HPV: Theres A Vaccine For That

*This post was originally created for CiteASista.Com*

The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the U.S. It is linked to cervical cancer and cancers of the vagina, penis, anus (anal), throat, tongue, and tonsils. These cancers can take years develop but begin when someone becomes infected with the virus. There is only a routine screening for cervical cancer.

The Science Behind HPV

HPV has a genome made of double stranded DNA. Like other DNA viruses it has the ability to incorporate itself into the genes of its host, in this case humans. Once it is incorporated into the hosts DNA, its genes get replicated whenever the cell replicates. Depending on where the virus incorporates itself into the hosts DNA, it can turn cell growth genes permanently. This results in abnormal cell growth that leads to cancer. When you go to the gynecologist for Pap smear (Pap for Papilloma), this is what the doctors are looking for: abnormal cervical cells.


Every year, an estimated 17,600 women and 9,300 men are diagnosed with cancer resulting from HPV infection. When broken down into communities, statistics show Hispanic women have the highest rates of cervical cancer, but African American women have the highest rate of death as a result of HPV infection since 1975 due to decreased likelihood of early disease detection. AA women also have the highest rates of vaginal cancer as a result of HPV infection. AA men have higher rates of anal cancer when compared to white men and Hispanic men have higher rates of penile cancer than non-Hispanic men.

The good news is that the HPV strains that are most likely to cause cancer are preventable and have been since the advent of the HPV vaccine in 2006. The bad news is that women of color, particularly Black women, are less likely to have their children (or themselves) vaccinated. The advisory committee on immunization practices recommends males age 13-21 and females age 13-26 be vaccinated. The vaccines are administered in 3 doses at timed intervals: 0, 1-2, and 6 months.

Vaccination rates from 2015 indicated that coverage for females age 13-17 was at 60% for the first dose of the vaccines and 39.7% for the third dose as of 2014. African Americans have the lowest series completion rate at 61.6%. Studies have shown that 48% of AA have never heard of the vaccination and those who were aware were female, employed, had some years of college education an annual income of $40,000, a regular doctor, had fewer children and were younger than 41 years of age. Awareness of HPV and the vaccine was also associated with cervical cancer diagnosis (i.e. they or someone they knew had a diagnosis).


Lets Talk About Vaccination

Among AA parents, the most common vaccination barriers were concerns about safety, concerns that the vaccination would encourage promiscuity or pre-marital sex, lack of information, and lack of recommendation by doctor or perceived hesitance of a recommendation by a doctor. Additional barriers included perceived low risk of children acquiring HPV, mistrust in pharmaceutical companies, mistrust of medical providers, religious denomination and frequency of religious service attendance, concern about daughters being too young, and creating a false sense of protection against all HPV strains.

After wading through all of the facts, what it boils down to is that Black women have the highest rate of cervical cancer deaths, yet we are least likely to have our daughters vaccinated. The reasons why people are vaccinating their daughter boils down to either distrust in doctors and pharmaceutical companies or the fear that having our children vaccinated against an STD will somehow encourage them to start having sex or have more sex. Does anyone see the faulty logic in this? This falls into the same line of reasoning that talking to your kids about sex promotes sexual activity.

MERCK - Merck's HPV Vaccine, GARDASIL®9, now available in Canada

As a mother, a Black Christian women, and a scientist, I do not understand this logic. Even if your child does wait to have sex until they are married, chances are that their spouse did not. If protecting your child is the goal, denying them a vaccination in the name of purity culture does not serve them well. Perhaps reframing the discussion as that of your preparing a child to be a successful adult might encourage parents and caretakers to reconsider how helpful a vaccination can be in helping the current child avoid contracting a preventable virus from a future sexual partner. This vaccine can prevents cervical cancer. That is nothing short of a miracle that I embraced with all of my identities and encourage others to do the same.

Black communities in the United States have legitimate reasons for not trusting the scientific and medical industries (Tuskegee, Henrietta Lacks, the origins of US gynecology, etc). As a member of both the science and Black communities, I encourage us to consider that we can be both healthily skeptical of practices and intentions within the science industry/community AND recognize the ways that scientific and medical advances can support our health and well-being. How can Black communities build trust with medical and scientific communities? I genuinely want to know because as a Black scientist, I chose this field because I wanted to help my community through my research. I want to break down the walls of communication so that we can be free to live long and healthy/healthier lives.

