As part of a three-part Q&A series on Cornerstone, we’re learning more about the newest scholars of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Postdoctoral Fellowship for Academic Diversity, a program that aims to expand our community of researchers from unique backgrounds and academic experiences. Central to our breakthroughs at CHOP, diversity allows our investigators to collaborate and confront pediatric problems from a variety of perspectives. In this series, we let each of our fellows tell their own stories, touching on everything from what diversity in research means to them to the exciting projects they have underway.
Our next featured scholar, Melvin Lee Shawn Bates, PhD, is fascinated by how activity in the brain becomes behavior. Working in the lab of Seema Bhatnagar, PhD, an associate professor in the Division of Stress Neurobiology at CHOP, Dr. Bates is especially interested in the ways that environmental factors like stress can produce changes in physiology, such as how it can lead to cognitive deficits.
“We are complex creatures, with distinct personalities, and all of this is based on simple biological functions — it is incredible,” Dr. Bates said.
When it comes to his personal goals, Dr. Bates has an equally inspirational mission in mind: Encourage young people from underrepresented populations to pursue science.
Could you briefly describe your background and what compelled you to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity?
I was born and raised a few miles outside of Los Angeles in Carson, Calif. I regularly found myself torn between wanting to spend time with friends and studying. Spending time with friends usually won. Luckily, I have a strong family unit that kept me focused and away from many of the distractions that were prevalent in my area.
After high school, I enrolled at California State University (CSU), Long Beach. It was here that I discovered my passion for neuroscience. However, I would not realize that I wanted to do research until my master’s program at CSU San Marcos, under the direction of Keith Trujillo, PhD. Dr. Trujillo inspired me, and a multitude of other students, to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience and to become one of the underrepresented minority voices that are desperately needed in this field. After leaving San Marcos, I went to Texas A&M University, where I received a PhD in neuroscience.
I was compelled to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity at CHOP because of the high quality of science here and because I wanted to learn a valuable technique to assess neural communication. I knew that at CHOP, I could obtain a skill that would make me a viable candidate for future faculty positions. My ultimate goal is to become successful in science and by doing so, train and mentor others.
What does diversity in research and science mean to you?
Diversity in science involves including perspectives of multiple groups of people, which will improve the way that scientific questions are approached. This is particularly important in biomedical research, as a variety of perspectives might help with the development of treatments for different groups of people. In addition, data has shown that groups that include people from diverse backgrounds tend to be more creative and innovative. For example, people from different backgrounds ask different questions, and this can lead to new insights beyond what might be learned from groups with only one viewpoint.
Another reason why having diversity in science is valuable is to inspire young people from underrepresented groups to pursue science. Many people from my hometown, which is predominantly black, and my family tell me that I am the first scientist that they have ever met. In fact, when I was growing up, being a scientist was not something that I thought to aspire to, but rather a mystical creature that wore a lab coat, lived in a lab, and did not look like me. Therefore, I think that diversity in science is also important to show children from underrepresented groups that pursuing science is a viable option for them.
What are some research projects or ideas you have underway that you’re excited about?
I have always been fascinated in both how activity in the brain becomes behavior and how environmental factors, like stress, can produce drastic alterations in physiology. This fascination is what drew me to the lab that I am in currently. My lab here at CHOP focuses on how stress affects the brain, and how these effects might manifest as behavior. We study this in a variety of ways. For example, I record animals’ brain activity to study the effects of stress on the brain. Because electrical activity underlies neural communication, this method allows me to measure communication between brain regions to see if stress disrupts it. Although there are many ramifications of stress, I am particularly interested in how it produces cognitive deficits. To investigate this, I concurrently assess electrical activity in animals’ brains while they are undergoing cognitive tasks that are dependent on prefrontal cortex activity. Moreover, because females are more vulnerable to the effects of stress, I examine differences between males and females. This work is very exciting as it could lead to a better understanding of the impact of stress on underlying brain physiology, which could inform future treatments of stress.
What inspired you to choose to research and study neuroscience, and what do you hope to achieve in your research?
We are complex creatures, with distinct personalities, and all of this is based on simple biological functions — it is incredible. Because of this interest (and because it was mandatory), I enrolled in a physiological psychology course during my undergraduate studies. I had never been so enthralled with the content of any course before this one — I read several chapters ahead and asked dozens of questions during office hours.
It was through neuroscience that I felt that most of the curiosities that I had about life could be answered. This led me to pursue graduate studies in neuroscience. I sought out labs that focused on addiction because I had seen how pervasive addiction was and how it “hijacked” lives (I learned later that it also “hijacks” motivation and reward circuitries in the brain). Through my studies, I hope to achieve a better understanding of how environmental factors alter brain function and hopefully develop ways to counteract these alterations, which might inform treatments for psychiatric disorders.