Alex Stutzman of UNC-CH (unexpectedly and unintentionally) became the founder of #BlackinGenetics on Twitter, which took over the week of August 17-23rd, 2020. The SWAC Executive Board Interviewed Alex, a PhD Candidate in the Dowen and McKay labs, about her about her experiences, how she arrived to her current position, where she hopes to see herself in the future, and what she hopes to see from @BlackinGenetics.
Alex, tell us about your journey to graduate school and what you are currently working on.
When I was very little, my mom, my grandmother, my aunt and I were walking through Chicago and there was a houseless man on the street. I was dumbfounded by how someone would live without a house and it bothered me that he was sick and no one was stopping to help him. My mom said, “Well, if that bothers you, then why don’t you grow up and help him? That’s what you can do.” So then I was like, okay, cool. I’ll be a doctor. I’m going to make sick people not sick anymore.
Then, when I was in third grade, my grandfather began experiencing kidney failure. He needed [and received] a kidney transplant. At first, he was starting to get better but then things got very, very, very serious. There are two main flavors of organ transplant rejection. One of them is more rare than the other by a lot. My grandfather was sent to Chicago Northwestern Memorial Hospital because that’s where some of the best anti-rejection studies were happening in the world. He was part of an experimental medical trial because he had both, not just one, it was very, very odd. That was especially hard for me because he is my best friend – we got a little telepathic connection going on sometimes..
What made it amazing was going to Northwestern and seeing all of the PhDs who came and talked to him. The PhDs were telling us everything and explaining exactly [the science behind] what was going on. They were the ones who were trying to brainstorm ways of actually fixing [my grandfather]. And immediately to me, as a little third grader, I was like, “That’s what I want. That’s what I want to be. That’s the one, because not only are they bossing around all them doctors, but they’re studying the science of this medicine thing.” Isn’t that what the coolest part of what biology is?
So I knew from very early age that I would like to have a PhD. If I have my dreams and hopes of when I was little, [my career] would be going back to Northwestern, being one of those PhDs, because that’s invaluable to me. Also they get to live downtown. I want to live in downtown Chicago. I love it there. That’s exactly how I see myself at Northwestern. I see myself, working with Alexis Stutzman.
So that’s another thing. I’m first gen, right? My family, there was no need for them to go to college – we got family business. There was no structure. There was nobody around me who was like, “This is where you should apply for school.” But, my mom – she pays attention to those little things that come in the mail. “Oh, this one’s in Chicago. You want to go to Chicago? Don’t you love it there.” l said, “Well, yes, ma’am I do. That is my home.” Now it wasn’t only in Chicago, it was specifically the one on the South side of Chicago and the South side of Chicago has always felt like home to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t go to the North side to see all those white people or the West side to see all my Puerto Rican family. I’m Afro Latina and I’m half white. Honestly, I’m all of Chicago wrapped up into one.
I went to UChicago for undergrad. I helped start a new branch of his research program that was in mouse hearts. So there is where I really started to fall into that intersectional space [in research] and think about biophysics. This heart contracts; this heart is experiencing mechanical force all the time. So whenever I’m looking at all the changes going on to gene expression, I need to think about that [mechanical force]. I am unsurprisingly really big into intersectionality. I really like the mixed kind of space that you can occupy as a scientist. So when I look at my science, I don’t just think about biology or genomes. I’m also thinking about like, what is the three dimensional structure and confirmation? What’s that biophysics looking like? How do I process these A’s C’s T’s and G’s in a computer?
At UChicago, I unexpectedly walked into genome architecture questions and I started to already ask what comes first. Is it transcription or structure? Is it structure or transcription? How about we look in development? If I had to be completely honest with you and like, explain what I think about at night when I can’t fall asleep, it’s exactly that. So this brought me into Dan McKay’s lab and now to my project, which is to study that 3D architecture in the fly. So I really like the place that I’m sitting at academically.
Fun Fact about Alex: She likes to study religion and ancient languages. She has formal training in Aramaic.
Why did you choose UNC-Chapel Hill for graduate school?
When I was looking for graduate schools, I was trying to think about where my role models went to school and one of my biggest scientific role models had worked at UNC. I love the way that he [my role model] thinks about the genome. He taught me that it doesn’t matter what biological story you have, as long as you have a genome. I really wanted to develop that further. So when I was looking for places to go, UNC was an easy one to put on my list because I thought, “Oh, it’d be nice to just go and like meet some of the people who hung around my role model.”
