I’m a Black, Genderqueer Medical Student: Here’s My Hard-Won Wisdom for Students and Educational Institutions
This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
In the last 12 years, I have earned degrees from Harvard College and Duke University and trained in an M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. Through this process, I have assembled much educational privilege and can now speak with the authority that is conferred in these ivory towers. Along the way, as a Black, genderqueer, first-generation, low-income trainee, the systems of oppression that permeate American society—racism, transphobia, and classism, among others—coalesced in the microcosm of academia into a unique set of challenges that I had to navigate. I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned over the years in the format of advice for both Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ trainees as well as members of the education institutions that seek to serve them.
To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Who you are is an asset, not an obstacle. Throughout my undergraduate years, I viewed my background as something to overcome. I had to overcome the instances of implicit bias and overt discrimination I experienced in my classes and among my peers. I had to overcome the preconceived, racialized, limitations on my abilities that academic advisors projected onto me as they characterized my course load as too ambitious or declared me unfit for medical school. I had to overcome the lack of social capital that comes with being from a low-resourced rural community and learn all the idiosyncrasies of academia from how to write professional emails to how and when to solicit feedback. I viewed my Blackness, queerness, and transness as inconveniences of identity that made my life harder.
It was only as I went on to graduate and medical school that I saw how much strength comes from who I am. My perspective allows me to conduct insightful, high-impact, and creative research that speaks to uplifting my various intersecting communities. My work on health equity for transgender people of color (TPOC) and BIPOC trainees in medicine is my form of advocacy. My publications are love letters to my communities, telling them that I see them and that I am with them. They are also indictments of the systems that oppress them and evidence that supports policy innovations and help move our society toward a more equitable future.
To Educators and Institutions: Allyship is active and uncomfortable. In the last 20 years, institutions have professed interest in diversifying their members and supporting marginalized groups. However, despite these proclamations, most have fallen short of truly allying themselves to communities in need of support. People often assume that allyship is defined by intent; that they are allies to Black people in the #BLM era because they, too, believe that Black lives have value. This is decency, not allyship. In the wake of the tragic killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the ongoing racial inequity of the COVID-19 pandemic, every person of color that I know in academia has been invited to a townhall on racism. These meetings risk re-traumatizing Black people if they feel coerced into sharing their experiences with racism in front of their white colleagues. This is exploitation, not allyship. These discussions must be carefully designed to prioritize Black voices but not depend on them. They must rely on shared responsibility for strategizing systemic change that centers the needs of Black and marginalized voices while diffusing the requisite labor across the entire institution.
Allyship requires a commitment to actions, not ideas. In education this is fostering safe environments for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students. It is changing the culture of your institution such that anti-racism is a shared value and that work to establish anti-racist practices is distributed across all groups rather than just an additional tax on minority students and faculty. It is providing dedicated spaces for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students where they can build community amongst themselves away from the gaze of majority white, heterosexual, and cisgender groups that dominate other spaces. It is also building the infrastructure to educate all members of your institution on issues facing BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students rather than relying on members of those communities to educate others through divulging their personal experiences.
Among well-intentioned ally hopefuls, anxiety can be a major barrier to action. Anxiety around the possibility of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, hurting or offending someone, and having uncomfortable conversations. I'm here to alleviate any uncertainty around that: You will likely make mistakes, you may receive backlash, you will undoubtedly have uncomfortable conversations, and you may have to apologize. Steel yourself to that possibility and view it as an asset. People give their most unfiltered feedback when they have been hurt, so take that as an opportunity to guide change within your organizations and your own practices. How you respond to criticism will determine your allyship status. People are more likely to forgive when a commitment to change is quickly and repeatedly demonstrated.
The first step to moving forward in an anti-racist framework is to compensate the students for their labor in making the institution more inclusive.
To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Your labor is worth compensation and recognition. It is difficult to see your institution failing to adequately support members of your community without feeling compelled to act. As a Black person in medicine I have served on nearly every committee related to diversity recruitment and admissions. As a queer person I have sat on many taskforces dedicated to improving trans education in medical curricula. I have spent countless hours improving the institutions at which I have been educated and will likely spend countless more. However, over the past few years, I have realized that those hours do not generally advance my academic and professional goals. My peers who do not share in my marginalized identities do not have the external pressure to sequester large parts of their time for institutional change. While I was drafting emails to administrators or preparing journal clubs to educate students on trans health, my peers were studying.
