UCI Summer Institution Pride

Sydney Williams, UCSF graduate student, shares her undergraduate summer program experience in UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic’s Access to Careers in Engineering and Sciences (ACES) program and what it means to be a Black woman in science

I noticed you’re wearing a UCI sweatshirt.

I still represent my summer institution. I bought it during my first summer at UCI and it’s still holding on.

How did you hear about ACES?

My friend Lauryn was an ACES alum and recommended that I apply. At the time, I was a freshman and didn’t think I’d be accepted.

My entire life, I thought I would go to medical school and hadn’t considered doing research or pursuing grad school. As a first-generation college student and in my community, we [African Americans] aren’t typically exposed to science.

What led you to think that you wanted to be an M.D.?

Science was always my thing. Growing up, I loved studying the body – anatomy and physiology. I studied a book of the systems of the body.

Then, I got hurt playing basketball. When I went to rehab, I thought about becoming a physician, specializing in sports medicine or becoming a physical therapist. I didn’t have the best impression about the benefits of having a Ph.D. It wasn’t until I had research experience. Before that, I was purely chasing opportunity.

The summer before my senior year, I realized that I hadn’t set myself up for success in applying to medical school. That’s when I started thinking about grad school. I had to do my own research on what it actually meant to do research. Only then, did I consider other potential paths.

Then, COVID hit, which changed my course. Within the fall of my senior year, I became serious about Ph.D. programs.

Institute Associate Director and Project Scientist Dr. Sari Mahon suggested that I connect with her daughter who worked in industry. That’s when I truly understood what doing research meant and the various pathways to industry. With a Ph.D., there was much more to offer, than what I originally thought.

Next thing you know, I was writing applications, scheduling interviews and was on the first plane to California.

What did you think about the ACES program? What research did you do?

ACES was my gateway to graduate school. It really opened my eyes to all things research.

My first project was in the Berns lab at the Institute under Dr. Nicole Wakida and the late Institute Founding Director Dr. Michael Berns, who I loved. We worked on the activation and function of microglia, immune cells of brain that respond central nervous system that repair the brain after infection and traumatic injuries. At the time, astrocytes were becoming a hot topic in neuroscience.

My second project was under UCI Professor of Pulmonology Dr. Matt Brenner and Dr. Mahon, studying cyanide poisoning. I worked in chemistry and biology. I learned how to do infusions and other techniques, like which spectrophotometer to use and practicing dilution techniques.

I was also playing with engineering. I created a device that made it easy to read cyanide poisoning in blood. The project spearheaded my interest in drugs and toxins. It led me to the Pharmaceutical Sciences program that I’m in now. It was really fun presenting the project. To this day, I still
have the poster.

Tell me a little bit about the program. What aspects of ACES did you like?

The support from the Principal Investigators (PIs) and the Engineers was awesome. I appreciated gaining real life experience. You had to be in the lab, dedicated to the project to get results.

I also enjoyed meeting other people. With the program dedicated to HBCUs, these type of HBCU programs are few and far between in comparison to the majority of universities in the nation. To find a group of Black scientists interested in doing something that was unheard of, or not known, was really cool.

I still talk to a lot of the students I met. They’re all doing phenomenal things. It’s really cool to see these brilliant minds – people who look just like me. ACES brought us together and created a phenomenal community.

Did you feel supported while in ACES?

I still talk to Dr. Mahon and former UCI Assistant Dean of the Office of Access and Inclusion Dr. Sharnnia Artis. They made sure that I was good – on a personal note and academically. They asked if I there was anything that I needed and if I had any questions.

It was an awesome introduction to what I’m doing now. Without the program, I don’t think I would have seriously considered graduate school.

What are you doing now? What research are you doing?

I feel like I stumbled into my Ph.D. program. Unlike most people, when I joined the program, I didn’t have a research interest in mind.

Now, I’m a rising second-year in the Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics program at UC San Francisco (UCSF). I joined the Lakkaraju lab, studying age related macular degeneration (AMD).

We’re studying the molecular mechanisms behind the causes of AMD and repurposing common drugs known to either restore or at least halt the progression of AMD. This is all in the hopes of restoring sudden vision loss.

I chose the Lakkaraju lab based on the mentorship opportunity. The bonus was that the field is very niche. We don’t have a lot of answers and it’s not a saturated market.