Moving Forward

The biggest take home message for me with these data is that we need to get the word out to the parts of the community that are older, less likely to be college educated and more likely to be skeptical of the medical and scientific community. I think the best way for us to get vaccination rates up is by reaching out to the people in our communities who fit this description. I know that I do my fair share of communicating these things to my friends and family and I can only hope that they are passing these things along. This may also require leading by example. If you are reading this and you aren’t vaccinated and you are 45* and under, GET VACCINATED! If you have a child (of any sex and/or gender) within the recommended vaccination age, GET THEM VACCINATED!

I am challenging the #CiteASista community to share this post among friends and family and begin/continue a conversation about sexual health. Do your own research and share that too. We have to be able to uplift our community so that we can be more informed and healthier. If you have any ideas on how to improve communication between doctors and scientists to our communities, please leave them in the comments.

*Point of emphasis: The vaccine has been recently been cleared for people up to age 45!!!! This is GREAT NEWS.*

Why I am not supporting the #MarchForScience

When the news that EPA funding had been frozen and EPA and gagged first broke I was irate. Like many others I wanted to do something meaningful to express how I was feeling. When I was added to the March for Science Facebook group I was excited. This was right down the alley of what I was thinking. I was also pleased to see so many scientists becoming engaged in the political discourse. About 5 seconds into my scroll down the group page I saw all some people, white and mostly men and a few women, discussing how the goal of the march should be free of identity politics and to resist being hijacked by those movements. To say that I was annoyed is an understatement. I’m not sure why, but it never fails to amaze me that people’s gut reactions to anything is to make sure that marginalized people have no voice. Fortunately, D N Lee made sure to explain why this was unwelcoming for marginalized group and a huge comment thread began as a result. About 10 minutes later I saw a poll for making the march for science and against religion. I just stared at my screen screaming internally and decided that this march clearly wasn’t going to be for folks like me (Female, Black, Christian) or anyone else that isn’t cis, straight, White and male. Within minutes the poll was taken down and the organizers of the group made it clear that diversity was important to them and that they would publish a diversity statement in the coming days. I told myself not to be too discouraged by other people’s comments and wait to see what the diversity statement and other evidence of inclusion say before making any decisions.

The statement titled as “Unity Principles” is as follows:

The March for Science strongly supports diversity, inclusion and equality in science.

American and global citizens are best served when we build and sustain an inclusive scientific community. We advocate for equal access to science education and scientific careers. When evidence-based science and policy are ignored, marginalized communities are differentially and disproportionately impacted.

Scientists and people who care about science are an intersectional group, embodying a diverse range of race, sexual orientation, (a)gender identity, ability, religion, socioeconomic and immigration statuses. We, the march organizers, come from and stand in solidarity with historically underrepresented scientists and science advocates.

This statement is great! The statements of the organizers after the statement was released not so much.  In a New York Times article, Jonathan Berman, co-chair of the March for Science national committee, was quoted as saying “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest.” Additionally, sister marches in other locations have described themselves a neutral as opposed to focusing on “liberal social issues” on Twitter.


What does it mean when a co-chair of the national committee and those in charge of sister marches want to be apolitical and neutral but also strongly support diversity, inclusion and equality? To me, it means they don’t get it. Whether we like it or not the 45th president and his administration have made it clear that they do not value scientific input. These are politicians whose influence comes via policy. If science wasn’t political before, the act of deciding that scientific evidence is questionable by the POTUS makes the issue VERY political. But even before the 45th president took office, science has been political. The government has not only funded science but has used the data to create policy.  The reason people research some things and not others? Political. Who does and does not get to ask the research questions? Political. Science has always been political!  I really wish that my fellow scientists would stop pretending otherwise.

Being anything other than Cis, straight, white and male is political. Every other group has had to fight for their rights to be allowed to vote, counted as citizens, get married, use bathrooms and/or not live in separate and unequal conditions and be treated with basic human decency. Much of that had to be amended into the constitution in order to have legal implications for not doing so. A lot of it has shaped the current political landscape. Having a marginalized identity and existing in this country AND science is an inherent political. To say that you are apolitical and support diversity feels like a spit in the face of the people you claim to support.

As the 45th president rolls out new executive orders strengthening police protections, the war on drugs and creating task forces on reducing crime, all I hear is enhanced danger for people of color. What I experience in the world outside of laboratory effects my science. When my husband gets called a Ni**er by a drunk acquaintance that affects my focus; my ability to be one hundred percent in my science. When co-workers continually perpetuate mirco-aggressions against you, it effects your science. When women encounter sexual harassment in lab and field work spaces, it effects their science. When a scientist has to worry about whether they will make it back into the country after and international conference, it affects their science and the dissemination of their knowledge.  When a trans scientist is continually misgendered, it effects their science. You cannot say you support these people and be apolitical. It is not possible. Science is not performed in a vacuum and to continue to pretend that it is puts scientists on the wrong side of history right along with the 45th president.

