Black History Month: Celebrating Scientists
Six black scientists from Charles River talk about careers, social justice and the people who influenced them
Throughout February, Eureka has been posting stories about notable black scientists who have, in many different ways, made their mark on history. But we also wanted to take a moment to hear from black scientists at Charles River who in different ways are also making a difference. We wanted to know how they chose their careers, who influenced them and what could be done to attract more minorities to STEM fields.
Participating in this Q&A are: Deirdre Tucker, PhD, a Study Director and Research Scientist who focuses on developmental and reproductive toxicology; Elise Lewis, PhD, Senior Director of Toxicology; Marcus Gerald, PhD, a Senior Scientific Associate who has a background in neuroimmunology and spinal cord injuries; Marie Ojiambo, MS, a formulations supervisor; Nicholas Jones, MA, a Study Director and Research Scientist II and Schantel Bouknight, DVM, PhD, a senior veterinary pathologist and Scientific Director. Deirdre, Elise, Marcus and Marie all work at Charles River’s Horsham site, Nicholas is based in Shrewsbury, where he oversees In Vivo Pharmacology studies in Safety Assessment, and Schantel is in Durham, NC where she provides scientific oversight and management of pathology.
We hope you enjoy this Q&A as much as we did. The responses were edited slightly for space and style.
Eureka: Science careers are a vast space. How did you choose yours?
Deirdre: I have always had a passion for reproduction and development and a fascination with toxicology. My career is a marriage between the two and provides the best of both worlds.
Elise: As a child growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I gravitated towards science and math, and had to make a career choice as part of an 8th grade project. While there were others in my class who desired to be lawyers, medical professionals, teachers, or athletes, I specifically chose obstetrics and gynecology. I continued down this path until my last semester of undergraduate. During my last semester I diverged from this path and literally embarked upon a road that is less traveled, the field of toxicology. While in graduate school I was recipient of a Future Faculty Fellowship for minority students, and through my training in the field of toxicology, I found a way to marry my interests in the medical field with a passion to prevent birth defects from intentional or unintentional exposure to drug products or chemicals. Simply put, I spend much of my time researching human health hazards that could cause embryo-fetal death, birth defects, growth retardation, or functional deficits.
Marcus: As kid I used to go to a neurologist and would always see other kids I wished I could help. While in elementary school, my mother gave me a copy of “Gifted Hands” and the similarities I saw between the author and myself sparked an interest in me to pursue a career in medicine. Over the years this grew into a desire to serve the juvenile population in some way. While this started as me wanting to pursue a career as pediatric neurologist, I learned from shadowing doctors and surgeons during my college years that the hospital environment was not for me. It was also at this time that I learned how much of an impact I could have from behind the bench if I pursued a career in scientific research.
Marie: I knew I was going to end up in science given the strong influencers in my family. The original plan was to go to a school of medicine after I graduated from high school, but better things were in store for me in the School of Pharmacy.
Nicholas: I’ve had an interest in biology and specifically the workings of the brain since childhood. When choosing classes, and ultimately a major in college, it was a relatively easy choice.
Schantel: Like most veterinarians, the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question was easy at the early age. My love for animals was the primary driving force then and throughout college. My heart was set on being a clinical veterinarian with a special interest in small animal medicine. However, my interest shifted into the “ologies” (pathology, toxicology, pharmacology). Ultimately, I settled on a joint anatomic pathology residency/PhD program that combined my interest in animals and molecular pathology
Eureka: And how did you find your way to Charles River?
Deirdre: I sat next to Dr. Alan Hoberman [CRL scientist] at a Strategic planning meeting and expressed my career goals. He put me in touch with Dr. Elise Lewis and the rest is history.
Elise: I received my doctorate in Biological Sciences at The University of Alabama in 2000, with a concentration in Developmental Toxicology. After a brief stint with Huntingdon Life Sciences, I joined Charles River in 2001 as a Study Director in the area of Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology.
