A Black Woman’s Journey in Microbiology: A Spotlight on Dr. Aisha Burton

Oct. 18, 2021

How do you take advantage of an opportunity you don’t know? Dr. Aisha Burton is an African American woman who grew up in the southern suburbs of Chicago and, despite roadblocks, has succeeded in her journey to become a scientist. She used to believe that becoming a scientist was restricted to white men with "wild hair," just like Albert Einstein but, because she identifies as a change maker, she went against the stereotype and beyond the lack of opportunities for individuals from historically underrepresented groups. In celebration of the Black in Micro Week, Dr. Jorge Vidal, a member of the ASM subcommittee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities (SMIIM) interviewed Burton, a post-doctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health.

Burton is an adjunct instructor at a community college and teaches, mentors students and volunteers her time to support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives dedicated to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) trainees through the Black in Microbiology (BiM) movement. Burton emphasizes and confirms what the ASM SMIIM identified through their national survey published in CBE—Life Sciences Education in 2018 – the success of individuals from historically underrepresented groups in STEM careers depends on important factors— having early research experience opportunities and access to mentors throughout all stages of training. In this interview, Burton discusses her background, reflects on her career and provides advice for future students from historically underrepresented groups that are pursuing STEM professions.

During her senior year of high school, Burton was encouraged by her AP Chemistry teacher to apply for a summer research opportunity program (CURE) at Northwestern University. Burton indeed applied, and was accepted into the program. Prior to joining this program, Burton had the notion that scientists were all white men, but this program changed that perception and in turn changed her career trajectory. Burton thoroughly enjoyed every minute of her summer research experience and realized, through the program, that she could become a scientist.

Dr. Aisha Burton
Dr. Burton working in the lab.
Source: Dr. Aisha Burton

In her pursuit of becoming a scientist, Burton took a microbiology class as an elective for her biology minor during her senior year at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and she quickly fell in love. Although she was a chemistry major, she found that she wanted to learn about microorganisms, particularly bacteria. "I was so captivated by bacteria that I dropped a guaranteed admission into the Pharmacy College to follow my passion for bacteriology research." She then applied to graduate schools her senior year but did not get in. "I was devastated!" Burton says. However, she was determined to pursue a career as a microbiologist, so she applied to several post-baccalaureate programs and was admitted to the University of Missouri where she flourished in Dr. Judy Wall’s lab, studying Desulfovibrio vulgaris Hildenborough (DvH) metabolism and aiming to develop a markerless genetic exchange system in DvH using the tryptophan pathway. Additionally, Burton worked on isolating bacteriophages from environmental samples so that they could potentially create a transduction system for DvH. "Wall was a great mentor and role model who provided the right environment and support for my development as a bacteriologist," Burton says.

During her post-baccalaureate program, Burton applied again to graduate schools and was accepted into many programs, Indiana University (IU) being one of them. Burton selected IU because of their wide range of bacteriology labs. Plus IU offered her the best graduate student stipend, which was important for her financial stability during her Ph.D. studies. However, despite all the benefits at IU, Burton struggled in her first lab. "I felt I was not receiving the right mentorship," Burton says. She, therefore, switched labs and joined the lab of Dr. Dan Kearns who provided mentoring tailored to each trainee’s needs. "Everybody thinks that switching labs is taboo, but it was the best decision I made, because the switch made everything move in the right direction." Burton advises others, especially students from historically underrepresented groups, to switch labs if they do not feel comfortable.

Burton earned her Ph.D. performing molecular genetics and biochemical assays to characterize SigN, a plasmid-encoded sigma factor in the soil bacterium, Bacillus subtilis. While under Kearns’ tutelage, Burton grew again as a scientist and honed her skills to be successful as a post-doctoral fellow. She presented her work at a Gordon Research Conference on microbial stress response, where she met her future post-doctoral mentor, Dr. Gisela Storz from The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Bethesda, Md. Burton currently studies the regulatory roles of small proteins on two-component systems in Escherichia coli and was recently awarded the NICHD Early Career Award, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Postdoctoral Research Associate Training Award and the NICHD Fellows Recruitment Incentive Award. Burton is also listed as a Rising Star in Cell Mentor’s list of 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America. She is actively working on building her own research program studying protein-protein interactions on medically relevant bacteria.