In order for me to be convinced to participate in the March for science, I need the organizers to stop saying they aren’t political or that they are neutral on social issues. I also need those folks asking for the march not to be “hijacked” have a stadium full of seats. I don’t need any fake allies or obstructionists in this fight for equality. I need people who are willing to face their own biases, look for the truth and be willing to fight alongside me and be political because that’s the only way there will be any progress.

“Hidden Figures” Renewed My Spirit

The Hidden Figures movie has been getting a lot of critical acclaim since its release. The movie follows three main characters, Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson on their journey as colored human computers for NASA. The movie shed light on the mistreatment of these women and the barriers they overcame to become HUGE contributors to the first human space mission in the U.S. and NASA as a whole.

My diversity STEM student group organized an event around the movie and it gave me my entire life! About 50 total students and faculty, majority black, many identifying as female, filled the theatre reserved specifically for the event and preceded to be both inspired and enraged by the events being portrayed on the screen. The experience was cathartic. The proverbial side eye that was given when we all realized that Katherine had to run back to West Computing to use the bathroom or when they added an addition coffee carafe labeled colored after she drank from the at first communal carafe was on full display in that theatre. The group applauded when Katherine broke down and yelled at Mr. Harrison when he asked where she went for hours at a time every day and when Dorothy told Vivian Mitchel “ I know you, think, you do.” After she said she didn’t have anything against the colored computers. It was like instant validation knowing that an entire group of people felt the same way you do. It helped me to remember I am not alone in my experiences even though I feel like it most days.


As a female STEM scientist I identified so much with the struggles that these women went through in this movie. Though segregation officially ended decades ago and the barriers for black women and other underrepresented minorities are no longer legal they still exist. The feelings of being other are still quite pervasive in science technology and math as well having to prove your intelligence and your value to the scientific community ten times over. In fact, this movie came right on time. For about a month before the movie came out until I saw the movie, I was debating leaving science myself. I was feeling down and discouraged about my future, my current status as a PhD candidate and questioning whether I am ever going to graduate.

The movie also inspired to me to look for the hidden figures in my own field. I realized that I had not come into to contact with one black female virologist let alone an arbovirologist and made me seek to change this. I reached out to folks on twitter and am on my way to getting to know the research of several women recommended to me. I am also in the process of reading the book that inspired the movie to get all the extra details, find more inspiration and separate the truth from the fiction in that movie. For example: The entire timeline was compressed. The actual story starts in the late 1940’s Mr. Harrison, was not Katherine’s actual supervisor and no one tore down the colored bathroom sign. Katherine just started using the closest bathroom.

So if you haven’y already seen this movie, go now! I plan on buying the Blue Ray so I can watch it again and again. Also, I challenge you to look for some hidden figures in your field. When you find them, if you care to share, please do so in the comments.

STEM Diversity and Inclusion: My Perspective On Why It Matters

On March 23rd I was invited back to my undergraduate university, University of Delaware, to talk about STEM diversity in higher education. The main reason I was invited back? Because some of my old professors and mentors are friends with me on Facebook and have been witness to my endless rants, discussions and posts about underrepresented minorities in STEM at the undergraduate, graduate and faculty level. Needless to say I was shocked that anyone would want hear that in person but I was more than happy to accept the opportunity to do some outreach with undergraduate students and go back to one of my favorite places. You can watch the vide of the presentation here!

Due to the fact that I was terribly nervous and forgot some of things I wanted to highlight in the presentation, I thought that I would take a moment here to discuss.

Pay disparities and Unemployment rates among underrepresented groups in STEM


This graph shows the differences in wages over time of different academic faculty based on sex and race.  Dr. Griffiths was thoughtful enough to point out that whatever difference in salary you start with, is likely the difference in salary you will retire with despite the raises you will recieve. I additionally wanted to point out that for those underrepresented minorities who also come from low-income backgrounds, getting paid less than their white and asian male counterparts usually means that it will be harder for them to gain wealth at the same rates.

