Why One Black Woman Chose Industry: Spotlight on Annette Angus

Nov. 4, 2020

Annette Angus, Ph.D.
Source: Annette Angus.
Annette Angus, Ph.D. is a first generation Caribbean American, the first in her family to go to college and was the only Black person among all of the graduate students, postdocs and faculty in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2007.

She is well aware of how surprising and unsettling that is. Angus’ professional story and the reasons she ultimately chose a career in industry provide insight on the complexity of academia’s much-lamented “leaky pipeline” problem. “Thriving in a space not designed to cultivate your development is a constant challenge,” she said about the lack of representation of Black women in the sciences. 
As a graduate student, Angus had an impressive tenure in Dr. Suzanne Fleiszig’s lab at UC Berkeley. Fleiszig’s lab focuses on corneal diseases, including infections caused by Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria. Angus explored, in molecular detail, the lab’s observation that P. aeruginosa bacteria can invade and live within epithelial cells, an idea that was controversial when first reported in the 1990s (P. aeruginosa was thought to be a strictly extracellular pathogen and is still often portrayed that way). Using the lab’s sophisticated, real-time microscopy setup, Angus looked for bacterial mutants that were not able to survive and replicate after invading host cells, ultimately identifying P. aeruginosa’s type 3 secretion system (T3SS) as necessary for intracellular survival. She went on to identify the underlying mechanism, which involves the ADP ribosylation activity of effector protein exoenzyme S
Select panels from Figure 3 of Angus' paper identifying exoS ADP ribosylation as necessary for P. aeruginosa intracellular survival.
Select panels from Figure 3 of Angus' paper identifying exoS ADP ribosylation as necessary for P. aeruginosa intracellular survival. The left-most panel shows uninfected epithelial cells, while the middle panel shows cells incubated with wildtype P. aeruginosa and the right-most panel shows cell incubated with P. aeruginosa missing exoS. Arrows indicate the intracellular locations of bacteria within membrane blebs.

Angus’ work, with its enviable phenotype-to-genotype-to-mechanism scientific story, earned the lab its first National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) funding, a 5-year R01 grant. She’s also had the pleasure of seeing others successfully replicate her results: “That’s one of the best things about science, when someone else can repeat your work.”  
Despite these stellar achievements, Angus calls the combined toll of microaggressions, imposter syndrome and tokenism that many Black professionals face one of the most challenging aspects of being a Black scientist. “For scientists, it is a very unique and specific form, which directly affects one’s ability to intellectually engage in thought leadership. It takes up mental bandwidth to deal with racism and unconscious bias, and it is very exhausting.” She has gotten better over time at handling these drains and reserving mental resources for what she called “fun, technical problem-solving” instead. She enjoys mentoring and advises young Black scientists to seek out others that inspire them and build their own community. 
Angus originally planned to continue in the field of infectious disease with a postdoc studying Yersenia pestis at UC San Francisco. However, the ‘2-body problem,’ as well as the need to support family in Los Angeles, led to what she called “one of the best decisions of my life.” Funded by a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, and later by a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, Angus instead did her postdoc at UC Los Angeles, studying the symbiotic relationship between Burkholderia bacteria and plants, in the laboratory of Dr. Ann Hirsch. “My postdoc was amazing!” Angus said. She recalls the time as extremely productive, publishing papers, writing and winning grants and mentoring undergraduate students, some of whom went on to pursue Ph.D.s at her alma mater. 
Although Angus enjoyed her postdoc experience, she also saw how unforgiving the academic career path could be. Hirsch was furloughed and suffered a salary cut as a result of the recession, despite running a successful, established lab. “I just couldn’t reconcile that. You can be amazing and still perish in academia. And I didn’t have the privilege of having other examples of professionals in my family to be like, ‘oh you can recover from that.’” Although she applied for assistant professor positions, Angus chose the relative stability of a career in industry instead. “It all harkened back to financial security, not wanting to have this overarching sense of anxiety around ‘can I keep it going.’ I’m in a good place now, I can maybe get that first grant, but what happens [next]?” She accepted a scientist position in the Global Microbiology Capability Organization at the Proctor & Gamble Company. 
As the first in her family to go to college and earn an advanced degree, Angus felt enormous pressure to establish herself, her legacy and, by proxy, her family. Her experience highlights how the stress of keeping a lab financially afloat and the lack of job stability in academia compounds existing inequalities. Earning modest pay while hopping from institution to institution chasing tenure is only a realistic option for those who don’t have (or can easily resolve) financial and familial obligations. The reality that a young scientist may have external obligations is often completely ignored in academic science, allowing labs, departments and institutions to continue practices that favor only ‘the most dedicated’ — i.e., the least constrained. Black scientists become progressively less represented the higher you look in academia for many reasons; but for Angus, opting out of the ‘leaky pipeline’ afforded her a career that better accommodates her as a whole person.

In 2014, Angus was recruited away from P&G to serve as Academic Director of the California Alliance at UC Berkeley, a National Science Foundation-funded, statewide initiative to increase diversity in STEM careers. She jumped at the opportunity to address an issue she remains passionate about, and says that years later, she’s grateful for the experience. She returned to industry in 2016 as a scientist at Clorox. 
In industry, Angus has found a niche where she has the resources to focus on technical problem-solving and sees the results of her work quickly make an impact in the real world. She is currently a Senior Product Development Scientist in the Wipes Business Unit at Clorox, testing and refining product formulations with a focus on antimicrobial efficacy. “I can go to any Target or Walmart and see my products on the shelf, see it in people's homes and that makes me really proud.” She also has the opportunity and support as a leader in the Black Employee Resource Group, BELIEVE (Black Employees Leading Inclusion, Excellence, Vision and Education) to engage her passions in the STEM diversity space. “It’s the best of both worlds!”
On Friday, Oct. 23, Dr. Angus served as a panelist for a congressional briefing held by the ASM Subcommittee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities entitled "Strengthening Career Pathways in Science for Underrepresented Groups." Hear what she had to say.


Author: Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.

Katherine Lontok, Ph.D.
Dr. Katherine Lontok is the Director of Science and Policy Communications with the Immune Deficiency Foundation and the former Scientific and Digital Editor for ASM.