Marcus: I received my doctorate in Biological Sciences from Drexel University in 2019, with a concentration in neuroimmunology. While preparing to defend my thesis, I came across the position of Study Director and thought I had the skill that would be a great fit for this type of role. I joined Charles river about two weeks after defending my thesis.
Marie: I received my masters from St. John’s University, College of Pharmacy in New York and subsequently moved to Charles River in Horsham, PA for work. This was my first big girl job out of college.
Nicholas: The line of research that I was managing for Merck was outsourced to Charles River. They needed someone familiar with the studies to run it…and the rest is history.
Schantel: My interest in Charles River began while networking as a PhD student. At the time, there were no positions available at the Frederick location. One year later, an opportunity arose in Durham, NC and I’ve been here since May 2011.
Eureka: As a person who is part of a historically underrepresented group in the US, what specific challenges have you faced in your career, if any?
Deirdre: As an African American woman, I have had to work very hard to gain credibility; however, this has only made me a better scientist.
Elise: Throughout my journey I have been labeled the ‘first’, ‘the only’, and ‘one of a few’. However, I do not let such labels detour me from living a life full of purpose personally or professionally. I am using my journey to make an impact, share my gift and leave a legacy for future scientists, and show other underrepresented minorities what is possible in STEM.
Marcus: Due to the underserved community I was raised in, I quickly learned my high school education was not on par with my peers once I started college. This forced me to find extra resources to catch up with those students that had an adequate high school education and did not allow me to use my circumstances as an excuse, but as motivation to show that I did belong.
Marie: Unequal representation as well as having to go the extra mile to prove that I am capable at what I do. Being a first-generation immigrant also comes with its fair share of challenges
Nicholas: Quite honestly, I don’t feel that I’ve faced any challenges directly related to my ethnicity. Though I am aware that many do, and as a result I strive to be a positive role model for young scientists coming up behind me.
Schantel: Although I have not faced any specific challenges during my career due to my race/ethnicity/gender, I am a graduate of two Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCUs). Through personal experience, these schools continue to struggle with inadequate funding and resources.
Eureka: What are some things that we can do to increase representation of underrepresented groups?
Deidre: Recruit at historically black colleges and universities and participate with scientific societies that have minority specialty sections.
Elise: Research suggests that most underrepresented minorities (URM) attribute their absence or departure from STEM occupations to lack of access to quality education, lack of role models, uncertainty of success, discrimination in recruitment practices and promotions (whether conscious or unconscious), and lack of encouragement to pursue STEM from an early age. Ways to increase representation include but are not limited to exposing URM students/trainees to STEM early enough to ignite interest in the field and build confidence. Foster stronger collaboration between K-12, science museums, and/or STEM departments at higher learning institutes, especially in minority communities. Participate in professional conferences, such as the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), that are designed to encourage underrepresented minority students to pursue advanced training in STEM and provide faculty mentors and advisors with resources for facilitating students’ success. Also, URM at all stages of their academic pursuits or career can benefit from effective mentors. Mentors are invaluable assets who can equip, motivate, inspire, and believe in us as we navigate a course to our destiny.
Marcus: Provide mentorship and programs to teens who do not get a chance to interact with people who look like them from professions they may not know about. I strongly believe that planting the seed early is necessary for breaking cycles as a lot of children who grew up in communities similar to mine make tough decision on where they want there lives to go fairly early and are not granted the opportunity to make many mistakes along the way.
Marie: Change the narrative. It’s not about making more seats available at the table. It’s about redesigning the talent acquisition and opportunity processes to mitigate the biases that already exist. The scope of how we view opportunities, updating definitions for potential as well as rethinking how we evaluate performance and talent, can serve to empower and elevate our colleagues.
Nicholas: One of the best ways to increase representation is by providing youth with positive examples/mentorship from individuals who occupy positions not generally held by members of that group. Having role models to look up to, who share a common heritage generates a mindset of, “that could be me” which is vital to both visualizing and achieving success.
