Unstoppable Minds - University of Florida

Unstoppable Minds

What if big breakthroughs weren’t a cause for a victory lap – they were just the beginning of paths to even bigger ones? That’s what we’re here to find out. Hosted by Dr. Kyla McMullen and Dr. Jeremy Waisome, from the University of Florida comes Unstoppable Minds: a podcast looking into the challenges and triumphs faced by those who are redefining what’s possible.


Unstoppable Minds features the real stories of students and faculty overcoming challenges to tackle the world’s greatest obstacles. Join us as we dive into the breakthroughs and backstories of the people powering real world change from the University of Florida.

A podcast from the University of Florida looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia and research.

Dr. Laura Guyer, Mariel White, Dr. Brent Christner, Dr. Lakiesha Williams, Dr. Shannon Boye, Dr. Denise R. Simmons, Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield 

Hosted by Dr. Kyla McMullen & Dr. Jeremy Waisome

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  • Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, research assistant scientist for the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory in the College of Liberal Arts and Science’s Department of Anthropology. 
  • Dr. Kyla McMullen
  • Dr. Jeremy Waisome

Topics Covered

June 23, 2020 14:02 minutes

Episode 7: Uncovering Buried History

When ground scans conducted by the City of Tulsa showed unusual markings, something hidden below the surface came to light. Forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield discusses unearthing mass grave sites attributed to the long overlooked 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and shares how her family was impacted by the destruction.

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  • Dr. Denise R. Simmons, associate professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering's Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering.
  • Dr. Kyla McMullen
  • Dr. Jeremy Waisome

Topics Covered

June 16, 2020 13:55 minutes

Episode 6: Underlining a Need for Diversity

What happens when civil engineering and behavioral sciences overlap? According to associate professor Denise R. Simmons—we get answers. Hear how her perspective as a black woman in a male dominated field has taught her some hard truths about diversity.

Episode Notes & Details

Show Notes

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:02] Welcome to Unstoppable Minds. A podcast out of the University of Florida looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia and research. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen, an assistant professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:19] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome, a lecturer in the Engineering and Education Department, also in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. We know quite well that science research, learning, it's all about trial and error. So we're sitting down with some of our colleagues here at UF, who've stared down some pretty big challenges in the quest for knowledge.

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:00:43] I brought my drop slip in to this one professor, and I had not attended the class yet. And as I presented him the drop slip, he looked up at me, and he said,
“I knew you were going to drop this class. You're not going to make a great engineer.”

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:59] That was Dr. Denise Simmons, an associate professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering here at the University of Florida. Unfortunately, Denise’s experience is pretty common for women and minorities who are in the sciences. Denise is also a first-generation college student, which can make it even more difficult for you to feel like you belong in an academic setting.

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:01:21] My specialty is in project management. But my research looks at workforce sustainability and evaluation with aspects of inclusive culture.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:32] Denise specializes in the intersection of civil engineering and the behavioral sciences. We all have our own stories to tell, and our experiences are unique to ourselves. And it really does influence how we show up at work every single day.

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:01:49] When there's a lack of diversity there is a failure to stakeholders, employers and society in general.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:02:00] Denise began her research looking at two different kinds of success found in the workplace.

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:02:06] There was the organization's perspective and then the employees perspective. The organization's perspective included things like productivity and profitability and then create an environment that's safe and inclusive. And where these two things, I think, overlap is that people or companies are just looking for the right people. And when companies began to task me with the thing of looking for where we’re losing money, I almost always found it wasn't really about a technical failure. It was about maybe a human or person related failure. And so, it began to help me think about if we have these two competing but overlapping things about success, and the Venn diagram there was, it was really about people, what they understood, how they were able to perform, if they felt valued. I felt like if we could solve that problem first, both sides of that equation of success could be satisfied.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:03:14] These two viewpoints of success are important because it's not just about how the company views success based on metrics in performance measures that they want to see achieved. It really also depends on how you, as an employee, are thriving in that environment. And oftentimes, we don't really talk about that.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:03:36] Yeah, that's really stifling to be someone in a place where you can’t show up as your whole self to work because you're also limiting your ideas. It's our different life experiences that drive creativity and have novel solutions like that come out of it.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:03:52] It's really the company and ultimately the customer that's losing out on the best product that they could receive. The University of Florida has already kind of established some best practices that support our faculty and staff who are people of color, but also faculty and staff who aren’t to help them engage in conversations that, you know, may be difficult to talk about. We have a group that's trained in crucial conversations and that helps those who participate develop communication skills, that allows people to be their authentic selves and discuss inclusivity, diversity, equity and access. The other piece is, we have these affinity groups and they are for underrepresented people on our campus to kind of connect with each other, to connect with like-minded individuals. We see them in an industry environment, and we don't often see them in academic environments.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:04:51] Yeah, and it's such a relief to be here at the University of Florida that actually recognizes and has resources that are specifically geared towards this kind of diversity and inclusion efforts. But not all companies are current with the times and ready to change and make these kinds of things as well.

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:05:09] I believe what I'm seeing are companies who desire an end state and are beginning to make real changes to move towards that end state. But I believe what sort of prevents them is hearing that bad news. The bad news that maybe what they're doing isn't so helpful or it runs counter to their own narrative that makes them feel good. I think cultures that are fairly monolithic or mostly one demographic are operating under normal conditions. So, it is a right for that particular demographic, and they want to see that demographic shift, except they then become maybe over sensitized to say to include this other demographic. And so, I think it takes courage. It takes commitment. I think it also takes patience, though.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:10] Yeah. And, you know, we're talking about diversifying, but inclusion is a whole other piece.