There were periods in my education where there were appreciable declines in my grades and research productivity because of the time I spent on institutional reform. Without care, this phenomenon can translate to a perceived achievement gap. It is not that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ achieve less; in fact, in many ways we achieve more. However, we expend much of our effort on activities that are not traditionally valued as accomplishments for career advancement. The only way to change this norm is to start demanding compensation for your labor and respectfully declining if it is not provided. Compensation can be monetary, but it can also be opportunities for professional identity formation. For uncompensated work that I feel particularly compelled to do, I strategize how it can benefit me before starting the project. Can I write it up for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? Can I find an advisor to support the task force and write a letter of reference on my behalf? Can I use the project to apply for external research funding or scholarships? These are all ways of translating the work that matters to you into the currency that the medical establishment values as productivity.
To Educators and Institutions: Compensate marginalized members of your organizations for making it better. Racism is the oldest institution in America. It is built into the foundation of the country and rests in the very top office in our nation's capital. Analogues of racism, specifically gender-based discrimination, transphobia, and classism, have similarly seeped into the fabric of our country and education system. Given their ubiquity, how can we expect to combat these issues cheaply? Today, anti-racism work is in vogue in academia, and institutions have looked to their Black and otherwise marginalized students to provide ways that the institution can improve. We, as students, regularly respond with well-researched, scholarly, actionable lists of specific interventions that are the result of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of hours of unpaid labor. Then, administrators dissect these interventions and scale them back citing budgetary concerns or hiring limitations.
It gives the impression that they view racism as an easy issue to fix, that can be slotted in under an existing line item, rather than the severe problem requiring radical reform that it actually is. The first step to moving forward in an anti-racist framework is to compensate the students for their labor in making the institution more inclusive. Inclusion and equity improve the educational environment for all students, so in the same way one would pay a consultant for an audit that identifies weaknesses in your institution, you should pay your students who are investing countless hours in strategic planning. While financial compensation is usually preferable, institutions can endow specific equity-related student awards, fellowships, and research programs that allow the work that students are already doing to help further their careers. Next, it is important to invest. Add anti-racism and equity interventions as specific items in departmental and institutional budgets so that there is annual reserved capital dedicated to these improvements, part of which can include the aforementioned student compensation.
To BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Trainees: Seek and be mentors.Early in my training, I often lamented the lack of mentors who shared important identities with myself. I initially sought a Black, queer mentor in medicine who could open doors and guide me from undergrad pre-med to university professor. Unfortunately, given the composition of the U.S. academy, this was not a realistic goal. While our white, cisgender, heterosexual colleagues can identify mentors they reflect, we have to operate on a different mentorship model. In my experience, it is more effective to assemble a mentorship network: a group of allies who facilitate your professional and personal development across one or more arenas. For me, as a physician-scholar-advocate, I need professional mentors who support my specific research interests, help me develop as a policy innovator and advocate, and who can guide my overall career trajectory on the short- and long- term time scales.
Rather than expecting one mentor to fulfill all those roles, as well as be Black and queer, I instead seek a set of mentors that can share in these roles, all of whom are informed or educable on the unique needs of Black and queer trainees. When assembling your own mentorship network, remember personal mentors who can help you develop self-care strategies and achieve work-life balance. Also, there is much value in peer mentorship. Some of my best mentors are my contemporaries. Your experiences have allowed you to accumulate knowledge—share that knowledge with each other.
To Educators and Institutions: Hire better mentors. Be better mentors. Poor mentorship is a challenge throughout academia that is amplified for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees. Part of this challenge is due to priorities established in the hiring process. Institutions need to update hiring practices to explicitly evaluate faculty and staff candidates for their ability to be good mentors, particularly to students from marginalized communities. This can be achieved by including diverse groups of students on hiring committees and allowing them to interview candidates and assess how the candidate will support student needs. Also, continually evaluate current faculty and staff based on standardized feedback from students that will allow you to identify and intervene on deficits and continually improve the quality of mentorship at your institution.
The suggestions I provided are about navigating medical education, as it exists now. I hope that incorporating these practices will allow institutions to better serve the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees that help make their communities vibrant. I also hope that my fellow BIPOC and LGBTQ+ trainees can see themselves in this conversation and feel affirmed and equipped in navigating medicine based on the tools I provide here. However, my words are only a tempering measure. True justice in medical education and health will only happen when we overhaul our institutions and dismantle systems of oppression in our society.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization—by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.