The students in Crystall Payton-Demry’s biomedical technology classes did indeed have something in common with Samira Brooks. Young. African American. Interested in science.
So when Brooks told them, “If I can do it, you can do,” she was delivering more than the usual encouraging bromide. She was pointing a way. And it was somehow appropriate she was doing it on DNA Day.
For Dr. Samira Brooks, 29-year-old postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, genetics is in both the foreground and background of her life in science.
“This sounds strange the way I say it, but I try not to go out in the world and think of myself as a black woman,” Brooks said during a class change at Kinston High School on Friday. “I try to go out and show people that I’m a great scientist, first and foremost.
“I’m pretty sure there are people who have judged me based on the way I look, but once I open my mouth or I perform well they open up. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily harder, but I would say that I like to make a difference. I do know there are not a lot of people like me, so I want to be a great example.”
Volunteering for her third annual DNA Day, when scientists from UNC fan out to high schools in the state, is just another way she likes to make a connection with younger students and to make a difference.
“I really enjoy mentoring and I think it’s important to get students excited about science and just to open their eyes to opportunities to different career paths they can take,” Brooks said. “It’s very important so they can start to strategize and understand what they should do to get to their end point as well as to increase the knowledge that there are people of color who are in science, to try to increase diversity.”
Brooks knows the importance of getting an early start because she didn’t. Interested in science as a child – “I really liked science from watching ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy.’ That and ‘Magic School Bus’ were what I grew up on,” she told the students – she headed to Bowie (Md.) State for a biology degree without a clear vision of where that might take her. “I was literally a junior in undergrad, which is not a good time to figure out what you want to do. Thankfully, I could do things to set me up to go to grad school, but it could have been too late.”
Graduate school led to her doctorate at UNC in 2015 and her postdoctoral position in the university’s School of Medicine, where her research focuses on cancer genetics and toxicology. She’s headed for a new position with the National Cancer Institute, which is sending her to John Hopkins University to study for a degree in public health.
The lesson she brought to Payton-Demry’s classes concerned pharmacogenomics, a big word and a big subject – the role of genetics in drug response – that Brooks broke down for the students in terms as basic as the sense of taste.
Students first tasted PTC strips, which are used to demonstrate the effects of heredity on taste. The taste can range from none to intense, depending on the person’s genetic variation. After graphing the class response to the strips, the students counted taste buds on a tiny portion of each other’s tongue and compared the results.
The effectiveness of drugs can vary in the same way, depending on a patient’s genetic makeup and the willingness of a cell’s receptors to bind with the drug’s active agents.
It was the kind of science Payton-Demry wanted to introduce her student to, as well as the kind of scientist. As an innovative teacher in LCPS’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, where health science is a big draw at all three traditional high schools, Payton-Demry has waited in line for four years to schedule her second DNA Day with the much-in-demand mentors from UNC.
“It’s important to give students a chance to explore a career as scientists,” the teacher said, “and it’s necessary to know there are options other than nursing, medical doctor or therapist. Scientists change our lives.”