An example of this would be those who have had to take out student loans. If a male student and a female student take out the same amount of student loans to get through college, it is going to take longer for the woman to pay back her loans and be a bigger burden. A white female makes $.70 cents per $1.00 her white male counterpart makes. This pay gap gets bigger when you separate women out by race.  Then add in the fact that it’s less likely for a member of an underrepresented group to even find a job in the first place and the disparities and disadvantages get even bigger.

So when people are trying to recruit minorities into STEM with the claim that their life will be better and they can make more money, they should really be taking some of these numbers into account. People, myself included, can justify higher loan costs if they know they are making a lot of money post graduation. But if that’s not really a guarantee, we might be stuck later with a ton of debt and low pay or no job at all.


I tried to highlight microaggressions as much as possible during my talk but I barely even scratched the service. There is actually a lot of research out there on microaggressions and the effects they have on underrepresented groups. So I really just wanted to take the time here to tell you to search the literature and take in the information and MAKE CHANGES.

Mentorship and Outreach

I mentioned how important both mentorship and outreach were in increasing overall diversity in STEM. I also mentioned how important the inclusion piece is. What I didn’t really touch upon was the importance of checking your biases and privilege while doing this work. I was in a seminar with Dr. Darris Means at the University of Georgia the last month where it was mentioned that many times we assume because someone comes from an underrepresented group that they are at a deficit. However, a lot of times we don’t look at the strengths and attributes that people from these groups already have. I think that is SO important. If you approach your mentorship and outreach from a place of superiority or from the assumption that you have everything to offer and people from these groups have nothing to offer, you are hindering the beneficial relationship that could develop.  Especially as an academic it is easy to assume that you know more that a lot of people. YOU DON’T. Take the time to listen and learn from your mentees and the people you are outreaching to.

Self care

This is a BIG one. With the daily onslaught of ‘isms and microaggressions from all of the identities that you carry with you, self care is SO important. This doesn’t  just include beauty regimens and hot baths. Although I love a hot bath with eucalyptus infused epsom salt, sometimes that is just not enough. It includes going to the doctor regularly, eating good food, getting exercise and seeing a professional for mental health. I really do recommend that everyone see a therapist but it is especially important for those of us who are the few and the only’s in our departments and our fields. At the very least finding a mentor who you can vent to is very important. I am on of the first people to let go of my self care when I’m stressed out and it NEVER turns out well. I feel so much better about myself and in general when I take care of myself. Have I mentioned that this is important?

Overall my experience during this seminar was very positive. The audience seemed receptive and great questions were asked. This work is especially close to my hear and I love doing it. I just want to say thank you once again to UD and CANR for inviting me back.


sigma alpha
Some of the active member of the Sigma Alpha, Alpha Kappa Chapter, the chapter advisors, me and another SA alumni.

kishana and manrrs.jpg
Me, some students from my old club, Minorities in Agriculture Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), and the club advisor.


Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy!


Outside of my love for dolphins, I can probably dedicate my love for science to an addiction to the Magic School Bus. It’s probably the main reason I got a 3 on my AP biology exam and sometime when I am having a stressful day, I turn on my Netflix account and allow myself to get lost in the human body, space or whatever scientific world Miss Frizzle’s class is exploring for the next 30 min.

This weekend I went back to my alma matter University of Delaware, for my sorority founders day luncheon and to give an invited talk on STEM diversity and Inclusion (More on this at a later date.) As a part of the panel, the participants were asked what advice we would give to the younger members of the sorority (freshman and sophomore) for the remainder of their time at the university. The first thing I thought of was Miss Frizzle’s most famous tag line: “Take chances, make mistakes and get messy!” This effectively sums up how I have approached my career thus far from pursuing different research and internship opportunities to moving from state to state for different degree programs.

I would include starting this blog as a taking a chance. I have a tendency to start projects and not finish them and there was a possibility that this blog would end up by the way side with the journal I attempt to start every year or the 5 rows of knitting stitches that I have been meaning to complete into a blanket. Deciding to write about current events in the STEM world and diversity issues, was another chance that I took. Being vocal about the ivory tower and trying to change the structure from within can be trying and can affect your career. It’s why up until a few days ago. I was writing this blog anonymously just in case I said something too political and got myself into trouble. But the moment I told those undergraduate women to follow “The Frizz’s” advice, I realized that I was not taking neither “The Frizz’s” nor my own advice. So as of today I have connected myself to the blog both by name and by twitter accounts and if I happen to get flack/fall out/kickback for my opinions at school, so be it.

