Mobile Menu

A Spotlight On: Black in Genetics – Alexis Stutzman and Markia Smith

Alexis Stutzman (Founder, BIG) and Markia Smith (President BIG) are both PhD candidates at UNC Chapel Hill. Not only are they scientists by training, but both Stutzman and Smith also run Black in Genetics (BIG). This organisation is dedicated to amplifying the voices and work of Black-identifying geneticists within the US and across the world. Starting with a simple post on Twitter, BIG aims to help educate people on racial inequity in the genetics field and provide a platform to host key conversations about dismantling racism.

Please note the transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

FLG: Hello everyone, and welcome to the latest interview in the A Spotlight On series. Today, we are joined by not just one, but two, wonderful scientists – Alexis and Markia from Black in Genetics. They’re going to be discussing the group and what else they’re involved in as well in this area. So, before we begin, ladies, if you can just introduce yourselves and tell everyone a little bit about what you do as well.

Alexis: Of course, I am Alexis Stutzman, I am a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill. I just began my fourth year here at UNC. I study the three-dimensional architecture of Drosophila chromosomes.

Markia: My name is Markia Smith. I’m a fourth-year graduate student at UNC as well. I study the environmental and genetic determinants of health disparities, particularly in historically marginalised populations.

FLG: They’re both really interesting! I think it’d be good to give everyone a little bit of a background about the both of you. Where are you from and what is your upbringing? When did you both first show an interest in science?

Alexis: Yeah, for me, it’s a maybe a little bit surprising. When I started high school, I was always very good at science, but I just didn’t really like it. I think that maybe I didn’t have the right mindset when I was in science courses. But I loved math, I thought it was fun to do little puzzles. And I thought science was just something where you read a textbook, you memorise things, and then you move on with your life. Then, as I got a little bit further in science, my high school chemistry course was the one where I felt like I was doing those puzzles situations and problems. And so, then I joined Science Olympiad in my high school. And then I really fell into ‘Oh, I do love biology, I think the biology part is really cool’. I then started taking advanced biology courses and the rest is history. I really fell in love with everything that I saw there.

In particular, I was drawn to genetics because I was sort of mesmerised by how these little molecules inside every single cell are identical, yet they do different things in different cells at different times. I just thought DNA was really cool. So, my love has grown from there. And then coming into research, I did a lot of research. As an undergraduate, I studied laminopathies, which are a class of genetic disorders caused by a point mutation to one gene. And when I was there, I figured out that science actually is not just memorising things and coming back to it later. It’s a lot of discovery and exploration. And doing math is something I use every day. So, I was able to find that puzzle solving feeling when I was doing science research.

Markia: So, for me it was pretty young. I remember starting in the science fair in the second grade, and at the time at my school, you had to be in a certain grade to participate. So, I was waiting for my turn to be able to participate. And when I finally made it to third grade, I was like, ‘Yes, I get to make a volcano!’, So, I started out doing volcanoes. And I did one where I did the electrical circuits, and I was just so interested in it. And then eventually, I started participating in things like Science Olympiad. And I really got interested in one event in particular, which was protein modelling. And I actually went to a trade school. So, my trade was chemistry laboratory sciences. I loved chemistry so much, so much so that I decided to do a summer research internship when I was a junior in high school, studying HIV-1 structures and trying to figure out the structure.

Then, when I eventually got to undergrad, I was like, ‘Okay, I want to keep doing this’. And I decided to Major in biochemistry, because I liked the biology side of things as well, especially proteins. From there, I wanted to work more on less basic science, and I wanted to move more towards translational science. So, I joined a lab that was dedicated to looking at breast cancer dormancy and biomedical engineering. We tried to create these 3D moulds to study cancer dormancy and it was so cool. So, then I decided I’m just going to keep going with this. And now I’m the cancer person.

FLG: I think I’m more like Alexis – I started off really liking maths but then I also found DNA so fascinating, and proteins as well. Growing up, did either of you have any role models that inspired and/or supported you?

