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Overcoming Adversity: Themes in the L.W. Parks Lectureship in Microbiology

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the LW Parks Lectureship in Microbiology, which is hosted annually by the Microbiology Department and features fascinating microbiology research. The day started with a diversity panel featuring students and faculty from across the college. This was followed by two virtual poster sessions in which students presented their research and took questions. For the last segment, Susan Golden joined as the keynote speaker, and presented her research investigating cyanobacteria.

One of the most enlightening parts of the day was the diversity panel, which boasted five participants, each with different backgrounds but frighteningly similar experiences. Many of the panelists came from underrepresented backgrounds, and were often the first in their families to attend college.

Jamila Simpson, Assistant Dean for Academic Programs, Student Diversity and Engagement, not only entered as one of eleven Black students in COS in her year, but found out after she graduated that she was the first Black woman to graduate with a degree in meteorology. Dr. Alex Graves, an associate professor in the Crop and Soil Sciences Department, has dealt with a similar lack of representation throughout her career, and only had four Black students in her classes from 2005 to 2015. Dr. Graves is also a first generation student and faced similar challenges to Deaja Sanders, a graduate student in the Plant and Microbial Biology Department, who is also a first generation student. 

Deaja said that, though her family was supportive of her ambitions, they generally didn’t really understand what it was she wanted to do. She originally studied zoology, which confused her family, as they thought “animals were for eating.” Dr. Graves had a similar experience, as her own family didn’t understand why she wanted to do a masters in soil science. Her family thought she was basically studying to be a farmer.

Osvaldo Rodriguez, an undergraduate studying human biology and president of the NC State SACNAS chapter, spoke on the unique challenges that he faced as a nontraditional student. “I had a child at a young age,” he said when talking about why he is still finishing his degree. He stressed the importance of providing students with support and resources, rather than just merely putting them into situations. It’s much easier for students to succeed when they have access to healthy food, shelter, and a supportive community.

The final panelist was Susan Golden, the keynote speaker. Her story was similar to the others in that she didn’t even know what options were available to her. Research wasn’t presented as a possibility. As she was the oldest panelist, she said that it made her sad to stories like hers after decades. “It’s our responsibility to make paths for others to follow after,” she said. 

Hearing these barriers persist through generations wasn’t exactly encouraging, but Osvaldo Rodriguez did offer three goals moving forward: improving access to opportunities, ensuring that diverse voices are present while developing treatments and technologies, and expanding diverse spaces for students of color. By expanding opportunities and support for students of color in the sciences, we can help pave the way for future students.

Rose Krebs, a senior studying microbiology with a minor in biotechnology, was instrumental in organizing the LW Parks Lectureship in Microbiology this year. I was able to talk to her about the event and what it was like to try to adapt it to a virtual environment.

When I talked with Rose, she agreed that the diversity panel was illuminating. “It was really encouraging to hear people being so authentic about their own experiences,” she said. “We were really intentional about having a broad range of backgrounds on the panel,” she added, which was clear from the diversity of challenges faced by the panelists. Though I’m not a person of color, I could really relate to the panelists who spoke about being from a rural town and not really knowing what possibilities existed for me. Learning about everyone’s experiences and ideas on how to improve was particularly impactful. “I appreciated hearing everyone’s suggestions for improving the university,” Rose said.

The Lectureship also had to be pushed back and reformatted due to COVID-19, so I was curious as to how the team in charge managed to pull everything off so seamlessly. “Well, first, we met weekly over the summer to discuss what needed to be done,” Rose said. It was a really collaborative effort between a few professors and students. So while everyone worked with each part to some extent, different people were more involved with figuring out different aspects of the event. Rose, for example, “did a lot with the poster presentations.”

Two poster sessions were held, each with around ten presenters. Each was able to talk about their work for about five minutes. Though it felt quite different than an in-person event, I did like getting to hear from every single person. I often don’t get to see all the posters, so that was refreshing. It was also interesting to get to hear the questions that other attendees asked the presenters. As an undergraduate, I don’t often understand posters well enough to ask questions that go beyond clarifications, so hearing the different ways that other people interpreted the research was a unique experience.

Rose also participated in the BIT-SURE program hosted by the Biotechnology Department this summer. Though it had to go online, Rose said that actually helped her when preparing for the lectureship: “It really helped me get comfortable in that virtual environment.” It also helped inspire her when she was working on planning the logistics of the poster session. “Presenting at the presentation for BIT-SURE helped me figure out how we should frame the poster session for the lectureship,” she said.

The day ended with an amazing presentation from Dr. Susan Golden, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. As she talked about her research, which focuses on cyanobacteria and circadian rhythms, I couldn’t help but be inspired by her work. She studies circadian rhythms as they function on a molecular level as a method of timekeeping. Her work includes helping to develop the BioClock Studio, which allows undergraduates to work with graduate mentors to create educational content surrounding circadian rhythms. As part of her presentation, we got to watch two of these videos, each of which was extremely helpful in illustrating certain aspects of her presentation. It was really encouraging to see her going out of her way to create opportunities that not only allow undergraduates to get experience communicating scientific concepts, but also help to educate the general public.

Despite having to adapt to a different presentation format, the event was still a great experience, and I for one, learned more than I thought I would on a Zoom call.