Zika Virus and Why We Can’t Kill All of The Mosquitoes

Since news of the Zika virus outbreak first started spreading all over the internet, I knew that I was going to have to write a post. First because vector-borne viruses are MY thing and second because I KNEW this was going to be a big deal. But, I was still searching for the right angle. Yes I wanted to give the important info and talk a little bit about the virology behind it but what would make my post different from the majority of information already out there. Then yesterday I saw scientists, epidemiologists etc. calling for the full blown extermination of mosquitoes and it hit me. Whenever we learn about a new vector-borne pathogen that affects human lives, we always call for the extermination of the vector as if this has no other repercussions ecologically. This is never a good idea. Hold on, let me start from the beginning…

Zika Virus (ZIKV) is a positive sense, single stranded, enveloped RNA virus. It belongs in the same family of viruses as West Nile virus, dengue virus, and yellow fever virus, Flaviviridae. Like the others, ZIKV is transmitted via mosquito vector, specifically Aedes aegypti, commonly known as the tiger mosquito. ZIKV has been around for since the 1950’s. Cases of ZIKV are usually found in African and Asian countries along the equitorial belt. In 2014 the virus spread eastward toward the Pacific Ocean reaching French Polynesia, Easter Island and then reached the South and Central Americas in addition to the Caribbean causing a Pandemic in 2015 that is still growing in 2016.

Image: Flavivirus genome

Image: An Aedes aegypti mosquito

The most common symptoms of ZIKV infection include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis. Less common symptoms can include muscle pain. These symptoms can last from several days up to several weeks. The reason why ZIKV is so concerning now despite it being arounf since the 1950’s is that it has been linked to cases of microcephaly (small heads) in newborn babies whose mothers became infected during pregnancy. Now the CDC has issues travel guidance’s and warnings to those traveling to countries where cases of ZIKV have been recorded. Certain countries are advising that women delay getting pregnant until more research can be done about the viruses link to microcephaly in newborns. (This has HUGE implications for some of these countries that do not have access to birth control. More on that here.

From a general public health perspective one might think that this is just another nasty bug carried by mosquitoes. People have argued that wiping mosquitoes off the face of the earth would really be our best bet in reducing the burden of disease caused by vector-borne disease. In theory, this sounds like a reasonable idea. Get rid of the thing causing problems. Mosquitoes are the WORST, so its the perfect reason to wipe them out, right? However, anytime something sounds too easy, it probably is. We as humans have probably been making this mistake for as long as we have been in existence.

Mosquitoes are HUGE part of the ecosystem in many places. Adult mosquitoes are consumed by birds, bats, reptiles and other insects. The larvae are often consumed by fish and insects. While mosquitoes don’t make up an entire diet of any animal that we know of, they represent a huge amount of biomass globally and removing them from the ecosystem could cause some major breakdowns in the food chain of many animals, including humans. This is why One Health science is SO important. A lot of time we get so narrowly focused on solutions that we do not think about the repercussions they have outside of whatever problem we are trying to solve. Yes we might be able to get rid of a lot of vector-borne disease by killing all of the mosquitoes, but what are we going to do when ecosystems start to breakdown? Its just not sound science.

 Image: Example of a food chain that hinges on mosquitoes

Even if we did decide there were no issues with killing them, how exactly would we do that? Mosquitoes can lay there eggs in the tiniest pools of water. So anywhere there is litter or pollution and rain there are probably mosquito eggs. We have to clean up all of the pollution all over the world! (Hmmm, on second thought yes lets kill all the mosquitoes. Lets start cleaning up after ourselves!) We could spray pesticides everywhere but that would effect more than just mosquitoes, which would mean a loss of even more biomass and the destruction of even more ecosystems. (Does this still sound like a good idea?) It’s not an easy task at all.

A more eco-friendly approach would be to make sure there is no standing water in and around your home, that your window screens are intact, that you wear insect repellent (there are citronella based repellents for those concerned about deet), use bed nets and limit your time outside if possible, especially when pregnant. Another idea could be making your backyard mosquito predator friendly. These situations can be tricky to navigate and can also be scary. It’s best not to loose our heads those and put the resources we do have towards reasonable and reachable solutions.

#BlackandSTEM, SCOTUS and Affirmative Action

On Wednesday December 10, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) gave its oral arguments for the Fisher v. University of Texas – Austin case. For those not familiar with the case, Abigail Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas Austin, despite being a legacy. Because she felt that she was prime candidate for admission, yet was not admitted into her top choice school, she highlighted affirmative action as the reason she was not accepted. Essentially that some minority who is less qualified and less deserving by default  was giving admission and “stole” her spot away from her. She went further with this argument by suing saying that UT Austin considering race in its admission criteria is unconstitutional.