Alexis: Yeah, certainly. So, I’m actually from an Amish community originally. And I cannot say there was a single other Black person who was around. There aren’t many Black Amish people. So, it was really important that I had strong family connections. I could read for pretty much as long as I can remember. My grandfather and I used to sit and read his encyclopaedias.

Markia: I used to do that too!

Alexis: Yeah, I used to read the world books with my grandfather. My favourite one was the M because it had Marie Curie and I thought she was incredible. When I was in kindergarten, we had superhero day and I dressed up as Marie Curie while everyone else was dressing up as like their dad, or a firefighter. One of the kids in my class dressed up as his cat!

My mum had no idea. First of all, she didn’t know who she was. So, my mum had to call my grandparents and say, ‘What have you been reading with my daughter, and who is this person?’. She ended up dressing me in hospital scrubs that were way too big and gave me a little name tag. I walked around with a textbook and told everybody about polio and how it was so important that you get your polio vaccine and all these things. So, I would say those were certainly some of my foundational role models.

As I got older and learned a lot more about science, there were other people who came out. Stereotypically, Rosalind Franklin, even though I didn’t want my career to look anything like how hers appeared. My high school biology teacher – she and I were very, very close. And even when I return home now, I still have coffee with her anytime that I can, and we keep in contact. So yeah, those would be the people that come to mind as role models. I don’t have many of them, I would say. It was something that I felt like an odd person out, and that I was sort of paving my own way.

Markia: Yeah, I’m pretty similar to Alex. I was raised by my grandma, and my grandma doesn’t know anything about science. When I would be doing different things, she would be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what she’s doing’. She bought be like a science kit or a telescope, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I got it. I don’t know what she’s doing with it though’. So, she always encouraged me to try different things. And whatever project I wanted to do; she was down for. And then similar to Alex, as I grew up, my trade teacher in high school became my mentor. And she’s what helped me get into research. And then along the way, I met different mentors. For example, one of my mentors is on my committee right now. And she’s amazing, and she’s really helpful. She’s a Black woman and so that’s really helpful having a more diverse committee.

FLG: Have you found throughout your schooling experience that there has been support for you to achieve these higher attainment goals?

Alexis: Yeah, I think so. I guess for me in my really small community, that’s why I got involved with Science Olympiad. That seemed to be the main way that people were able to get exposed to these opportunities in the first place. And you could try out what you were interested in. My school was a really big feeder school for engineering programmes. Our Science Olympiad was more dedicated towards that instead of the things I was looking into. I remember in my high school biology course, I was really close with my biology teacher, and she sent me to Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana, to work at Riley Children’s Hospital. So, I went there for a long weekend and talked to a bunch of people who were actively doing research in the areas that I was studying. And I got to participate in a bunch of lab experiments like feeding embryonic zebrafish diabetes drugs that hadn’t yet been tested. Then I got to see all the big microscopes and things like that.

So, I think it started with my participation in Science Olympiad, that gave me the leg up that demonstrated that I was interested in having these opportunities. And then that was executed when I was a little bit older and had made relationships with the teachers who were going to give me those opportunities. But then, I went to a very rigorous undergraduate university – the University of Chicago. And there, I don’t necessarily think I would call it opportunities at that point. They gave out research positions like they were candy. So, it was very easy to get involved with more things once I was there.

FLG: What challenges, if any, have faced along your journey?

Markia: I would say that our graduate school, UNC, does really well at supporting. If you want to go into industry, academia, whatever you want to do, they’re really supportive. And if they don’t have the resources, they find people who have the resources. So that’s really positive at the graduate school level. In terms of challenges, the most challenging thing is finding out what is your niche and what fits you. Both me and Alex are computational biologists as well and sometimes that can be really difficult, being the only Black person and Black woman in that space. And so, some of the challenges can come from having to navigate different fields and figure out how you can take up space in those fields.