Being novel, leaves ample space to study and figure out answers to questions that we haven’t even considered. I think most people don’t even know what AMD is, but it’s so common. I’m excited to see what I can do.

What does your community at home think about you being in the Ph.D. program? Your family? Your professors at Hampton University?

My Hampton family was thrilled – they were extremely excited. My Ronald McNair Scholars program family at Hampton encouraged me to pursue the summer research opportunity at UCI in the first place. They think UCSF is a great school and can’t believe I’m on the West Coast.

My immediate family – they’re super excited. Every other time we talk, I break down what I’m working on.

From observing ACES seminars, it seems like the program teaches students not only how to be a scientist, but also how to translate research into layman’s terms. Was this valuable?

It is much bigger skill set than people realize. It is very underrated. It’s extremely hard to remove the jargon and translate research. You have to break down the science – plain and simple.

The ACES symposiums, introducing how to present at conferences, definitely helped. Before ACES, I didn’t realize how people were explaining their research.

I feel like science communication is the one barrier between people who don’t know about science and people who do. I would love to bridge that gap.

I’ve already spent several summers coming home, sharing my posters with my family. I hope to use the training that I’ve had in ACES and in the Ph.D. program to communicate better. I’m going to spend the next four years practicing. That’s the plan.

It sounds like mentorship was something that you gained from ACES. How are important are these connections?

I want to maintain connections with people from the past – like those at UCI.

Now, I work with students in high school and undergrad programs that are helping Black and Brown students. I see value in mentoring, since those who mentored me are the whole reason why I’m in grad school.

During my first year, my main focus was building connections and networking. I was not only getting acclimated to classes, but I was also talking to PIs. I want to talk to people in different career fields – authors in science communication, consultants on TV shows or those in the pharma and biotech industries. That’s where my trajectory is now.

It seems like you’re doing all the right things to lead you to where you want to be. How is your first year in grad school going?

I would not trade my first year for anything. The first year is typically very difficult. The support and preparation that I received in ACES and at Hampton helped me join the communities that I’m now a part of.

I was a sheltered child from Charlotte, North Carolina without much experience outside Charlotte. These past experiences helped me feel comfortable being me, while also learning new things.

I’ve met new people. I’ve eaten new food. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone – intentionally trying to build a community. I’ve enjoyed the accumulation of these experiences because they’ve taught me to be intentional about what I want.

There’s so much growth to be had in a Ph.D. program. My goal is to grow as a person. Over time and after my dissertation, I’ll figure out where I’ll land.

Would you recommend ACES to others?

Absolutely – I’ve shared with many others. From someone who was never exposed to science prior, ACES is extremely important. ACES provides the opportunity to get your feet wet and even swim a little bit. That’s the fun part.

You get to see what you don’t know. Everything feels new – the symposiums, the people, the scientific jargon. The program allows you to explore without being overwhelmed. It’s extremely important for anyone who’s interested in science – even if only slightly interested.

What has it meant being a Black woman in science?

To be a black woman in science is huge. I’m still learning about the impact because I’m still new to what it means. It’s pretty revolutionary because there’s a lot of science that gets swept under the rug or ignored because it doesn’t talk to the majority.

Being present in these spaces and making my presence felt is important. I want others to know I’m here. I want my voice to be heard in these research experiences.

It’s a challenge because I’m triple minority. I’m a Black, queer woman in science. I have a lot of populations to represent. I’m going to make sure that we’re represented. I’m going make my mark regardless.

I’m happy to have a community. Through B-STEM, our Black excellence in STEM group, and some of our other extracurricular groups, I don’t feel like I’m by myself. It’s a journey.

As a university, what can we do better to help support students?

I think continuing the bridge to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is extremely important.

Continuing to cultivate an environment of inclusivity is huge. It’s not just about having a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) panel or having a DEI event. I already know what it’s like to be Black or Brown. I’ve lived it my entire life. What I do need is for people to show up and not just be figureheads – to put action behind it and make sure that there are spaces, where we feel supported.

If there’s prejudice or discriminative acts, we need to make sure that someone’s there to stick up for us. I think the little things go a long way, like being open to learning about the boundaries that have been set or the stigmas that had been implied for years.

I think a lot of people believe that science is free from all of those stigmas and that it is objective, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s important for people to learn and be willing to continue to learn. Otherwise, there won’t be much change.

I’m blessed to say that I’ve had this opportunity, but I know that not everyone does. There definitely needs to be improvement – there needs to be change.