Women earn more than half of the Ph.D. degrees in the biological sciences, but they account for fewer than one-quarter of tenured faculty. The disparity is equally pronounced among African American and Latino scientists, with many leaving academia for industry.
Would $1.4 million, distributed over eight years, be enough to persuade them otherwise?
Chantell Evans, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who studies the underpinnings of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, is among 15 young scientists who were awarded that amount this week by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Her focus is what happens when the brain fails to get rid of a type of cellular “trash” — energy-generating cells called mitochondria that have become damaged. Past research indicates that these flawed cells can play a role in a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The awards, given in honor of former University of Chicago president Hanna Holborn Gray, are aimed at women and minorities that are underrepresented in the life sciences. This year’s recipients earn $80,000 a year for the first four years as they undergo postdoctoral training. They receive $270,000 a year during the second four years to set up their own lab, provided they find a job as an assistant professor and meet other requirements.
Evans, 30, who is African American, called the honor “amazing” and said she looks forward to being a role model for younger women and for all people from ethnic groups that are underrepresented in academia.
“Going off into industry, that’s fine and that’s great,” Evans said. “But if we don’t have a diverse group of people helping to teach the next generation, then we’re just perpetuating that problem. The next generation is going to say `I don’t think I can do this, either, because I don’t see people like me doing these jobs.’ It’s just going to be a continuous cycle.”
Evans is sure to inspire others, predicted her supervisor at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, physiology professor Erika Holzbaur.
“People need to see themselves in a future career to have it be a possibility,” Holzbaur said. “When people picture scientists, they unfortunately don’t always picture someone who looks like Chantell. She is fabulous.”
The road to a tenured faculty position is a long slog that typically entails more than a decade of undergraduate and graduate study. Even after landing a coveted assistant professorship, young scientists must immediately focus on applying for grants to fund their labs.
Evans and the 14 other fellowship winners will not have that burden.
“She can afford to take risks and do really exciting and important science without worrying about an immediate payoff,” Holzbaur said. “She can invest time and energy and get a bigger payoff down the line.”
Evans grew up in Lincoln, Ill., and earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Southern Illinois University, where she was one of two African American women in the department. She followed that with a doctorate in molecular and cellular pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin. She came to work in Holzbaur’s lab at Penn in 2016.
Evans said she planned to study neurons from laboratory rats, monitoring the activity of proteins that are involved in clearing damaged mitochondria. The proteins are engineered to have a fluorescent glow.
“We can watch them move,” she said. “We can study their dynamics.”
Once she has a better understanding of the proteins’ function in normal neurons, she would study how their behavior changes in neurons that carry mutations for various brain diseases. And she would study how these changes in protein function are tied to an impaired ability to recycle mitochondria.
“It’s basically like leaving trash everywhere,” Evans said.
Her fellow winners of the fellowships hail from Harvard, Stanford, and California Institute of Technology, among other prestigious institutions. Some, like Evans, are tackling the chemistry of the brain, while others are pursuing the mysteries of diabetes and inflammation. Complex questions in every case, but with one difficult hurdle already cleared: the start-up money.