Skip to Main Content

Fostering Excellence in Biomedical Research

Kelly Wilson, SGPS ’21, a graduate research assistant in the lab of Dr. Johnny He, director of the Center for Cancer Cell Biology, Immunology and Infection, reflects on her experience as an early career investigator.

Q: Welcome to RFU! You followed Dr. He from the University of North Texas Health Science Center, arriving late last winter. What was involved in that decision?

A: Thank you. I joined Dr. He’s lab as a PhD student at UNT Health Science Center in 2016. When he was preparing to accept the position at RFU, I had to assess where I was in my project and how I might work on my own. I work with mice, and they had to follow Dr. He; it would be difficult to keep them in two places. And I was waiting for research results to come through, which would help shape the direction and longevity of my project. But a big consideration was the supportive lab environment. Dr. He allows us to work on our projects independently but with lots of guidance. He’s always supportive in our search to find new avenues to explore. We never have to stress. So it was no surprise — though pretty rare — that everyone in the lab, including all four PhD students, came along. It’s well known that his students do extremely well. He fights for us. That helped make the transition extremely easy.

Q: Not long after your new lab was set up, the Illinois governor’s stay-at-home order closed academic and industry research labs across the state. How did that go with you?

A: I had planned to add six months of work due to the move, but now I’m looking to defend next summer and graduate with a doctorate in microbiology and immunology. It was a shock to realize that our lab was actually shutting down — again. I was able to enter briefly during the closure in order to maintain the mice. Seeing the lights off and the empty halls was surreal. We were able to return to our lab in mid-June, working in part-time shifts to maintain social distancing.

Q: What are you working on?

A: My project focuses on the central nervous system and how HIV develops disease in the brain known as NeuroHIV. I want to understand the context of one specific viral protein that has yet to be explored sufficiently: the negative regulatory factor Nef. We know the disease heavily relies on astrocyte function and we know this protein is profoundly present in astrocytes. I want to explore how astrocyte-specific Nef expression contributes to NeuroHIV. My strategy uses a novel mouse model, which we developed. My main dissertation project focuses on characterization of the mouse. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We hope to expand and take advantage of this model to understand critical mechanisms of Nef’s involvement in the development of NeuroHIV.

Q: What has been your experience as an early career investigator in the scientific community, given that so few science doctorates are awarded to Blacks or African Americans (6.5% for life sciences, according to 2018 data from the National Science Foundation), and also given the persistent shortage of underrepresented minority faculty in academic medical research?

A: I have been very privileged, in a sense, working in Dr. He’s lab, which is very diverse. So many cultures are represented, and we benefit from that experience of diversity. But once we leave the lab, we see “Oh, wow — not every place is diverse.” Before my graduate studies, I found myself in settings heavily populated with white people and definitely mostly Americans. I worked for four years as a medical laboratory technologist in the private sector after earning a BS in clinical laboratory science at Indiana University School of Medicine. Because I am a Black female African American in academic research, I have benefitted from a lot of opportunities for leadership and funding. It has become clear to me that those opportunities, including scholarships and fellowships, are not available for a majority of graduate students in the biological sciences, especially international students who are such a strong part of the university and research. You have to be a citizen or a green card holder to apply. I see the stress that lack of opportunity causes my colleagues and friends — the uncertainty of what will happen if they don’t finish in time.

Q: The Black Lives Matter movement is confronting systemic racism in all quarters, including academia. Your insights bring special value here.

A: It has been cyclic as far as protests arising because of systemic racism. But this time is different. The protests have persisted and spread beyond the area where a certain blatant and inhumane racist act occurred. They’re shedding light on what we’re seeing — our personal experience of being Black in America. RFU and our deans are taking it very seriously, working to provide more diversity, be more inclusive and limit ways discrimination could take place here. The issue is being heard and understood. How quickly that will result in more opportunities, how the face of our programs will change, remains to be seen.

Q: How have you grown and what have you learned about yourself as you have navigated higher education, where the work of structural change is never finished?

A: I was never discouraged from continuing to grow in the biomedical lab sector despite the fact that only one other Black female ever worked in the same setting as me. The lack of diversity in that sense never discouraged me. But I had grown used to it in an academic system where I was normally the only Black female in a group of students. It actually encouraged me to get my degree so I could be a role model and help others who might not have received the same opportunities I did. I understand now but didn’t anticipate that I would be looked at as a role model. I’m representing a large part of our nation in academic research and just in the research community in general. Other Black students can look at me, what I’m doing, where I’m at, and see someone who looks like them working in this area and being happy doing it. Knowing I’m a role model keeps me motivated. Also, I have come to understand that one of my greatest strengths is bringing a sense of positive focus and constructiveness to the table when working with a group of people. I realize just how valuable that is and I have really enjoyed growing in this area.