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:06:16] Correct. So, because diversity just gives you the numbers across the demographics, inclusion really invites the voices and full participation of those groups in all areas of that particular organization.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:32] What happens when there isn't diversity like in teams and in companies?

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:06:39] When we have homogeneous teams, we can only benefit from the experience, knowledge, values that those people hold. If we think about this just from a design lens, we've all heard about the experience of seat belts that were designed or air bags that were designed that well supported males but had detrimental effects for women. And in particularly, pregnant women. So, I believe when there's a lack of diversity, your stakeholders aren't served well. Employees certainly are not served well, and society in general is also not served.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:07:24] So as a consumer, you would definitely want a diverse team of people creating any product that you get. So what role does diversity play in engineering?

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:07:33] I think with diversity and particularly diverse teams, it equals a better product every time. I don't know any other stronger or direct way to sort of say that homogeneous teams tend to have and overlook certain other perspectives. And so, diversity equals a better product every time.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome 00:07:56] So what Denise is saying makes a lot of sense, including many different perspectives will give you a better product or solution every single time.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:05] Exactly. Forbes even did a whole analysis where I think they took like 200 different businesses and they looked at them for over two years and looked at the business decisions they made. And they found that when they had inclusive teams that they made better business decisions up to 87 percent of the time. The whole process of making decisions was twice as fast, with half the meeting, sign me up for that. And then the decisions that were made and executed by diverse teams, you know, delivered 60 percent better results. So with all of that data, you know, this is the proof in the pudding.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:42] It's very compelling.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:43] This kind of just really constructive change. It definitely does not happen overnight. It takes time, and it actually has to happen from the top down.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:53] I think along with that is this is really a culture change. It really requires us to do kind of a deep inventory of where we're at and then make incremental changes over time. UF is actually taking strides to address some of these opportunities that are available on our campus. We have an Office of Academic Support. And through that office, Florida Match and Opportunity Scholars program helps so many students of various different backgrounds who all come from this first-generation status to feel like they belong. There's also the Multicultural and Diversity Affairs Office, which offers trainings for classrooms and for teams. And at the graduate student level, we have the Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives, which works to provide support for underrepresented students and all students on our campus. Really. We've built a network of administrators and faculty and staff who are focused on diversity efforts. And that's so important for us to be able to see this institutional change because we have people at all levels committed to doing it.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:10:06] Absolutely. Change happens at all levels. It’s not just the job of one person at one particular level.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:10:14] So having the ability to work on diverse teams and have inclusion, employers we know are looking for these professional skills. Sometimes people like to erroneously call them soft skills, but they are life skills, for example, like communication and the ability to work on teams. How do you convey the importance of developing these skills to your students?

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:10:34] So first of all, I want to thank you for calling them life skills. We need to be careful about how we're describing this to students. If we use the word, “soft’ skills, I want to imagine what are the thoughts of every male in the classroom. Soft skills? Is that the kind of skill I want to develop? So, I like that you call them life skills. I say they must be the hard skills because these are the things that companies for decades have told us students are not developing.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:11:06] If you could redesign like the entire engineering student experience to make this well-rounded engineer, what would you do?

Dr. Denise Simmons [00:11:15] I think there's a long history of us telling engineers that engineers solve problems and we put a period there. Engineers solve problems for people. And so,we have these ways of, okay, gravity equals zero. And that helps us, help students develop fundamental concepts. But at some point, we have to layer back in that you're solving it for people. There's a societal sort of context for this fundamental concept. And if we teach them separate, they're never going to couple or value this.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:11:50] Well, Denise, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Dr. Denise R. Simmons [00:11:53] You're welcome. Thanks for inviting me.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:11:58] People may not realize the role of diversity or the lack thereof has on product design and their business at large. And I think that speaks to the role of the university because it's our job to really train students, to have these diverse perspectives and to be able to bring those to their employer.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:12:19] Absolutely. If they've already been taught that an inclusive culture welcomes them and their ideas and their full experience, they’ll be even more competent in the workplace, and they can also contribute better solutions.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:12:31] And I know personally that Denise is fully committed to this in her laboratory, but also well beyond that. And she is taking her scholarship into a wide variety of communities so that they understand the importance of workforce development and how having diverse perspectives can really, positively impact our society.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:12:57] This is Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:13:02] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:13:12] Unstoppable Minds is produced by Endeavor Content. And Catherine Welch, managing producer Samantha Alisson Creative Development by 160over90 with Benjamin Riskin, engineering and post-production by Ameeta Ganatra and Adam Allison.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:13:28] Unstoppable Minds, owned by the University of Florida, is created with many thanks to the towns of Alisson Clark, Emily Cardinali, Matthew Abramson, Brianne Lee-Anne, Wise Clairvoyant, and Brian Sandusky.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:13:42] If you like what you're hearing, please rate review and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more information about our show and the awesome professors at University of Florida by visiting our web site at ufl.edu/unstoppableminds. Until next time, go Gators!