My decision was between NYU and here [UNC]. And that was a really hard choice for me because I had found home in a city that is very diverse and I was really nervous about leaving the city again, just because of my growing up as the only chocolate chip of this really, really, really big Amish cookie. And so I was feeling very, very nervous about moving to the South and returning to a more homogenous place than I was used to. I came to UNC for my interview and my first interview was with Bob Duronio. Immediately, I felt seen. UNC has all of these things that I had never seen before that I felt that I really needed. A couple weeks later, I got this email from this guy, Dan McKay. Dan McKay was in my role model’s lab as postdoc and we immediately connected. I decided that UNC was the place for me. It was calling to me and there was something special here.
Alex, you sound incredibly passionate about your science and you’re a super talented scientist, but you also seem very in touch with your own personal history and your family history. How do you think this led you to creating the Black in Genetics week?
That’s a fantastic question. I guess that’s best explained by my experience as white and Afro-Latina person and how I’d spent so much of my life having to occupy these really strange middle grounds. There’s something about being a scientist that is very special to me. Our science is powerful to say the least. I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of that. I was not asking to start Black in Genetics. I was looking to participate in Black in Genetics cause I was just reading up on the history of genetics as a field – I’ve seen some Black people doing science, Where are they? I said, “Excuse me, where’s this [BlackinGenetics] at?” Then they quoted me and they said, “Well, congrats. You’re the founder.“
I live on Twitter. I love the Twitter. I hate the Twitter – crazy relationship with Twitter. When I’ve been on Twitter, I have seen things from all sides of the argument that piss me off. Well, I noticed something, scientists are one of the only people who can go back to back with the politicians and pretty much have a shot at winning. We literally create the facts that they cite. Not only are we the ones who they’re citing, but we are also experts in figuring out what the problem is and brainstorming ways of moving beyond that problem. I had the recognition that whatever I’m going to start is eventually going to be in society and I need to be very intentional about the framework I’m laying out now so that they don’t do whatever they want with it. That’s one of the secrets that’s hidden in all these really lofty sociology books that I haven’t really seen people just explicitly say, think about how you present yourself and then society can’t do this filling in the blanks for you.
I read this really great book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn says that scientists are not separate from society because scientists are people. We are not robots. So when I was thinking about Black in Genetics, I really saw an opportunity to say something to a lot of very powerful people. How do we deal with our history of eugenics, how do you deal with the fact that genetics has literally provided the data for racist rhetoric to be built on it? I just want to say that like very, very explicitly we have literally given society the ammunition to continue racist rhetoric. Artists have to think, “How is society going to interpret what I am presenting right now without explaining it, without being there to walk people through it?” That’s something that I really think we could take from artists, right? Why don’t [we] think about the way that [we]’re talking? Why don’t [we] think about the fact that this data is going to exist without [us]? [We] need to have that level of awareness when [we] are doing research that has the potential to back racist rhetoric and continue structural racism in the United States. That is my full-hearted belief. I don’t want to see color blindness – I don’t want any of that. We need to exist outside of a racist framework.
I think you’re onto something with this. It’s to get people to open up about things that they have no idea how to talk about unless they know how to relate to you. And you did such a good job of making the Black in Genetics and your own personal Twitter page so engaging.
I was experimenting with what I could get away with on Twitter, because I wanted to know how Twitter literate the academic community is. When I was tweeting, I was intentionally using techniques that I had seen from Black twitter, because that’s what I’m used to when I get on Twitter. Before BIG week, I was not very active on my science twitter, I would put a paper up there every once in a while. when it came to science twitter, I was unintentionally gauging the science literacy or the Twitter community. Just steam for three weeks. What would work best for promoting them? Because I don’t want to be inappropriate on someone else’s week. But if I have to give an apology on my week, when it’s me to my community, that’s cool. I’m okay. To apologize on like, not okay to apologize to somebody else too. I’ve now been there because I was doing this weird thing and they thought I was making fun. Like that’s not, that’s not what that is. And so, , a really good example of that is the conversations I was having with myself, right.