If the entire basis of this case isn’t insulting enough, the SCOTUS decided to take the case AGAIN after looking at Affirmative Action in 2013 and sending it back to appeals court for further review. This implies that they likely want at severely limit affirmative action in higher ed and at worst get rid of it completely.

The fact that the SCOTUS even decided to hear this case has me irritated.

To add insult to injury, during the oral arguments Justice Scalia, using this provided brief as basis, said things like:

“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well,as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school … a slower-track school where they do well.”

“Most of the black scientists in this country do not come from the most advanced schools,”

“Most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that … they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them,”

“I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible,”
“They’re being pushed into schools that are too advanced for them,”

The name for this general argument is the mismatch theory. This brief was used despite the fact that there was another brief submitted to the court that highlight the flaws of this theory.

During my time in higher education I have been admitted to 4 institutions 2 undergrad and 2 graduate. Abigail Fisher, Scalia and Roberts are implying that not only did i not earn those spots at those schools, I ousted a more deserving white student too. I was behind all of my peers the entire time and didn’t do very well. Yet I have completed a bachelors degree, a masters degree and am working on my PhD all in science fields. Doesn’t matter that  I could get glowing recommendations from a large number of my professors or that I did these at schools like or better than UT -Austin. Not that this matters. I could have gone to an HBCU and these points would still be valid. HBCU’s are not of less quality they just provide a much safer environment in which to grow. I digress. These 3 people are invalidating literally my entire life from 18-27. Affirmative action can’t explain away all of the success I have had in my life so #staymadabby.




As an African American woman in higher education, I know all too well the prevalent idea  that many minorities are only in school because of Affirmative Action. Many of us feel the weight of having to perform levels above our peers in order for our presence not to be questioned. Our mistakes are weighed more heavily by our advisers and supervisors in comparison to our white peers. We put increased pressure on ourselves to be perfect. We suffer from higher rates of impostor syndrome, anxiety and depression in a field that already has a high mental health cost because we are told over and over again both subliminally and in cases like Justice Scalia boldly that we are not equal. Our mental capacities are somehow more limited than everybody else’s.

Add on top of this, the fact that Scalia felt the need to target black scientists in particular with his statements… It’s really hard for me to not be angry. I started this blog to be able to talk about science because I think it’s awesome. I have a passion for it. Science is my life. I also started this blog to counteract a pervasive idea in the sciences that science is free of racial bias, sexism and prejudice. Ideas that promote the idea that science is colorblind and as a scientist you have to removed yourself from part of your identity ( In my case a black woman) in order to do science properly.

Justice Scalia’s  comments are actually a perfect example to pinpoint the fallacy of such an idea that science is pure. These men sit on the highest court of out country and hold these ideas. Can the scientific community really make the argument that no one else in our community feels the same way? That when I present my research at the conference they aren’t questioning my ability as a scientist because of the color of my skin or the gender that I identify with? Is it possible some of professors may have graded me more harshly, inherently looked for more flaws in my questions because they expected me to be wrong anyway? How can we not, as a community that values evidence and critical thinking not make this connection? Why are we not making more efforts to fight against these stereotypes? Why is it acceptable for us to essentially stick our heads into the ground and pretend this things are not happening in our community?  It is both frustrating and maddening.

At a time when, black and other minority students and professors already feel persecuted and isolated on predominately white campuses, this case and the related comments do nothing to mitigate those feelings. Students and faculty of color are literally crying out for an increase of diversity in these spaces and the SCOTUS is essentially trying to make the argument that isn’t warranted or necessary. This is the epitome of out of touch.

The science community continues to make the  argument that we lack diversity because it is a pipeline issue. We simply are not recruiting enough diversity into the field. Meanwhile studies are showing that women and POC are leaving the sciences specifically within academia at a higher rate than their peers. I have no doubt that this is be cause of hostile work environments and lack of the critical support needed to survive. I personally have desire to remain in academia based on my experiences as a PhD student.

I say all of this to say that we as scientists really need to look within ourselves on this issue. This should be a wake up call to my white peers and faculty to check themselves. This should either make you aware or remind you that your black peers need your help to make things better. How many of you have reached out your black peers today to check-in with them today? During the University of Missouri protests and subsequent protests across the county? If you want do better, if you want to make a difference, START there and keep pushing forward.We cannot pretend that issues do not exist within our ranks. Our research is better when we have a diverse group of people working. We need to remember, hold on to and push for that.


