Community is Vital: Spotlight on Eva Davis
Eva Davis, B.S., a Ph.D. student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and an ASM 2022 Future Leaders Mentorship Fellow, discovered early in her scientific journey that her presence makes some people uncomfortable—and she’s okay with that. As she’s come into her own as a scientist, Davis has learned the value of staying true to herself while cultivating a community to support her along the way.
Davis didn’t always plan on becoming a scientific researcher. When she began her undergraduate career at Hampton University in 2017, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. However, there was something about science that drew her in. Davis joked this was, in part, due to her aversion to reading anything without pictures.
“I said, ‘[Science] has pictures, and the pictures are cool. And the picture gets better—it's always something new.” The ever-evolving nature of scientific research, represented by those engaging pictures, appealed to Davis. Soon, she was on track for a degree in molecular and cellular biology.
Davis entered the world of microbiology during the summer before her sophomore year, when she began working with Danielle Graham, Ph.D., an assistant professor of microbiology and assistant chair of the Department of Biological and Forensic Sciences at Fayetteville State University. Alongside Graham, Davis honed her basic microbiology skills, including learning how to pour agar plates and conduct Gram staining. These tasks, coupled with Graham’s influence, piqued Davis’s excitement about microbiology. Moreover, the experience marked the start of an important mentor-mentee relationship that remains strong to this day.
“[Graham’s] definitely been somebody that I've looked up to throughout my journey,” Davis said. She described how she has leaned on Graham not just for scientific insights, but also for advice on navigating her social life and how to be a well-rounded student.
Throughout Davis’s college years, Graham’s mentorship was complemented by support from her parents and the broader community at Hampton, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). During elementary and high school, Davis was often the only Black girl in most of her classes; she was constantly ostracized and picked on, including by her teachers. Davis referenced a particular high school teacher who gave her poor grades with no explanation and even berated her appearance, once telling her that she was “an embarrassment” and should “be ashamed.” Although Davis experienced injustices like this at school, she was never alone. Her parents were there to advocate for and support her—they have always been Davis’s “biggest cheerleaders.”
As Hampton graduates themselves, Davis’s parents also played a role in her decision to attend the university, a decision she considers one of the best she’s ever made. During college, Davis felt welcome in every room she walked into, which was “definitely refreshing, and almost a culture shock.” The experience demonstrated to Davis how valuable representation is. “It always helps to see a familiar face in [a] field because it makes it feel more possible for you,” she said. “When I do…have those moments where I feel represented, it's like a motivator.”
With this motivation and a burgeoning scientific skillset, Davis landed an internship with Mari K. Davidson, Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences during the summer of her sophomore year. Her project involved using fission yeast to examine genomic areas with high frequency of DNA recombination, and how those recombination “hot spots” interact. Initially, the research didn’t captivate Davis. That changed when she learned how the findings could advance understanding of aneuploidy (i.e., the presence of an abnormal number of chromosomes in a cell), a key cause of miscarriages and other complications during pregnancy. “Especially with minority women, these major complications in childbirth are so common, it made me feel like I was actually giving back to the community that I was a part of,” Davis noted. Besides demonstrating the translational power of research, the internship afforded Davis the opportunity to present her work at the 2019 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS), an experience she “thoroughly enjoyed.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began during her junior year, Davis was, like many people, uncertain about the future. She didn’t have a complete picture of her next steps, though she knew an advanced degree was in the cards. Whether that would be an M.D./Ph.D. or a Ph.D. was unclear until she realized her love of research was stronger than her interest in clinical care. Now, Davis is 2 years into her Ph.D. at VCU. As a student in the cancer genetics lab of Devanand Sarkar, M.B.B.S, Ph.D., she is examining how inhibitory drugs may impact the proliferation, invasion and metastasis of liver cancer cells. Some of these drugs are usually used as secondary measures to prepare patients for chemotherapy. Through her research, Davis hopes to find drugs that could be the “end all, be all treatment.”
While her project isn’t within the microbiology field, (Davis noted that sometimes in graduate school, you must go wherever the opportunities and resources take you), the microbial sciences is where her passion is. She fosters this passion in various ways, including by chartering a student chapter for ASM. Though newly formed in November 2022, the chapter has several events and initiatives under its belt, including developing a program about applying for summer internships for undergraduate students and using social media and email to highlight Black microbiologists from the past and present. With Graham's encouragement, Davis also applied to the ASM Future Leaders Mentoring Fellowship—she credits becoming part of the 2022 cohort as one of her proudest scientific achievements so far. Through the Fellowship, Davis attended ASM Microbe 2022, where she learned from and connected with microbiologists at various stages of their careers. In addition to these pursuits, Davis was recently appointed co-programming chair for the Black Microbiologist Association, as well as treasurer for VCU’s Black Graduate Student Association. She also volunteers at her local YWCA in her free time.
In other words, Davis is busy, which is how she likes it. She never wanted to solely focus on research but aimed to cultivate her interests and desires to make a difference, both in and outside of the lab. Her dedication to fostering community among, and promoting representation of, scientists from historically underrepresented groups is reflected in her goals for the future.
“When people ask me ‘What do you want to do when you're done with your Ph.D.?’ I go, ‘I want to be somebody’s Dr. Graham. I want to be what my mentor was, and is, to me’,” Davis said. “Because although the numbers are multiplying, [and] you're seeing more women or women of color in STEM, we still have more growing to do; we've still got more spaces to fill.”
Davis has learned that stepping into those spaces will be met with discomfort and, in some cases, disbelief. She pointed to an instance during her internship when she was mistaken for a maintenance or custodial worker, even though she was clearly wearing her lab coat. In another case, a fellow doctoral student couldn’t believe that Davis was pursuing her Ph.D. right after completing her undergraduate degree—surely, the student thought, she was a postbaccalaureate or master’s student?
“I realized that sometimes your presence just makes people uncomfortable, no matter how many times you smile at them, no matter how personable you try to be. Some people are just simply intimidated by your presence—and that's okay because that means you're doing something right,” Davis said.
Over time, Davis has learned the importance of asserting her capabilities, despite the stereotype that she is being aggressive or loud. “It's really easy to second guess yourself as a Black woman and be like, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn't have said that. Now, they're going to think I'm just angry, or I'm just having an attitude problem, or I'm trying to start an issue,’” she reflected. “But I got to the point where, not that I didn't care, [but that I] knew my intentions. I knew what needed to be done, and I knew that whatever was said or done was going to be most beneficial for me.”
Davis acknowledged that standing firmly in your scientific space can be difficult. It requires continuously “putting yourself out there in all aspects, whether that be trying to network at a conference, or simply trying to set boundaries with your research mentor on what they may expect of you,” she noted. “You have to constantly step outside your comfort zone because that's not going to do anything but make you a better scientist, and also just a better person and leader in general.”
Pushing those boundaries is admittedly challenging, and it can be isolating—nobody can, or should, do it alone. To that end, Davis advises her fellow early-career scientists to find a community to support them through the ups and downs. “Wherever you go, you’ve just got to find your people. No matter what, find your people and you’ll be just fine.”