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  • Dr. Shannon Boye, associate professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. 
  • Dr. Kyla McMullen
  • Dr. Jeremy Waisome

Topics Covered

June 9, 2020 15:22 minutes

Episode 5: Unraveling Genetic Mutations

Shannon Boye is the associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida here to talk about her journey in academia and what led her to try gene therapy in the fight against a mutation causing babies to be born blind.

Episode Notes & Details

Show Notes

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:05] Welcome to Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia and research. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen, an assistant professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:22] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome, a post-doctoral associate also here in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. We know quite well that science, research, learning, it's all about trial and error. So we're sitting down with some of our colleagues here at UF who've stared down some pretty big challenges in the quest for knowledge.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:42] I recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and it's been so interesting watching her develop all of the skills that she needs to be a functioning human. One of the things that is really surprising is how quickly she recognized who I was. It was almost like she was looking at me, like tracking me is what they call it with her eyes.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:01:07] I'm really surprised that she can actually track you at such a young age. I thought that, like recognizing and being able to see things and know what they are is like a pretty advanced skill.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:19] Yeah, apparently they can see about 12 inches from their face to whatever object is in front of them. But I didn't realize that, you know, not seeing that is a sign that your baby is struggling.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:01:31] I couldn't imagine like if you weren't able to see the things in front of you. How in the world would you try to restore that? Like in a human.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:41] Well, funny enough…

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:01:44] Dr. Shannon Boye

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:41] Is associate professor of pediatrics here at the University of Florida who has made it her life's work to answer that exact question.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:01:52] The focus of my research is gene therapy.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:01:55] It was UF's research program that attracted Shannon to UF.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:02:00] Yeah, UF is definitely a powerhouse in the area of gene therapy.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:02:03] Shannon's story also highlights how important it is to have really good mentorship, especially in research, because it also leads to better research teams. But the more you mentor and the more you train, you're able to increase your capacity. This is a large part of Shannon's story and a UF quality in general.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:02:25] So, Shannon, right now you're working on research that you started when you were a grad student here at UF. What exactly are you working on?

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:02:33] So typically within the first few months of life, moms or dads notice that their babies aren't tracking objects or looking at them. Or maybe they have a roving eye movement, but that usually catalyzes mom or dad to bring their baby into the ophthalmologist. And then they often will receive the unfortunate news that their child carries an inherited genetic mutation that causes this blindness. So most of these kids presents with either severe blindness from birth or they progressively lose their vision early on in childhood. So what we do is we develop gene therapies to correct that loss of vision.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:03:04] Wow. That seems incredibly impactful. So can you take us through what you mean by gene therapy?

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:03:13] To understand gene therapy, we first need to go back to sort of high school level biology. All of us are made up of DNA and there's subunits of our DNA called genes. Your genes are different from mine. Mine are different from yours. That's what makes all of us individuals. But what genes do is something very important. They make proteins and you can think of proteins like the building blocks of life. So there are proteins operating in the cells of our body at every second of the day to perform essential functions that allow us to survive and thrive. So genes make proteins and proteins perform really important functions. So in our retina, the photoreceptors in our eye, we have a bunch of proteins that are acting together in order to convert a photon of light into a signal that can be sent to the brain and process there as vision. What happens sometimes is a patient will have a mutation in their genes. And as a result of that mutation, that gene can't make the protein it was supposed to make. And without that protein, that function goes away. It sounds complicated, but it's actually pretty simple when you boil it down. Gene therapy is essentially delivering a healthy copy of the gene to a patient's cell. That gene would go on to make the protein it's supposed to make and then restore function to the photoreceptor and ultimately restore vision.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:31] That's really interesting.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:04:33] So how do we get these genes to the patient's cells? Therein lies the science. What you need in order to get a gene into a patient's cell is something called a vector. And you can think of a vector like a taxicab. And the gene as the passenger inside. And it's my job as a gene therapist to tell that taxicab where to go and to drop off its passenger. So in my lab, we're sending that taxi cab to the photoreceptors.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:58] OK, so, Kyla, let's take a moment and run through Shannon's process. The goal is to get a gene to a patient's cell through a vector, which Shannon equates to a taxicab. The taxicab carries the gene, or passenger, to the damaged area of the eye. And in this case, it's where vision loss has occurred, and the damaged areas are where photoreceptors are located in the eye.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:05:24] That's pretty cool.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:05:26] What's even more cool is that Shannon and her team are the ones who are directing the taxicab to these photo receptors.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:05:34] Oh, wow. So it's almost like she's creating G.P.S. for these taxi cabs to get to the photoreceptor. Is that what you're saying?

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:05:41] Either G.P.S. or she's a cab driver.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:05:47] So taxicabs, or vectors, come in a variety of shapes and sizes and flavors: some drive faster, some can hold multiple passengers. But it's the work that was done in the 1980s here at the University of Florida that identified perhaps the best taxicab to do this job.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:06:02] The name of that taxicab is Adeno-Associated Virus or AAV for short. It's pretty exciting.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:10] Shannon mentioned that the taxicab itself is a virus which usually has a negative connotation, especially right now. It's not something someone generally wants to inject into their body to do something good.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:06:22] But actually, what we're doing is taking advantage of nature. We're harnessing nature because what a virus normally does is it infects our nose. It releases its genetic information and makes us sick. Right. But what we can do is take that AAV virus and gut it of all of its native genetic information and replace it with the healthy gene that we're trying to deliver to that patient.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:42] So you all hack the virus basically. That's what that sounds like.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:06:46] Yes, we hack the virus. So we replace its native genes with our gene of interest to hopefully make that patient be able to see and then we deliver that virus or that AAV to the patient's photoreceptors. But before we get to the patients, we need to test these vectors or these taxicabs in animal models that exhibit the same types of retinal problems that the patients do. So the animal model has to mimic the patient condition, essentially.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:07:11] And were you able to successfully do that?

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:07:13] Yes, I've been fortunate because there are a lot of animal models that actually mimic the patient phenotype. So we've been very fortunate in that regard.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:07:21] And now you're in the human clinical trial phase off this research, which is huge. Congratulations.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:07:27] Yes, thank you.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:07:30] Before we hear Shannon's very modest response to this, I want to hit pause and acknowledge how big of a deal it is to get your research into the clinical trial phase. If you're a researcher, you probably have a general understanding of this.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:07:45] Yeah, she's actually delivering treatment to humans that could potentially change their lives.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:07:50] It's huge and the stakes are really high. And in fact, the National Institute of Health calls this gap between getting results in the lab and actually providing treatment to patients the valley of death. I'm so glad we don't have that in our field. So it's really one thing to experiment on animals, but it's an entirely different thing to experiment on human beings.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:17] And of course, anytime you're experimenting, especially with humans, it takes a ton of money. UF is so well known for their work in this kind of research, and that definitely helped to bolster Shannon's case and getting approved.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:31] Yeah, to have like one of the leading hospitals on our campus is amazing. That must be something that she can leverage when she writes these proposals.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:08:43] When you hit the valley of death, you really have to get out there, interact with pharmaceutical partners, introduce them to what you've been working on, and hope to attract an industry partner. That's where that capital comes from. So in March of 2014, my team was really fortunate to align with a company called Genzyme, which was focused on developing gene therapies for rare disease. And of course, I'm focused on rare disease. And we worked with them for about five years before we submitted what's called the investigational new drug application to the FDA to officially move this forward.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:09:14] So how many people on the planet right now have your gene therapy inside of them and they're just literally waiting to see if it's going to work?

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:09:23] So we were super excited last November, when the first patient was treated and two patients have been treated subsequently. Most recently, in the early part of February. But what's important to understand about these gene therapies is, remember, you're delivering a gene to a patient's cell. It's going to take a little while for that taxicab to drop off the passenger.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:09:44] So there's a very good chance that any therapy that we see may take nine months to show up because the brain needs to be able to accommodate the change that we've made in the eye. So that's why we're all kind of sitting around patiently waiting for a therapy to emerge and to show itself.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:10:00] So is it like an all or nothing, you know, the person just wakes up one day and they can see, or is it more of like a gradual transition?

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:10:07] So it depends on the underlying biochemistry of the disease. There are other clinical trials in this area where the improvements were almost immediate in the sensitivity of the patient's retina. But again, there's a lot of science behind that and it depends on exactly what biochemical step you're sort of intervening with. But in this case, in this disease, I do think it's going to be a more gradual improvement. And again, um these patients are profoundly visually impaired when they're born. And so if you can imagine someone that's been blind from birth, their brain sort of doesn't know how to interpret that input from the eye.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:10:42] And so I really do think, especially in this disease, that it's going to take the brain a little bit longer to understand that it's actually receiving signals from the eye.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:10:50] How nerve racking is it for you to be waiting?

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:10:54] Very.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:10:56] I can imagine.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:10:58] My mom calls me every day. Have you heard anything? Have you heard anything?

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:11:02] As moms do.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:11:03] Yes.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:11:05] So beyond bringing sight to thousands of people, you're project must advance gene therapy in general. Right?

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:11:12] Yeah. So every time you address a specific disease, you're doing it with a specific set of tools. And those tools may be applicable to many other inherited retinal diseases. So put simply, we had to identify the best kind of taxicab to deliver genes to photoreceptors. And so that information will come in handy for any other researcher or clinician that wants to deliver a gene to another form of photoreceptor mediated disease. Same thing for, you know, the dosing of the vector. So there's lots of generalized information that we glean. Even though it's for this specific disease.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:11:47] We mentioned that the University of Florida is a powerhouse in research, but research takes people and the people who are conducting that research have students that they're mentoring.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:11:58] And if our work is going to actually impact people's lives, then we need great mentors on our campus.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:12:04] Especially in research, because it's really hard to walk into research and just know exactly what to do on the first day.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:12:15] My style has always been sort of open, maternal, inviting. I share a lot of things with my students and my postdocs and my staff. I mean, they're all in the lab because they love translational research. They're motivated by doing science that actually might wind up in a person one day. So having a boss that has taken something from graduate school into the clinic, I think motivates them to try and do the same with their own projects.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:12:40] Shannon, I do research that's related to mentoring underrepresented students in engineering, and I was wondering what types of models that you might use to help support the students in your lab or the researchers in your lab.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:12:56] I don't know if any of the models are official. It's just sort of my personality. But I make sure I check in with them very routinely, not just on a professional basis, but also on just like, hey, how was your weekend basis? You know, I maintain a personal relationship with every single one of them. And I think that's been very helpful.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:13:15] Thank you so much, Shannon, for sharing your story with us and your research with us.

Dr. Shannon Boye [00:13:19] No problem.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:13:25] So I think in Shannon's story, she is definitely demonstrating persistence in research and she has an incredible problem that she is solving. She's literally restoring sight to the blind. She got all the way to the clinical trial phase, and she could have given up in that valley of death.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:13:40] And she still has more work to do. Which, you know, when you spend a decade of your life working on solving a problem, you know you're truly committed to seeing the solution. It's also amazing how the students get to model that in their lab by supporting kind of different generations of students in the lab. So you've got undergraduate students and graduate students working together. And those graduate students are using the skills that they're picking up from Shannon to teach and educate these, this next generation of scientists.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:14:15] This is Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:14:20] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:14:30] Unstoppable Minds is produced by Endeavor Content and Catherine Welch. Managing Producer Samantha Allison, Creative Development by 160over90 with Benjamin Riskin. Engineering and post-production by Ameeta Ganatra and Adam Allison.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:14:46] Unstoppable Minds, owned by the University of Florida, is created with many thanks to the talents of Alisson Clark, Emily Cardinali, Matthew Abramson, Brianne Lehan, Wise Clairvoyant and Brian Sandusky.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:14:59] If you like what you're hearing, please rate review and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more information about our show and the awesome professors at University of Florida by visiting our Web site at UFL.edu/unstoppableminds. Until next time - Go Gators!

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  • Dr. Lakiesha Williams, associate professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering’s J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering.
  • Dr. Kyla McMullen
  • Dr. Jeremy Waisome

Topics Covered

June 2, 2020 19:27 minutes

Episode 4: Understanding Brain Trauma

How does a question about woodpeckers lead to groundbreaking research on neurological disease? In this episode, associate professor Lakiesha Williams talks about her work to understand traumatic brain injury and the culture of mentorship she created along the way.

Episode Notes & Details

Show Notes

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:01] Welcome to Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida, looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia and research. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen, an assistant professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:18] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome, a postdoctoral associate also here in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. We know quite well that science, research, learning, it's all about trial and error. So we're sitting down with some of our colleagues here at UF who've stared down some pretty big challenges in the quest for knowledge.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:39] So we're at the University of Florida and when I was an undergraduate student here, we were referred to as "Titletown USA" because we won so many national championships.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:51] And when I say that I'm a fan of football and Florida football... I don't know anyone else who is as crazy as I am about that sport and this institution.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:01:03] These are facts, like literally.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:06] And ironically, Lakiesha, who we're interviewing today, is a football fan too. But Lakiesha isn't just a fan of the sport, she actually is conducting research, which is around concussions, that could change the game forever.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:01:24] I'm Dr. Lakiesha Williams. I am an associate professor in the J. Creighton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering here at the University of Florida.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:01:35] So Lakiesha's research definitely has broad implications that impact football, but it could also benefit soldiers in war zones who might be at risk for head injury while they're defending the country.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:47] Yeah. We've seen the news articles and all the information come out about concussions, especially as it's related to football, but I don't think a lot of people know about how concussions are plaguing our military.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:02:01] Another thing that really sets her apart is the fact that she has such a passion for students and when you talk to her, all of her passion and drive for her students really, really comes through.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:02:13] Yeah. We as researchers are often really removed from the students. And Lakiesha is an example of someone who is committed to ensuring that she doesn't get too far away from her connection to the students that she works with. And the insight from that that we'll gain from this interview is pretty, pretty amazing.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:02:36] So, Lakiesha, what does your research focus on?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:02:39] I study mild traumatic brain injury, so I evaluate how the brain is damaged specifically at the cellular and fiber level. So oftentimes in the clinic, specifically in the hospital, when someone has a head impact, they go in the hospital and they're evaluated through MRI or C.T. scans or some other clinical modality. Some things we notice is that there are limitations to these scans. These scans are not going to the depths of what's possibly happening in the brain. You know, like in a car, if an engine goes out, the mechanic can remove the engine and dissect it fully? Well, that's not the case with the brain so what we are doing is developing very novel tools to be able to look into the brain at the cellular level to see if there's bleeding or any other trauma that's not captured while the patient is in the hospital.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:03:28] It sounds like you are leveraging technologies from all across campus, not just things that you would find in like the bio med labs.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:03:39] So I'm heavily involved in McKnight Brain Institute. I use their MRIs. My students are training and being prepared to use those. We use the Nanoscience Research Facility, NRF. We use their transmission microscopy, whether it's SEM or TEM, those types of things. Several other core facilities that's giving us microscopy abilities as well.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:02] And all of those things are here on our campus that you can access readily and the students have the ability to be trained on them too?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:04:09] Absolutely. That's that's... They're running it.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:12] That's amazing.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:04:13] Absolutely and they love it.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:14] And those skills can be translated from here into an industry really easily or into another academic position once they're done. And my little baby is here in the studio, so if you hear any little coos in the background, that's what it's coming from.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:30] I'm sure in your courses that you have students that come up with some of the craziest questions that you could think of.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:04:38] Oh yeah.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:38] And sometimes they're really good. There's something about having like this fresh vision of what is going on with the problem.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:04:46] So I had a student freshly into her PhD, just finishing her undergraduate degree, her name is Nayeon Lee. She would ask me very deep questions all the time. For example, one question was, "Dr. Williams, what is life?" So, of course, I didn't answer that question, but she came to a question of research. When she was developing her research question, she said "Dr. Williams, do woodpeckers get concussions?" Upon asking that question, I knew we were going to dive in deep and I asked her, I said, "let's find out." So we spent seven years of Nayeon's career looking into that question. And as we looked into that, we found that there are unique features in the woodpecker skull and in the woodpeckers beak that we can utilize to understand and design energy mitigating materials. We found that the beak had very, very unique keratin, bone and foam, and we also found that there's a hyoid bone that's wrapped around the brain of the woodpecker that serves as potentially what we believe and others have since recorded years prior to us that serves as a potential seatbelt-like feature that protects the brain as well.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:05:49] Did you ever think about woodpeckers and their brains?