Alexis: Something that came to mind immediately, when you asked what the challenges were, were peers to be honest. For me, it’s been very difficult to find friends inside these spaces. And in terms of recruitment, you can get me here by telling me how great your programme is. But in terms of retention and happiness in that programme, I really need to have other people who I can connect with. And that’s something that certainly has not always been around. I was fortunate to go to an undergraduate university that was the most diverse place I had been to. But that’s not saying much because I was from an Amish community. When I was at Chicago, I didn’t necessarily hang out with people who were in my biology classes, I had other friends outside of that. And I think that that’s a recurring theme, in my professional experience – that I always have people outside of my professional experience who I connect with. And that seems to be a recurring problem, I would say.

Exactly as Markia pointed out, I am the only Black geneticist or computational biologist often. And because of that, whenever someone else who looks like me comes into the space, there’s an automatic, ‘Oh, we need to put the two of you together, so you can be friends’. And, you know, not everyone who looks like me is going to want to be my friend, or vice versa. So, I think that in terms of that, it’s really difficult to find a community. And that is, unfortunately, going to continue to be a problem for a long time because these things change slowly.

FLG: The scientific community is no exception to systematic racism and that is not just within the workforce as we were just discussing regarding peers, etc. But it’s also in the data as most studies target European populations. In both your opinions, what are some of the key issues that exist today?

Alexis: Yeah, I think we already started talking about that. Recruitment is not necessarily a huge problem, but retention and happiness in that place is a big, big problem. So, I mean, not to become too political, but it’s very difficult to be a Black woman at UNC right now, because of all of the struggle that we have seen for other Black women at our institution. There was one case that was just in the news, where there was a Black woman who was a journalist, and she was up for tenure. Everybody approved her tenure until it got all the way to the top and then the administration did not approve her for a full professorship. It’s really frustrating in those situations, when you see that, particularly at your university, because I looked to this woman as someone who had done all of the right things. She had an excellent track record and an excellent resume, yet it felt like no matter what she did, because of the way that she looked and presented herself and she had found her voice and was not afraid to use that, it felt very much like she had done something wrong.

And it doesn’t really matter how good you are at what you’re doing. At the end of the day, if you don’t adhere to other people’s political beliefs, then you’re not going to be successful in some spaces. And that’s really, really discouraging, and a big problem. I think that it certainly hinders people’s happiness at institutions. I don’t know this woman at all. But her struggle that I saw made me immediately look at myself and think, ‘Am I being too outspoken? Am I doing too much?’ I think that that fear is something that I already needed to suppress and work through before I ever saw something like this that really affirmed those fears. So, being recruited to institutions, I don’t think is the problem. It’s really what the institution is doing, and the way that they conduct themselves that can make or break a situation. So, retention is a big issue.

Like I already touched on, it’s difficult to find friends a lot of times in these settings. And people who actually understand what your life is like and the things that you enjoy, they can find some sort of enjoyment or connection too. That is really hard. So having a diverse faculty, having diverse student populations and trainee populations can’t happen unless the institution is in a place where they are very welcoming to those people and are able to support them once they’re there.

Markia: Yeah, I agree. And to tag on to that would be the fact that it’s common knowledge that people of colour tend to get grants less. So, things like that also cause an issue – when the issue lies in the environment and the systemic racism and the systematic racism. So, if we don’t change those things, we’re never going to recruit as many Black participants and people of colour as we need to. If we don’t change the environmental space, it really doesn’t matter how many people we recruit. They’re trying to mass hire faculty, but that’s not going to change anything if retaining the faculty is the issue.

FLG: Yeah, no, definitely retention and the environment are so important. For those who don’t know, would you be able to discuss what Black in Genetics is and what made you set it up? What was that journey was like for you both?

Alexis: The path to starting Black in Genetics I think was a very quick one for both of us. We found ourselves in that position, but for anybody who doesn’t know, there were several Twitter groups last year that were started by Black people in different academic spaces. And they named their groups like Black Birders for people who study birds, or Black in Neuroscience for people who study neuroscience. So, these different organisations had spontaneously popped up on Twitter and were having weeks where they celebrated all of the Black people who exist in those different spaces. And I saw this happening and was thinking to myself, ‘It seems like a Black in Genetics group would be really important’. I mean, if you think about what race is, it really comes down to genetics and ancestry. That’s the way that we define a lot of these things. So, I thought it would be very important to see a Black in Genetics week come up.