Side note: If you are a #blackandSTEM graduate student or are considering being one, please take care of yourself in this climate.  Find the support you need to survive. DM me on twitter, email me, reach out if you need.



Something big is currently going on the disease world! Chances are unless you’ve heard about this is some way, shape or form, unless you have been living under a rock (No judgment here, I went dark for a few weeks. SO MUCH SCHOOLWORK.). Currently there is an ongoing national outbreak of the measles virus linked to Disneyland in California. This is big news for several reasons; the number of cases is continuing to rise, measles was eliminated from the U.S. in 2000 and it’s adding fuel to the fire of the on going anti-vaccination debate. Having a background in public health, epidemiology and virology, this topic and these kinds of events hit close to home for me. Many of my facebook friends and twitter followers are VERY clear on where I stand on the subject and can be subject to a rant on this at any given point of the week. Because of this I thought it was important to write a post explaining why I feel the way I do about vaccinations and also provide some translation from scientific worlds of immunology and infectious disease so that maybe others can understand and help those who may be on the fence about it.

Let’s start with anti-vaccination campaign and the arguments people are using to support this position.  One of the main reasons people are unsure or against vaccinations for children is the question of whether they have been linked to horrible side effects like Autism or Guillian Barre syndrome . Another popular argument that has gained traction is that we should not be injecting harmful chemicals into our children’s bodies. I’m going to stop with these two argument because I think this would be a good point to go over some basic vaccination science.

The purpose of a vaccination is to expose your body to a micro-organism or toxin prior to infection. By giving your body a chance to build up immunity in a non-pathogenic situation (does not cause disease), when your body comes into contact with a pathogenic version  of the micro-organism you wont get sick or you wont get as sick.

A vaccination typically consists of an antigen; the molecule you want your body to form an immune reaction against,  and an adjuvant; something to enhance the immune reaction. Antigens can be a whole micro-organisms, like a killed bacterium/virus, or just part of one, like a viral protein or a bacterial cell wall.  Some vaccines may be live attenuated vaccines (Virus is alive, but not strong enough to cause disease). Adjuvants are used to enhanced the reaction your body will have to the antigen. In some cases (NOT ALL), an adjuvant could be a chemical compound like aluminum hydroxide or thimerosol (EthylMercury). (For the sake of this particular post, we will focus on that.  If you have any left over questions feel free to drop them in the comment box and I will do my best to either answer or point you in the right direction of the information.)

Some of you might now be thinking, “Hold on, their injecting us with aluminum?!” but this is the chemical found in antacids that help to reduce the acidity of your stomach acid and isn’t used in large quantities. Additionally, it works as a stabilizer to keep the antigens from sticking to the container during storage. Thimersol IS NOT mercury (methyl mercury), a compound found naturally in the environment that bioaccumulates in the body, but does contain mercury within the compound. Methyl mercury is what is used in those old thermometers and what you hear about when they warn against eating certain fish. The difference between thimersol and mercury is the way it metabolized (broken down) by the body. Thimersol is metabolized by the body much faster than methyl mercury and is cleared out of the body.  Further more, even though no correlation between thimersol and autism has been found, thimersol is no longer used in any vaccines recommended for children, with the exception of the multi-dose flu vaccines. If you do not want the flu vaccine that contains thimerosol, just ask your doctor for a single dose vial; those are thimersol free.

Micro-organisms that are used for the vaccines are grown in different forms of media. Some viruses are grown in eggs because they need living cells in order to reproduce. Egg fluid containing viruses are cleaned many times in order to remove the actual egg proteins but still may contain small traces. This is why it is recommended that if you have an egg allergy you avoid vaccine like the flu vaccine. Its not the virus you would be having a reaction to but the egg protein. All vaccines go through a series of rigorous tests called clinical trials, to ensure the safety and effectiveness before they are mass produced and administered to millions of people.

When enough people in a population are vaccinated for a disease, the population as a whole benefits from something called herd immunity. Herd immunity occurs when there are not enough susceptible people in the population for the microorganism to continue spreading (.  Because there are not enough people to get sick and pass on the virus, people who are not vaccinated are protected from infection within that population. This protection is a result of the virus not being able to come in contact with a susceptible individual before it dies out. The amount of a population that needs to be vaccinated in order for herd immunity to take affect varies for each disease. For measles, its 95%. Herd immunity is especially beneficial for those with autoimmune diseases or other compromised health issues who may not be able to get vaccinated.  This would include cancer patients and other immunocompromised, young infants and the elderly.

