Young member is blazing a trail to become a pediatric endocrinologist and helping others along the way
|From left: United Negro College Fund President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Lomax, Merck Research Labs President Peter S. Kim and Merck CEO and President Kenneth C. Frazier congratulate Byrd on her Merck Graduate Science Research Dissertation Fellowship during the 2011 United Negro College Fund/Merck Fellows Day reception at Normandy Farms in Blue Bell, Pa. Photo: Merck & Co. © 2011
Growing up in the rural town of Edwards, Miss., Angel S. Byrd harbored a love of math and science. When she was 5 years old, her father died. Her mother moved her and her two older brothers to Jackson, and Byrd eased her heart by focusing on school to make her family proud. “I put all of my energy into school — all my troubles, all my worries,” she says. “I just went hard in school, and I’m so thankful that I did.” That focus and dedication to studies has paid off for her.
Byrd is nearing the end of the Ph.D. portion of her dual M.D./Ph.D. program at Brown University; she will defend her thesis next March. But Byrd has goals beyond her medical research career trajectory — she is passionate about helping others achieve their dreams. She is a repeat ASBMB Hill Day participant, having attended in both 2009 and 2011, and last month she helped a group of students realize their potential by sharing her educational journey with them at California State University, Dominguez Hill.
From a young age, Byrd challenged herself to gain direct experience in her scientific and social interests. She joined her mother, a social worker, in visits to the local homeless shelter, where many people were sick. Interacting with these people made Byrd want to know more about the nature of their illnesses.
“I liked math and sciences, and I’m passionate about helping people,” she says. To Byrd, the middle point between those two passions was to become a doctor. She shadowed physicians during high school, getting an appreciation for the medical practice and strengthening her commitment to practicing medicine.
Byrd had a detailed attack plan: She knew she wanted to go to medical school at Brown, so she applied to Tougaloo College in Mississippi because the college partners with Brown. In the summer before Byrd started her chemistry studies at Tougaloo, she attended its six-week program that helps prepare students interested in medical or science-related programs. “The program played a vital role in solidifying my decision to pursue a career in science and medicine,” Byrd says. “You have to see if you like things before you do them. You can look at it from the outside, but until you immerse yourself in something, you just don’t know.”
A new love
Because Tougaloo encourages students to gain research experience, Byrd found another love: scientific inquiry. In the summer of 2002, she took an internship at Beijing University, where she studied the expression of the insulin-producing PDX-1 gene in prokaryotes.
This experience exposed Byrd to a new path of fundamental research. When Byrd returned to Tougaloo, she participated in the Jackson Heart Study, conducting research on the molecular basis of cardiovascular disease and health disparities among the black population in Jackson. The next summer, Byrd conducted research at the Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center at Brown University’s Miriam Hospital through the Leadership Alliance, an organization that helps underrepresented students become leaders. She interacted with patients while studying genes that might play a role in diabetes. Watching how people changed their behaviors and lifestyles to counter diabetes inspired Byrd and gave her the desire to increase awareness about the disease in her region.