"I think [the lack of diversity in STEM] has pushed me to be a person who is a change-maker," said Burton. In her Summer Research Opportunity Program in high school, she was lucky to be mentored by a Black man who took the time to make sure she understood every aspect of her research or experiment and was not upset if she failed. He constantly encouraged and empowered her because he understood her background. He recognized Burton had the potential to succeed in a STEM career, but she did not have the appropriate education or research experience. Burton valued having this support and she actively sought other people from historically underrepresented groups in STEM to find support, especially in college.

In undergrad, Burton enthusiastically participated in the African American Cultural Center the African American Academic Network at UIC. Through these student organizations, Burton began tutoring chemistry in college and became fascinated with teaching. "I found it so rewarding and gratifying, given that most of the students looking for my services belonged to [historically underrepresented] groups," Burton said. Despite her effort to connect with people from historically underrepresented groups in STEM, as Burton progressed in getting her chemistry degree, she became more aware of the lack of diversity in many of her undergraduate upper chemistry courses. Burton said, "It was harder to make friends and study groups because I felt out of place and did not share similar stories or backgrounds with many of my classmates." At graduation, Burton reflected, "I remember being the only Black woman graduating with a chemistry degree. In contrast, there were many Black women in biology, and I even thought to myself that maybe I had chosen the wrong major."

In addition to the lack of representation, Burton identified the constant microaggressions as another one of the most challenging issues she had to deal with as a Black microbiologist. For example, strangers wanting to touch or making unsolicited comments about her hair; students not listening or constantly questioning her knowledge in the classroom or lab; people ignoring or not using her title when referring to her. "All these situations can wear someone down," says Burton, and these are just a few examples of the many microaggressions Burton faced. Burton leaned on her community for support and talked with others who confirmed that they too had similar experiences, and she was not alone. Burton mentions that it is not always easy, but "be patient and create a community of support," Burton said. "I would not have made it this far without my family and the tight group of friends I made in graduate school." Having this support system was important to Burton, and it helped her persevere through her academic programs. Additionally, she had a helpful graduate mentoring center on campus at IU. She also worked to advise principal investigators (PIs) training Black/African American mentees to be sensitive on issues affecting the Black community, because it is important, for Black/African American mentees, to feel supported during any difficult situations or issues impacting historically underrepresented groups, and Burton wants to ensure PIs know this.

As Burton continued in her academic career, she continued to seek out avenues to connect with other people from historically underrepresented groups. In her Ph.D. program, Burton believes that IU did a good job at recruiting people from historically underrepresented groups to the IU biology Ph.D. programs because she was not alone. Her best friend is Latina, and together they pushed and supported each other to be better scientists. However, during her formative years as a microbiologist, she never saw other Black women in microbiology in conferences and/or locally. The only reason she learned of Dr. Beronda Montgomery, MSU Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University, was because her picture was on a poster in the hallway on the floor where she worked at IU. Burton said, "[Montgomery] was the only [Black woman in microbiology] that I knew of, a role model, someone I could identify with. Now, since I have joined BiM I know so many more Black microbiologists! I wish I had this group sooner. I’m so excited for the future generations of scientists coming behind me."

As Burton continues to navigate through her career, she believes it is essential to spread the word about how much the field needs to increase diversity and inclusivity in the microbial sciences, and Burton is committed to amplifying her voice. Burton is looking forward to pursuing a career in academia as a microbiologist, preferably in a small institution where she can have close interaction with students. In this regard, she is currently an adjunct biology instructor and Achieving the Promise Academy Coach at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., where she is honing her skills as an educator and mentor. Burton mentioned, "It is scary when you think about the transition to a faculty position." This is because she does not know what it is like be a person from a historically underrepresented group in a faculty position. She knows they are given more work on initiatives supporting historically underrepresented groups, but it is unclear how all these pre-assigned responsibilities would affect tenure. Regardless, "I am ready for the challenge, and I will trust my training and the advice of all my mentors in developing a long and sustainable career as a Black microbiologist. I am keeping my fingers crossed."

The Black Microbiologists Association enabled unlimited access to every presentation from #BlackInMicroWeek 2021. Visit their YouTube channel to see each of the #BiM2021 panels, the keynote address, and many other presenters.

Author: Jorge Vidal, Ph.D.

Jorge Vidal, Ph.D.
Dr. Jorge Vidal is an associate professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Vidal is also a member of the 1ASM Subcommittee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities and the ASM Subcommittee on Minority Education.

Author: Luis R. Martinez, Ph.D.

Luis R. Martinez, Ph.D.
Dr. Luis Martinez is an associate professor at the University of Florida. Martinez is also the interim chair for the ASM Subcommittee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities.