July 28, 2021

Scott named 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Enrichment Program Fellow; synthesizes work in science and equity

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DSC06865 1Ninecia Scott, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology, has been named a 2021 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Enrichment Program Fellow. This exceptional program recognizes outstanding underrepresented minority postdoctoral fellows.

The Postdoctoral Enrichment Program (PDEP) of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) provides a total of $60,000 over three years.

Funding is a two-fold opportunity for selected fellows. First, it provides career development opportunities to each fellow through networking, career resource tools, lab management guides, training, and conferences. Additionally, the program guides and prepares fellows to become independent scientists and lead their own laboratory by offering them a set of training tools and access to alumni who have already gone through the PDEP.

It also offers fellows an opportunity to increase and strengthen the diversity in science especially in underrepresented minorities. “BWF is very cognizant of the need for increased diversity in science and innovative research and to merge the two together. They seek to understand the ways to get more minorities represented in science, and how diversity in science can translate into and be impactful to our communities," Scott says.

Advancing studies on pneumococcal pathogenesis

The PDEP funded Scott for her research work on host-bacterial determinants of cardiac damage due to invasive pneumococcal disease.

She currently works in the lab of Carlos Oriheula, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Microbiology, where he and his lab focus on understanding pneumococcal pathogenesis from both a host and bacterial perspective. "I love the ability to understand both sides of pneumococcal infection and disease,” Scott says.

In the lab, she concentrates on understanding how Streptococcus pneumonia induces cardiac damage after infection occurs. She looks at the relationship between bacterial and host factors during pneumococcal disease and how that mediates cardiac damage. Her primary motivation is to discover what biological mechanisms lead to cardiac damage after Streptococcus pneumonia infection and eventually translate her findings through the development of novel therapeutics and diagnostic measures.

“In Orihuela’s lab, we are also working on a new human pneumococcal model—improving on the current mouse model,” she says.

Scott says that the BWF supports postdocs looking to new lead their own research labs in the future, and who are conscious of the roles scientists can play in communities. As a scientist, she seeks to cultivate a supportive environment to conduct research and train future underrepresented scientists, increase diverse representation in the academy, and serve her community.

“In terms of my future lab, I’d like to take some of the resources I generate in Oriheula’s lab, like the new human-mouse model, and focus on the innate immunology of pneumococcal infection was well as other bacterial infections."

Synthesizing science and equity

Opportunities presented by BWF are geared towards cultivating and encouraging diversity in science. BWF’s vision is that a “diverse scientific workforce is essential to the process and advancement of research innovation, academic discovery, and public service.”

The PDEP, specifically, awards a diverse group of postdoctoral leaders in the biomedical sciences with the goal of improving human health through education and scientific research.

Scott explains that to be supported by BWF, "scientists have to be serious about pushing the boundaries of science and passionate about creating opportunities to enhance diversity to get funded by BWF." These characteristics are no stranger to Scott, who is currently working to enhance racial equity in the scientific realm, especially in Microbiology.

Scott came to UAB by way of MERIT, a postdoc program that focuses on training fellows in research and teaching, while improving the recruitment of students from underrepresented groups into the field of biomedical research.

“What really attracted me to that program was, as an HBCU (Historically Black College and/or University) alum, I knew I could partner with HBCUs to teach and give back. I graduated with my undergrad from North Carolina Central University (NCCU), where my professors looked like me. They had their Ph.D. With their support and guidance, it inspired me to continue my career in science as well. Although, I have not seen many Black faculty members as I have progressed throughout my career, that foundational support and example has been integral to me. I wanted to give that same inspiration back to the next generation. I knew I could do that through UAB’s MERIT program.”

As Scott continues to strive to be committed to “truth and service,”, NCCU’s motto, she continues to work beyond the lab and is motivated to increase representation in her field. "Many of the scientists I know and look up to are advocates this cause as well. We want to create more space and community."