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:05:53] Not at all.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:05:55] Wow, like, graduate students are amazing. Our graduate students are amazing.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:00] Absolutely. I think it's just really cool how you can ask these, you know, just seemingly trivial questions and then they inform a whole line of research.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:10] Yeah and in this case, the woodpecker question ended up playing a huge role in Lakiesha's work.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:16] Yeah.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:16] And it's helping her address chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:23] What would your research and work building a better helmet do to address CTE?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:06:28] We know from research that it comes on through repetitive impacts to the head. The impact goes to the head, rattles the brain and causes repetitive injury. And we have an interest in developing helmets based on what we know from nature. So what we know from woodpeckers, ram's horns, and other natural systems and we want to develop padding and other unique features inside of the helmet to be able to stop this or mitigate this energy that's going through the helmet, through the skull, through the brain. And so hopefully that the players and the soldiers brains won't experience as much, quote unquote, rattling when they're hit.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:07:08] So what are the long term implications of this work?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:07:11] I mean, we want to see less of this, right? Unfortunately, there's no markers or very few things out there that are clinically approved to be able to treat this. What we can do now is from the helmet, being able to in a sense, catch it or to be able to stop--

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:07:30] Prevent.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:07:30] Right, prevent it or even lessen the prevalence of what we see these days. So hopefully, there'll be tools developed and microscopes developed and other things developed that we can see it and ultimately treat it, but right now we're just trying to prevent it through the design of helmets.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:07:48] We've talked mostly about how Lakiesha's work has lots of overlap with sports and specifically football. She also has worked with the military in ensuring that CTE isn't a prevalent issue there.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:00] Yeah, and those are two very male dominated fields.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:05] Yeah.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:05] Like if engineering itself weren't enough.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:08] Right.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:09] And we're also like not even discussing the fact that she's an African-American woman.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:14] Right.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:15] And a younger one at that.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:16] Yeah. She's definitely someone who a lot of folks aren't used to seeing in those kinds of spaces.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:23] They're not used to seeing them and they're not used to seeing them as the expert.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:27] Yes, the expert in the room.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:28] So we asked Lakiesha what it's like when she goes to conferences and other work related events where she's basically in a room with 99% men.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:08:39] It's not always easy. There are times when I feel like a fish out of water being in a very male dominated area. I'm proud to say that in the field of biomedical engineering, we have a large representation of females, which we are very proud of, and even my department here at UF is over 40% women. However, there are experiences when I go to other conferences and meetings. For example, one time I was invited to a meeting last year to talk. A heavily male dominated field, I went to their national meeting, and as I was walking the halls, I felt the looks and I felt the tension. I had to almost close my eyes or just envision I was in a different space on a runway and tell myself "You were invited here. You belong here." Until I got to that speaker room and that made my talk so much better. So there are still times when I have to talk to myself and let myself know that I belong here. I don't know if that will ever go away.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:09:35] Yeah. People don't know what it feels like to just be out there and you're the only one like you.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:09:41] Yes, absolutely.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:09:44] Wow. I can definitely relate to this. Like, I wish I could say that I was shocked. You know, similar to her being a black woman and you're in male dominated spaces and you have to just basically, you know, talk yourself out of that.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:09:59] Yes, I feel that too and to hear someone, you know, who's... She's an associate professor, right?