I’m trying really hard to get all people in the same room, right? Like we are Black scientists. That’s what this is about. It’s not about Black geneticists, it’s about being Black and being in a lab because that is a political statement. Whether we want it to be or not, it is a political statement because of the way that the United States has treated race for the last, whoever knows how long.
There is something very, very unique about that experience that I think we’re tapping into right now. I was trying my hardest to relate with Black Twitter. Black Twitter has no trigger warnings. That is for sure. There are elements of Black Twitter that I would like to protect science Twitter from. It’s not just about promoting Black scientists, right? It’s also about making the scientific community one where we’re no longer being led through a slaughterhouse, theoretically. We are being led to a place of love and welcoming because that’s what other people get. So why not us? Why can’t we do that too? [BlackInGenetics] changed my life. I learned. I was filled with extraordinary hope that it is not just these staunch straight white old men making these decisions for all of us.
You said this last week was one of the best of your life. I would like to hear about your hopes and thoughts about what the future looks like for Black in Genetics as an event, but also as the larger movement and the people behind it.
I’ve been sitting with this book – the title is “Crazy Ideas”. I found it a couple months ago, actually. I’m a little artsy, juxtaposition of artists and scientists. I like to draw and I like to outline my thoughts. Since Black in Genetics has happened, I have been outlining papers, tons and tons of papers. At UChicago I really liked studying social theory and ancient languages. I have some resources for the scientific community that they may not even be aware exists because they didn’t take those humanities classes. I was in those humanities classes. At night, I sit with my pen and a pencil and I just start outlining some ideas for reviews that I want to write. And I would love if I could be corresponding author on these for multiple reasons. One of them is so that I can say what I want and I don’t have to worry about somebody else’s name being [involved]. Another is so that if there are any questions, they have my email, not nobody else’s. I’ve also made a lot of friends during BiG week. There are a couple of them that I planned to reach out to and see if they would be interested in helping me write some reviews, because we also need to remember your girl is a third year PhD candidate. I just got here. I got to do experiments. That is next step for sure, getting some of these articles out. Other ideas would be trying to solidify Black in Genetics as an organization. The founders have a Slack now. I asked if anybody had considered logo. And so that’s what my next big project is going to be, is making this logo.
There’s also just generally trying to figure out how we can take the momentum from all of these Black in X weeks and make it something. We have the opportunity to do something. So let’s do something! Let’s keep on walking, keep talking, whatever. Obviously, I want to have another BiG week. It’s truly, and honestly, most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Ultimately those things that’s the goal and the direction. One of the things that we’ve kind of been dancing around is maybe have a conference and meet people who do science, look like you, talk like you. Make some friends. Someone who I was talking to pointed out, there’s no ABRCMS for postdocs. There’s no ABRCMS for a young PIs. That’s definitely a direction I could see Black in “X” going, let’s either do ABRCMS or do something with ABRCMS, or have something in addition to ABRCMS. Why not continuing to foster this community? Keep having those friends, we will help you. There’s a place you can meet them once a year.
Alex, your BIG logo is absolutely amazing!
There was a lot of attention about this BiG logo. I already went ahead and applied for my copyright, the trademark, all that stuff. I just replaced the girl’s hair with some DNA. I have other ones that are various flavors of heterochromatin because I specifically study heterochromatin and genome architecture. Whenever I look at hair, I’m just like, those hairs are helices.
BlackinGenetics had some back and forth with MC HAMMER. We were unaware of his science literacy until this week.
That man is smart. He actually knows what he is talking about. He has tweeted several times about how he doesn’t tweet anything that he hasn’t consumed. Single Cell Sprite, it’s a new method, it’s such a cool idea. As soon as I saw it, I tweeted it. Then I tweeted some other things like, “Hey, what about Black in Genetics. That seems cool.” Then I tweeted some other things. Imagine my shock when I’m scrolling through Twitter and seeing MC Hammer tweeting,that Single Cell Sprite preprint because why would he know go to Biorxiv? And so I had this suspicion that he picked it up from my account. And when I saw that, I literally, like, I hollered at my boyfriend and I said, “MC Hammer be looking at my Twitter!”
You did it so well, but then Michael Eisen and like a couple of weeks ago with that C .elegans tweet was such a nightmare.
Well intended, well intended – [Mike Eisen] I see you. I see what you’re trying to do. Do I really think the worm community has anything in common with my experiences of Black woman in the United States? If they do it’s comedy, it is not a tragedy.