And one night, I was lying in bed on Twitter, and I replied to a thread of organisers who had started different ‘Black in’ weeks, and I asked them what the protocol was for starting one because I felt like there should be a Black in Genetics week. The next morning, I woke up to a retweet that had quoted what I asked and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re the founder, go ahead and start Black in Genetics and have a Black in Genetics week!’ And I think that Markia saw that, and she sent me a text that was something to the effect of like, ‘Let’s get it poppin’!’ She jumped on board very quickly and we did it all together. So, we started making the logo, I would draw something up in Illustrator, send it to Markia. And then she would give me edits to assimilate and we would put those edits in. Then, we had a logo to begin with. We started planning out what actual days we wanted to have during our Black in Genetics week. And it really took off from there. From the time that I woke up to seeing that we were the founders of Black in Genetics, to the start of the week was six or seven days. It was really, really fast!

FLG: That is such a quick turnaround – I don’t know how you did it! What are some of the overarching aims of Black in Genetics?

Markia: The main aim is just to be a space for Black geneticists. Honestly, we just wanted to create a community and amplify their voices, because there’s not very many of us. And in comparison, to some of the other groups, they’re a lot larger, and they have a lot more people in there. So, it was really just a space for everyone to come together to provide resources to get younger folk interested in genetics, and to just really be there for each other. Especially during the pandemic, when things were really rough. And a lot of us were graduate students, so we had to continue going.

FLG:  What was your reaction to the response? I was also seeing it happen. What was it like to see the impact that something you had set up was having?

Alexis: It was absolutely incredible. I was blown away by how quickly we were welcomed into the community, but also celebrated. There was so much engagement. And there were some people who went from accounts that only had a couple 100 followers to 1000 followers over the course of a week. And I mean, we were one of those accounts. We broke 1000 very quickly in the first week. It was a really, really big welcome into the community.

But at the same time, because we were getting so much attention, I felt like there was a lot of pressure on what we were doing. I think that we were able to do such a good job because of all of the attention that we were getting. So, it went away from, ‘Oh, this is just something fun that we were going to do this week’ to ‘This is actually very important, and we need to do a really good job of what we’re doing’. We were trying to recognise the social unrest that was going on at the same time as when we were conducting the week. So, I say it’s about celebration and establishing a community. But the reality is, at the time, the United States was going through a really important time where we were resurfacing all of these issues that had just been pushed away since the Civil Rights movement that were really coming back to fruition. And people were paying attention to that. They were paying attention to police brutality and Black communities. They were paying attention to ‘Oh, well, we don’t have representation in scientific spaces’. This was really strange, but there were several white people who were coming to me and apologising and saying, ‘Oh, I haven’t been doing enough’.

And so, I felt that it was really important to recognise what in the genetic space was in our control, and what geneticists could do to change the trajectory of the genetics field. Because there is a very racist history in the genetics field, and we need to be very aware of that as we’re conducting things now to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We were trying to point out to scientists that it doesn’t necessarily matter what your political beliefs are, your science is going to be political at the end of the day. Particularly if you’re doing something like what Markia studies, which is health disparities. It doesn’t matter what you believe, because people will read what you publish, and they will put their own spin on things. So, you need to be really careful with the words that you use and the way that you conduct yourself. And so, I wanted that to also be part of the focus of our week. And I think that we conducted that pretty well. We had one day that was dedicated to these topics called a BIG Call to Action. And I think that was a really important day during the week.

FLG: Although there is so much negativity on social media, it can also be so good to get people’s voices out there and show all the amazing work scientists are doing. I think Black in Genetics has really highlighted the power of social media. For you both, what networks have you been able to build from this? Have you received support or interest from other organisations who want to get involved?