Now that you understand the basic science behind vaccinations, lets talk about why vaccinations are awesome. Thanks to vaccination some disease have been eradicated (smallpox, rinderpest), while other diseases are considered well controlled or eliminated in different areas all of the world. In the U.S. these disease would include measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), polio, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and chicken pox. All of those disease used to cause high rates of child mortality. So these vaccines are considered a HUGE success for public health.

In recent years, people are starting to decline or delay vaccinating their children because a paper published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998 that stated 12 children who were vaccinated with the MMR (Measles, mumps and Rubella) vaccine developed autism shortly after vaccination. Since then, this paper has been RETRACTED and Dr. Wakefield was discovered to have had financial interest in a series of vaccines that gave the MMR viruses separately instead of all together. In fact, Dr. Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine as a result. It has since been acknowledged that while MMR is administered to children at the same age that autism symptoms begin to appear, it is NOT the cause.

As more people decline to have their children vaccinated, the smaller the coverage rate gets. Once the coverage rate drops the population of non vaccinated individuals becomes more susceptible to infection due to lack of herd immunity. At this point, it could take one person from another population (over seas, different part of the country) who is infected with a disease to then spread it to the susceptible population. This is what is thought to be the case with the Disneyland outbreak in addition to other smaller outbreaks. Now there are people being exposed all over the country and stories like this one and this one are popping up all over the country.

I write all of this to explain that those of us who are healthy and those that are in charge of healthy children has a responsibility to protect those who do not have the ability to get vaccinated. We have eliminated or eradicated disease that cause a lot of pain and suffering in the past and it would be a tragedy to loos the progress that has been made in the disease world. Additionally, as someone who works with infectious diseases, I know and read about and witness the discovery of new pathogens every day. It would be great if scientists, epidemiologists and doctors could focus on emerging health threats as opposed to those that we have effective tools to treat because of unfounded theories. I am looking at this situation not only as a scientist but as a future parent and future elderly person. Please vaccinate yourself and your children. #IAmTheHerd and you should be too.


Don’t You Have Research To Do?

What is the one thing that a graduate student wishes they had more of? Time!

Which is why when you mention that your going to start a blog, some of your fellow grad students may look at you as if you have sprouted 2 extra heads. “Yes, because you have SO much time on your hands. Don’t you have research to do?” Why yes, yes I do. But just because I have a never ending “To-Do” list doesn’t mean that I don’t have time to write a blog. Let’s be honest, the majority of my down time is spent vegging out with Netflix. I think I can give up one episode of Gilmore girls every so often to post some pretty cool (at least in my opinion) thoughts, articles, video etc.

The next thing I’m likely to hear? “What are you even going to post about?” SO MUCH! There is so much to talk about! My particular branch of the scientific field, virology, is SO current right now. A better question would be, “What aren’t you going to talk about?” I mean, really. There is the whole Ebola outbreak, the spread of Chikungunya into the western hemisphere, MERS Virus (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), (my personal favorite) Dengue virus and thats only if I stick to viruses. I may be a virologist at heart but I have been trained in infectious disease science as whole. If you want to step out of the disease arena for a bit science as a whole is super interesting! This is point in the post where you realize that I am a huge science nerd but even if you don’t you have an interest in all of the technical bits of science, there is still the social aspects. STEM careers like many other careers have a serious gap between the number of men and women as well the number of white scientists when compared to scientists of color. That’s a HUGE area to explore and lucky for me (and you, if you into discussing this type of thing) I am both a woman and scientist of color! I wasn’t joking when I said there was SO MUCH to talk about.

But alas, I think I may have gotten a bit ahead of myself here. I should probably share a bit about myself. I am a second year PhD student studying biomedical sciences with a focus on viruses/virology. My personal interest, vector-borne (spread by insects) diseases, is where I focus a lot of my attention but not all (I am a huge nerd and lover of many things). I also happen to be African American and female. This few facts alone have led to extremely interesting (and sometimes frustrating, terrifying, and exciting) dynamics both in my field and in life in general.

I am starting this blog as way to chronicle the rest of my journey through grad school, my thoughts on science as current events and in pop culture, as well as throw my hat into the ring also known as science communication (i.e. Science for the non-scientists). I promise to try and make this blog as interesting as possible but also reserve the right to geek out as often as I would like!