June 2012

Fanning the fire

Young member is blazing a trail to become a pediatric endocrinologist and helping others along the way

Photo of Michael Lomax, Angel Byrd, Peter S. Kim and Kenneth C. Frazier 
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.

“I found that I really loved research,” she says of her work in China, at Tougaloo and at Brown. “But I wasn’t going to stop the dream of going to medical school — so I combined both.” In the midst of her summer research program at Brown, Byrd applied to the school’s dual M.D./Ph.D. program, which she now almost has completed.

neutrophil extracellular trap as detailed in Angel Byrd's research 
Using the fluorescent, intercallating dye Sytox Green, Byrd is able to detect the neutrophil extracellular traps — when white blood cells throw their DNA to capture invading microbes. Scale bar is 100 µm. Photo: Angel Byrd 

Studying immune response
With most of her Ph.D. research under her belt, Byrd has only the final two years of medical training left. Her Ph.D. research focuses on primary human neutrophils — white blood cells — and how they act within the body.

Recently, Byrd identified neutrophil extracellular traps — when the cells sacrifice themselves and expel their DNA like a net to capture invading bacteria or viruses. “These traps are such a new phenomenon. They’re so fragile that we didn’t have the tools to identify them,” she says. “Now, we have so many innovative ways to analyze cells, we’re actually able to see what’s really going on.” She is looking at the traps to determine how much of a good thing is too much: when the system becomes perturbed with excess inflammation or when blood vessels become clogged.

Byrd says she ultimately wants to become a pediatric endocrinologist, taking advantage of translational medicine to understand Type 2 diabetes on an individual basis and to help inform patients so that they can make appropriate lifestyle changes to improve their health. But she isn’t waiting until she has the degree to start giving back to her community.

Community values and giving back
The first years of her dual program were “strictly the research — work, work, work,” Byrd says. She focused on her own goal to make sure she would achieve it before she started focusing on helping others reach their goals. “I knew there was a point that I had to decide when to reach back and help somebody else,” she says. Now that she sees the light at the end of the tunnel for her Ph.D., Byrd can contribute to her community in new ways.

Photo of Eric Marks Jr., Angel Byrd, Debra Lee, Delrisha White, Raavin Evans and Fatima Bodrick at the 2011 UNCF An Evening of Stars television event in Pasadena, Calif. 
Angel Byrd (second from left) celebrates her achievements at the 2011 UNCF An Evening of Stars television event in Pasadena, Calif. With her are fellow awardee Eric Marks Jr. (from left), United Negro College Fund President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Lomax, Black Entertainment Television CEO Debra Lee and other awardees Delrisha White, Raavin Evans and Fatima Bodrick. Photo: BET/UNCF 

“Going back to help those who are along the way in their own academic paths also is very high on my priority list,” Byrd says. She participates in the annual Leadership Alliance symposium, moderating sessions and oral presentations and working directly with undergraduates. “I try to reach back and make sure that I’m keeping that pathway open for the next generations that are coming through,” she says.

Byrd’s Christian faith is also important to her, and her involvement in the faith community is one of the driving forces behind her passion to contribute. Recently, Byrd helped organize a cotillion and beautillion, a coming-out celebration at which youth show their commitment to improving society while becoming young adults.

Still, Byrd says, “I don’t do nearly as much as I want to do and as much as I hope one day I will be able to do when I’m established in my career. I do as much as I can with different organizations where I can fit in and do something that has an impact.”

Because of Byrd’s academic and research achievements, she has been awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship and a Merck Graduate Science Research Dissertation Fellowship, both through the United Negro College Fund. Last fall, Black Entertainment Television profiled her in its program “An Evening of Stars of Educating our Future.” That honor “validates all the hard work,” Byrd says.


Photo of Kenneth J. MooreKenneth J. Moore (kennethjamesmoore@yahoo.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer covering biochemistry, microbiology and food and crop sciences.



See BET’s special video presentation about Angel Byrd from its 2011 An Evening of Stars television event:


See an interview with Angel Byrd following ASBMB’s 2011 Hill Day:


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