Markia:  So, we have had a lot of interest, particularly from journals and journalists. A lot of people were interested in hearing our story and collaborating with us. We were very dedicated to making sure that the journals were held accountable, because one of the biggest things for us is accessibility. A lot of the younger people can’t access these journals to get interested in genetics, because there’s a paywall. And so, we wanted to work with different journals like Nature Genetics to try to get more accessible prices at least for our members and for other Black members in other organisations because that was so important. We have a lot of collaborations with other organisations that are looking to help us with internships. Genentech also reached out to us for different things. Other people are just trying to figure out how they can support our mission, while us also making sure that it also benefits us and our members.

Alexis: Yeah, so other support we have received came from the other ‘Black in’ groups. When we were trying to get our week going, it was a really quick turnaround. And when we were in the planning phase, we had meetings with Black in Neuro, and then also people from Black In Mammalogy (one of their founders is really helpful). They gave us all of the tips and all of the things that they learned from their weeks to make sure that we were not making the same mistakes that they did. And that was also really great. We’ve stayed in close contact with all those people. Even now, we have a Slack group that’s separate so we can stay in communication.

FLG: That’s really, really nice. What are you hoping to do this year and also for the future of the group? What are your plans going forward?

Markia: Well, I want to try to make things bigger and better! Not to be punny. I’m in my last year of grad school, so I’m really roughing it right now. Alex is also roughing it. But we’re hoping to expand things. We’re working on getting an executive board, so Alex and I can kind of hand off more things and not have to be the only ones doing things for it. The hope is to continue to build our community and try to really connect the members with internship opportunities, the journals, and different things like that. We also want to try to do some community-oriented activities because we’ve done like wine hours or happy hour type of things. But it would be nice if the people who are local to us could potentially meet up and try some things, now that most people are vaccinated.

Alexis: I think for the long term, we have some friends in the community who live in Hawaii, and they were very involved and said, ‘You need to have a Black in Genetics conference in Hawaii so we can all meet each other’. And I think that that is a long-term goal but is a worthwhile goal to pursue. Like Markia said, we’re working on putting together our executive board right now. We have a group of eight of us who are planning the Black in Genetics week that is coming up this fall. So hopefully, they’ll stick around and continue with us. And they have said they want to be board members, so we know that. But it’s really just about organising and making sure that everybody has a place and a job. So that’s what’s coming next.

FLG: That Hawaii trip sounds nice!

Alexis: It does. In fact, one of the people who is on our board just moved there. So, it’s just becoming more and more of a reality that may happen.

FLG: What have you both learned along the way from this whole journey and throughout your careers?

Markia: I think what I’ve learned is that failure is okay. As a perfectionist, it was very difficult to get used to that idea. So, I think just us trying different things and seeing what works and what doesn’t was really helpful and helped culminate different ideas for me.

Alexis: Yeah, for me, it wasn’t necessarily the failure part. I’m okay with that. But what I struggle with is that these things change very slowly. I think I’ve heard song lyrics that are to the effect of like, ‘I’m going to be doing this until I’m over’. The sort of work that we’ve fallen into is something that is not going to happen quickly. And that’s difficult for me to `conceptualise because I think, ‘Oh, as soon as people hear about how bad things are, they’re going to want to change it immediately’. But the reality is, even if one person wants to change things, it takes a lot more people than just that one person and convincing all of those people together, and then convincing them to change in the same way is also nearly impossible.

So, I’ve really struggled with that and thinking about ‘Well, we’ve already had this Twitter revolution, why haven’t we seen more changes and why are people not getting tenure at my university?’ And being okay with that is very difficult for me. So, I think that’s something I’ve certainly learned. But also, at the same time, I’ve learned that there are people who are very supportive and very quick to embrace change, and they are equally as passionate about these topics as I am. So, despite, change being slow, there still is a community that does show support and does want to help. And finding those people I think is really the main way that I can cope with my struggle over the timeline.

FLG: Thank you so much, both of you, for talking to me today. I think that Black in Genetics is so important to amplify Black voices and raise awareness of the great work people are doing. And I can’t wait to see what you guys do this year as well. I will be keeping watch on Twitter!

Alexis: Perfect, yes, please do!

More on these topics

A Spotlight On / Academia / Diversity / Equity / Interview