My research focused on investigating the how cytochrome P450 enzymes regulate steroid hormone production. I stayed at GA Tech for seven years and then moved to the University of California, San Diego. My laboratory still studies how cytochrome P450 enzymes are regulated, but my research interests have expanded into other areas, such as lipid metabolism and cell signaling.
How did you first become interested in science?
I first became interested in science in 7th grade after taking chemistry class and learning about electrons, atoms, and electricity. My love of science continued throughout high school and college, where I became fascinated with learning about how the body worked and I grew an interest in biochemistry, physiology, and endocrinology.
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?
There have been numerous times during my scientific career that I have not achieved the goals that I have set for myself. Being a professor means that your performance is continually being evaluated -- by students in the courses you teach, grant review panels, journal editorial boards, or the chair of your department. I try to always remind myself not to take comments personally or let setbacks deter me from achieving my goals. This can be hard at times, but since there is no other career path that I have ever wanted to pursue, I work to improve and find constructive ways to improve my performance, while working towards my goals.
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
I have found that biomedical research, particularly in academia, can be isolating, and at times fraught with setbacks and disappointment. In spite of these adversities I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is to not let speed bumps deter you from your goals and to not be afraid to take detours off a set path if these changes move you closer a personally satisfying career. If you derive passion and fulfillment from research, learning, and the academic environment, then harness that internal motivation and give 110%. I would also encourage persons interested in academia not to be afraid to fail, change directions, and move toward a career that you find truly satisfying. Sometimes its not until you are doing something you really don’t enjoy to truly know what your career path will be most rewarding.
What are your hobbies?
I enjoy crossword puzzles, reading, listening to music, and home improvement projects.
What was the last book you read?
Maya Angelou’s “Letter to My Daughter”. I always find her writing inspirational and uplifting. This book is a collection of well-crafted stories that provide guidance and spark introspection and reflection.
Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
There have been numerous people who have had a profound influence on my career path. Just to highlight a few of these role models, my organic chemistry professor in college, Cornelia Gillyard, stoked a love of biochemistry and research. I was truly inspired by her love of science and her passion for teaching. Edward Morgan, my doctoral mentor exposed me to the research area that I still find exciting and fulfilling on a daily basis. Whether it was introducing me to leaders in the field or teaching me how to isolate hepatocytes as a first-year graduate student or critiquing my grants as an assistant professor, he has always been supportive, encouraging, and giving of his time and wisdom. My postdoctoral mentor, Michael Waterman, taught me not only the skill set required to be a good scientist, but more importantly, how to be a supportive and understanding mentor.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science everyday?
I truly love what I do. I enjoy the challenge, complexity, and excitement of asking questions and trying to find experimental approaches to get answers to these questions.