Be Your Authentic Self in Science: Spotlight on Isola Brown

Feb. 16, 2021

Dr. Isola Brown.
Dr. Isola Brown.
Dr. Isola Brown has always tacked toward what interests and excites her, listening to who she is and what she wants during important transitions in her scientific career. She encourages aspiring scientists, especially aspiring Black scientists, to bring their authentic selves to their scientific endeavors. Studies show a key benefit of diverse teams is the different perspectives and ideas they bring to a problem, making innovation more likely. “Allow your personal experiences and background to inform your science,” Brown counseled. But she also acknowledges that bringing your authentic self is not always easy when you don’t come from the predominant culture and credits her circle of support with (sometimes literally) pulling her to the front of the room in situations where her instinct was to hide. 

Unfortunately, the biological sciences in the U.S. have quite a way to go to capitalize on the racial and gender diversity of the population as a whole. The first time Brown had a Black woman like herself as an educator in a science course wasn’t until her second year in graduate school. That lack of diversity in science “create[s] an academic and professional space where I am often the only Black woman and, sometimes, Black person or person of color,” making it “difficult for me to see myself as a scientist.”  

Yet Brown persevered, graduating with her Ph.D. from Michigan State University in 2017. She did her graduate research in Dr. Brian Gulbransen’s lab, studying enteric glia (the neuronal support cells surrounding the colon) and how compounds they produce, like glutathione, promote or suppress neuroinflammation during pathogenic processes in colitis. Her scientific motivation has always been about what’s fun and gets her excited. “Wait, there are neurons in the gut?!” Brown recalled thinking when choosing her doctoral lab, “I would like to know more about this.”  As with many biological pathways and Ph.D. projects, her results suggest a more complicated role for glutathione than initially hypothesized. Glutathione made by glial cells prevents neuronal death in situ, but, paradoxically, its depletion in vivo seems to lower at least some markers of neuroinflammation. Others in her graduate lab have since extended her work to look at microbiome composition and changes in inflammatory cell signaling that feed into the glial cell pathways Brown was studying.  

After completing her Ph.D., Brown switched organ systems entirely, giving up the gut to study cardiovascular regulation instead. Her postdoc in the laboratory of Dr. Brant Isakson at the University of Virginia overlapped with the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil. In 2018, she won a prestigious Ford Foundation Fellowship to study blood pressure regulation in the microcirculation (“the teeniest, tiniest capillaries”) in a mouse model of Zika virus infection. Her successful proposal was 5 years in the making, built on feedback and advice from 2 unsuccessful Ford Foundation predoctoral proposals she submitted during graduate school. Ultimately, Brown found changes in blood pressure regulation during viral infection that could be applicable not just to Zika infection, but to other viral infections as well. She’s actively writing up her postdoc work and hopes to submit it for publication soon. In addition to fiscal support, her fellowship brought her into what she called “the Ford family,” a network of scholars that she continues to tap to facilitate connections for her students to this day. 

Brown’s experience as a Black woman in academic science has had its challenges. She’s repeatedly had to combat assumptions that her achievements are the result of affirmative action, instead of her hard work and abilities. “It was not uncommon,” she said, “to hear comments like ‘you’re only here to fill the quota’ or ‘why is that grant only for people of color and minorities?’ from classmates and colleagues.” She also recalled instances where others questioned why she was in certain spaces, sometimes assuming she was the janitor instead of a student or scientist. These assumptions made her shy away from drawing attention to herself and prompted thoughts like, “Ok, I’m just going to make them not notice me as much, and maybe I’ll just sit in the back corner and not be as talkative.”   

The need to combat such effects of racism is why Brown recommends that aspiring Black scientists build a team of supporters, people who can “remind you of your greatness.” This circle was her most important check for remaining true to herself and reminding Brown that she did, in fact, belong in science and had earned her success. She expanded on that advice, “Find your circle and then be somebody else’s circle,” encouraging scientists to support each other in moments of self-doubt. 

Brown is now the Associate Director of the Master’s in Physiology Program at the University of Michigan, a role that she said she could not have described 5 years ago. She has administrative duties, like sitting on the application committee for the program, but devotes most of her time to teaching (as course director for 3 courses) and directly mentoring students. Looking back, she knew teaching and mentoring were important to her early on. She recalled volunteering “Oh, I’ll take the 2 undergrads for the summer, I want to teach them stuff,” referring to a rite of passage that most graduate students and postdocs try to duck. During her training as a scientist, Brown saw the heads of the labs she joined mentoring and teaching as principal investigators (PIs) and thought she had to be a PI herself to do those things. It took going to conferences and meeting people in a variety of careers to learn that positions like the one she currently has even existed. “I want to guide the next generation of scientists; that gives me almost more satisfaction than doing the experiment myself,” Brown said.  

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.