Schantel: Increasing representation of underrepresented groups should start well before “the job”. Bridging the gap can start with community outreach (local boys and girls club or YMCA) and forming partnerships with community colleges and HBCUs.
Eureka: What is one thing you would do or have done to advocate for social justice?
Deirdre: I would love to participate in peaceful rallies and marches.
Elise: The uniqueness in my daily walk allows me to use my resources, networks, and platforms to promote diversity, equity, and inclusiveness within my discipline and the broader STEM community, be a catalyst for change, empower the scientific leaders of tomorrow, and to pay my success forward through mentorship and sponsorship. Through mentorship, advocacy, and community service, I chose to be a guiding light and a voice of what is possible rather than a mere echo. It seems as though many are afraid of having a challenging conversation, but I ask, why does it have to be a challenge. It takes courage and willingness to speak and hear the truth. When we speak openly about the strength of diversity, equity, and inclusion it demonstrates that we are unencumbered as we advance towards common goals, we are forward-thinking, we value diverse perspectives and backgrounds, and understand that inclusion is not simply an addition. Developing a culture that continually focuses on diversity and inclusion is of benefit to all and leads to better science and innovation.
Marie: I strive to level the playing field for underrepresented groups when it is within my capabilities and capacities to do so; in my niche, amongst my reports, peers and friends. I strongly believe in sending the proverbial lift back down and being a champion for my underrepresented, high potential/ high achieving counterparts. I love a good underdog story!
Nicholas: I have participated in peaceful protests advocating for equal rights for all humans.
Schantel: I have participated in peaceful demonstrations to advocate legislation and policies regarding including racial equality, women's rights, healthcare reform, reproductive rights, the environment, and LGBTQ rights.
Eureka: Who are your science heroes?
Deirdre: Dr. Charles Drew
Marcus: Dr. Ernest Everett Just, Dr. Charles R. Drew, and an early 90’s Dr. Ben Carson
Marie: Dr. Kim Smith Whitley, Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall and Prof. Julia Ojiambo, my grandmother and Professor of Nutrition and Chair of the University of Nairobi council. She was also first female assistant minister nominated to cabinet/government in post-colonial Kenya.
Nicholas: Dr. Mae Jemison, Steven Hawking, Carl Sagan
Schantel: Dr. Mae Jemison, Katherine Johnson, Dr. Charles Drew
Eureka: If your life was a hashtag what would it say?
Eureka: Is there a question you wished I had asked but didn’t?
Schantel: What does Black History Month mean to you? Black History month is a time to reflect on African Americans that paved the way for me to be “who I am” today by honoring the many accomplishments and contributions that African Americans have made to scientific, educational and social justice framework of our country.
Elise: What do you consider to be your most important career achievements, milestones or accomplishments and why? I have had a number of significant accomplishments throughout my career, and continue to enhance my scientific skills, participate as a notable member of the scientific community, and disseminate the knowledge I have obtained in the field of Reproductive, Developmental, and Juvenile Toxicology.
Currently, I am the President of the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention, a multidisciplinary scientific organization that promotes cutting-edge research and is an authoritative source of information related to birth defects and other reproductive and developmental disorders. This is a significant achievement as I am the first African American to serve in this capacity in the 60-year history of the society. I am also the first African American to be elected into the presidential line of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). AWIS is a global network that inspires bold leadership, research, and solutions that advance women in STEM, spark innovation, promote organizational success and drive systemic change. Recently I was interviewed by a local news network for Black History month. The purpose of this interview was to celebrate the living legacy of black women in science who are making an impact on their field and who should be remembered in the future.
Image caption: Bottom, from left, Elise Lewis, Nicholas Jones and Schantel Bouknight. Top, from left, Marcus Gerald, Marie Ojiambo and Deirdre Tucker