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:10:08] Yeah.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:10:08] Like to, to have tenure at a university and still be experiencing that... I mean, there's a term imposter syndrome and we like to like throw it around, but it's real. And she just so eloquently deals with that.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:10:24] Yeah and I think it's so important to have a mentor like someone who can just build your confidence in what you're doing.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:10:31] Well, recently, the National Academies commissioned a consensus study around the science of effective mentoring and science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. I mean we're talking about some of the things that they found, which is that with mentorship, you are much more likely to complete your degree, that having role models matter, that having someone that you can confide in a safe space is important.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:10:58] Absolutely.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:10:59] We asked Lakiesha about her journey and how she found her way into engineering because we know she had help along the way. And her story actually supports the findings that we were talking about in that National Academies report.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:11:14] Initially, I started off as a microbiology major, but I realized I was having such a hard time remembering these biological terms. It was just coming... It wasn't... But the math, I was practically teaching my calculus class as a freshman. So it was clear to me, like switch, go to something math. And I realized biology and math-- bioengineering. My mentor, Dr. Mary Beth Lema, um she really encouraged me as soon as I got in, I believe this is a large reason why I stayed in this field, as soon as I came in as a freshman she was a new assistant professor, new to a lot of things, learning herself. And I went into her office one day, she's a white female, and I go into her office and she had an Oprah Winfrey picture on her wall. And me seeing that, I was like, I just felt at home. I felt like I'm welcome here. I did, I don't know.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:12:02] Because of Oprah.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:12:03] Because of the picture of the black woman. I'm like, OK.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:12:09] This is a safe space, right? I'm from, in my background from inner city, majority black schools and all, this is my first time in an environment outside of my norm and having this woman have this picture on her wall. So then we talked and she invited to hire me and then from there, I worked with her through my masters and she's definitely one who I admire and attempt to model a lot of what I do after.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:12:33] So I could imagine when you then went on to get your PhD, how was that? Like, like were you... Did you did you see more representation? Were there more Oprah posters?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:12:43] As soon as I got in, I joined a bridge program, a "bridge to the doctorate", and that was where I found my community. It was an NSF sponsored program and it was a lot of underrepresented students who were headed towards the PhD program. Most of us were in science or engineering and we just stuck together for a very long time. I was the first underrepresented minority, actually African-American, to graduate with the PhD from the biomedical engineering program at Mississippi State University.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:13:10] And weren't you also the first black faculty member too, in the department?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:13:13] Yes, first black faculty and first female faculty in the department for several years.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:13:19] Wow, so what types of things do you do to just make sure that no one else has that same isolating experience?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:13:25] I feel like I walk around aware, looking for students who are seeking support or have questions. Just letting them know that, you know, in a sense that invisible Oprah poster's on my wall. Like just walk in and you can come in and have a conversation with me at any time. I intentionally reach out to the black females in my department, undergraduate specifically, and invite them to shadow, invite them to visit with my students. I believe representation and exposure, they're both key to asking the right questions and so, it's working. I see students who are now interested in PhDs who when I first invited had no interest. I think just getting them in there and having that person that Mary Beth Lema was for me. Answering those questions or even giving them questions to ask... That has been critical. Also working across the country with other universities. We have an NSF funded program between myself and several other PI's where we're training PhDs and post-docs in engineering, women and minorities, to be prepared for the job market when it's their turn.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:14:27] That is amazing. So having this heart to just reach back out to, to students, PhD students, grad students, this has to carry over into your classes as well. So how do you intentionally make sure that your students here at UF feel like they're included?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:14:42] So I think students need to understand that they have a voice and their voice is valued in the space that they're in. And it's not just me reflecting everything I know on them, but I need them to teach me and so part of my philosophy is, you know, give ideas, contribute to your peers, and let this be a collaborative environment. And that's one of the things that I foster in the classroom. Just a community in the classroom, even if it's just for a semester.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:15:06] What types of implications do you think that these conversations have on the actual science that the students are conducting in your labs?

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:15:15] Confidence is key. I didn't get it overnight and I'm still learning. I still walk the halls, as I said, like and pretend it's a runway and tell myself I belong. I think students need to know when they're right and when they're wrong. They need to be celebrated when they make some achievement. If they submit an abstract, that's 200 words, you know, let the whole lab know this person's putting our work on the map. To answer your question, Jeremy, it makes a huge impact. I see it on a regular basis, sometimes as scientists we can get bogged down on the day to day, but being intentional about letting our students know that I know you may feel intimidated, especially our underrepresented females or just underrepresented students, you feel alone and isolated, but you belong here and you are contributing to this place. And if it wasn't for you, this would not get done.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:16:01] Well, Lakiesha, thank you so much for joining us here. We learned a lot. Your research is so fascinating.

Dr. Lakiesha Williams [00:16:07] Thank you. It has been a pleasure to be with you all.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:16:14] I love how Lakiesha's story is just one more example of how with support early on in your career, you can be incredibly successful. And then you can turn around and reciprocate that help and change the trajectory of so many other people.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:16:33] Yeah. Mentorship at all levels, like what Lakiesha is doing here, is so important because you have no idea how you can change people's lives.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:16:41] I mean, literally, it can be as simple as affirming a seemingly stupid question. Like, the woodpecker question is seemingly benign, right? But it had so many implications on the work that she's doing. And then for Lakiesha to turn around and affirm her and encourage her to ask more questions like that?

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:17:05] Yeah. Yeah. We have to teach students that it's okay to have questions and to actually pursue those questions. A lot of times students are used to being told what to think vs. raising their own questions and being inquisitive about what they're reading, so hats off to her.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:17:23] In addition, like, just her presence on our campus is something that encourages other students. Like, role modeling is a form of mentoring and in the sciences and engineering, representation is really low and to have so many faculty who are from diverse backgrounds in our faculty ranks at UF is amazing. Like, we are nationally ranked in the number of diverse faculty that we have in engineering and it's why the university has been really focused on bringing in diverse scholars all across our campus. And we're promoting it, like we're doing what we can to let people know, like, hey, you can come here, and you can feel supported to feel like you belong at the University of Florida.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:18:19] This is Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:18:24] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:18:34] Unstoppable Minds is produced by Endeavor Content and Catherine Welch. Managing Producer Samantha Allison, creative development by 160over90 with Benjamin Riskin. Engineering and Post-Production by Ameeta Ganatra and Adam Allison.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:18:50] Unstoppable Minds, owned by the University of Florida, is created with many thanks to the talents of Alisson Clark, Emily Cardinali, Matthew Abramson, Brianne Lehan, Wise Clairvoyant and Brian Sandusky.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:19:04] If you like what you're hearing, please rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more information about our show and the awesome professors at University of Florida by visiting our web site at ufl.edu/unstoppableminds. Until next time, go Gators!