DSC06863 1Carrying ‘the work’ outside of lab walls

In June of 2020, Scott was moved by the traumatic racial injustices in the U.S. and quickly sprang into action to meet and advocate for her Black/African American peers. Scott began her efforts on campus first, creating the UAB Black Postdoctoral Association—an interdisciplinary community that provides postdoctoral trainees with a safe community to network and maximize their scholarship within their community as well as providing a platform for voicing and advocating issues that pertain to academia and the greater society.

“Other postdoctoral researchers and I needed safe spaces to feel seen and heard, to talk and check-in with one another,” she says. “The response to the UAB Black Postdoctoral Association was very much supported by so many on campus. Dr. Lisa Schweibert was supportive. Drs. Paulette Dilworth and Brandon Wolfe were heavily supportive and got involved quickly. Many UAB faculty are are on our Board of Advisors, such as Drs. George Munchus, Farah Lubin, and Michelle Sims."

Just one year later, the UAB Black Postdoctoral Association has already been very successful in engaging postdocs to participate. But Scott’s work with racial equity at UAB didn’t stop there.

“The UAB Black Postdoctoral Association was invited to have a few seats on the Council of Postdoctoral Education, which is great because it allows us to contribute different perspectives that may not have been heard or thought of before” she says.

They were also invited to serve on the Equity Leadership Council (ELC), hosted by UAB’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI).

The ELC promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion across campus and at all levels of the University. They work to change policy at a UAB-wide level and implement necessary changes into a strategic plan.

The ELC “is phenomenal,” Scott says, “and it's eye-opening, especially as a postdoc, to see how faculty and staff from departments and units across campus can work together to achieve goals and benchmarks and make sure diversity is not only made aware of, but also understood and put into practice.”

Scott also serves on ODEI's Racial Equity and Justice Task Force, which began in response to the racial injustice events that defined 2020. The Task Force works to make UAB a completely anti-racist campus and community while developing an action plan for employees and students. Scott says she enjoys serving there. “Diversity is required to get the best ideas in the room and to solve most of the world’s problems. It’s hard to truly progress and change without diversity. This task force collectively has members from our campus and the local Birmingham community that are coming together to address and provide an effective plan of how to create and sustain an anti-racist campus community," she explains.

Beyond UAB, Scott is working on a global scale to bring Black scientists together, especially those in Microbiology.

In the summer of 2020, she joined forces with other postdocs across the nation to create Black In Microbiology Week, or #BlackinMicro—a week-long event that served over 3,000 globally. The event showcased and amplified the voices of Black microbiologists from around the world.

From there, Scott and her peers turned #BlackinMicro Week into an official organization—Black Microbiologists Association.

Scott’s work with #BlackinMicro was acknowledged by the New York Times. Her work in racial equity overall was recognized by Cell Mentor in the winter of 2020—naming her one of “1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists.”

Self-care amidst progressive action

Scott says she stays well and balanced by keeping God at her center and meditating. She expresses the importance for her own well-being of taking time in the morning to pray, meditate, and walk. "Lots of walking and meditation," she says.

Plus, she leans on others and relies on connection to stay well. “I am fortunate to have people placed in my life—all throughout my life—at just the right time,” she says.

For instance, Scott met Anton Jones, Sr. on just her third day on campus. “It aligned perfectly. The mentor/mentee relationship has allowed new perspectives on my teaching, leadership, service, and research. That relationship keeps me grounded because I can’t think through everything on my own. I need the experiences of others to help guide me. All throughout my career, Black staff have played an important role in providing support to me and other trainees, when we do not see representation in the places we conduct our research.”

Plus, Scott says service is a critical piece for her wellness. “I practiced service work in college because it was required, but I actually enjoy serving others and my community. By grad school, I did a lot of service and it helped me stay balanced by being involved with the Black and local community.”

"One of the quotes I live by is 'To whom much is given, much is required’ and I think the BWF is the embodiment of that,” she says. “What is most important to me is being a scientist, an advocate, and a community-serving person.”

Read more about Scott’s background and her work with #BlackinMicro or about her being named one of “1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists” by Cell Mentor.