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Cast

Cast

  • Dr. Brent Christner, associate professor in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Science’s Department of Microbiology and Cell Science.
  • Dr. Kyla McMullen
  • Dr. Jeremy Waisome

Topics Covered

May 26, 2020 17:39 minutes

Episode 3: Unearthing Life in the Antarctic

It took a decade of planning and effort by Brent Christner and colleagues to demonstrate that life exists in lakes beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. Three, half-mile boreholes, 10 million dollars, and 1 million pounds of equipment later, he’s sharing what they discovered under the ice.

Episode Notes & Details

Show Notes

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:02] Welcome to Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida, looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia and research. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen, an assistant professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:19] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome, a postdoctoral associate also here in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. We know quite well that science, research, learning, it's all about trial and error. So we're sitting down with some of our colleagues here at UF who've stared down some pretty big challenges in the quest for knowledge.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:39] Kyla, I have a question.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:41] All right, shoot.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:42] What kind of life is underneath Antarctic ice? We're about to hear the answer to that in this episode.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:51] I guess I've always kind of wondered like what's down there because Antarctica is like one of the less inhabited places, so I know that has to be super fascinating. Like anything they find is news.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:03] It's like deep space, but we can actually access it, though it's still treacherous to do so. And the faculty member that we're about to introduce to everyone...

Dr. Brent Christner [00:01:16] ...Brent Christner...

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:18] ...is super passionate about the work he's doing and then has the, I don't know, gall to actually go to Antarctica to investigate it.

Dr. Brent Christner [00:01:31] I am an associate professor of microbiology and cell science and I am a microbiologist.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:41] So, Brent, before we get into the important research, could you tell me a little bit about some of the wildlife you encountered? Please tell me there were penguins.

Dr. Brent Christner [00:01:54] Of course there were penguins. That's that is the life form that we think of when we think of Antarctica. In fact, the first people who traveled to Antarctica well over a century ago, that was the life that they saw. Most of the continent, though, is been viewed for many years as being uninhabitable and this is because it's extremely cold. And 97% of it is covered in up to 2 miles of ice. And those were conditions that were just not thought to support any kind of life. What we're interested in are the kinds of life forms that sort of bucked that trend. And we are interested in microbes that actually live in aquatic environments under the ice. And when I say aquatic environments, I mean environments like lakes.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:02:43] That's super cool.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:02:44] Cool. That sounds like a massive research project, because you had to transport a million pounds of equipment, a whole team of researchers... You had to battle weather and surface conditions and it costs millions of dollars to set everything up. So how fragile was this whole operation? Like could it have all just collapsed while you're there?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:03:06] It very easily could not as worked out as well as it did. And really, the challenges you mentioned, they even extend before we make it in the field. But there's a lot of other scientists that are interested in that question. Not just biologists and ecologists, but chemists, glaciologist... That are interested in how putting water under a slab of ice will affect the way it moves into the ocean. So one big challenge is just getting those scientists to actually speak the same language, planning to get all this and coordinated and getting out to the field took years.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:03:45] So one thing that Brent mentioned was that in 2013, when there was that huge government shut down, his entire research got shut down for a year, like everything had to halt, including this trip that they had been planning and just funding for so long. There's people in his research lab that also depend on this, you know, graduate students who may be relying on what they find as part of their dissertation, like that's, that's a lot.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:09] Yeah, no, I was a graduate student in 2013 and I can't imagine.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:04:15] Eventually he did make it to Antarctica, but as you'll hear next, that's not where the challenges end.

Dr. Brent Christner [00:04:23] You're subject to the weather and there could be two weeks when there's not a plane that leaves because there isn't any visibility. You could have all the planning that you could possibly do and still get there and the weather shut you down. But luckily, that was something that we didn't experience. I'll just mention some other challenges involve, to actually access these environments we have to drill through ice. So that means we bore a hole through the ice sheet and that hole is our conduit to studying life in these lakes. So we could put an instrument down there and they actually get stuck in the hole and that would close down the operation. Luckily, that didn't happen. And we could even have very successful field campaign and yet we still have to get all these samples back to the United States. That sounds trivial, but it is not! Simple things like not keeping things from freezing. That is actually one of the big challenges we face. We can keep things frozen well but keeping them liquid can sometimes be difficult.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:05:22] Can you talk about some of the equipment that you use? And also even just like the lodging accommodations that you have when you go to a place like Antarctica?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:05:32] Yes. Well, you're camping in tents. Sounds awful. I know.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:05:37] My goodness.

Dr. Brent Christner [00:05:39] I know. Everyone's surprised how comfortable it is actually to sleep in a tent in some places of Antarctica. Now we're in a place that in the summertime, so the austral summer, you know, I was able to keep beer in my tent because sun's hitting your tent and heating it up. So actually, there'd be nights when I wake up hot and have to open vents on my tent. There are also other days you wake up and the wind is blowing 50 mile an hour and you can barely see, you know, 20 feet ahead of you. And that can change in minutes.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:07] A side note here. Brent and his work are part of a larger research team called the Subglacial Antarctic Scientific Access Project, also known as SALSA. It's made up of researchers at universities across the country and involves U.S. and international partnerships.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:25] Did you find what you were looking for down there in that Antarctic ice?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:06:29] Yes, we did find what we were looking for. We hypothesized that there would be life in the lakes, but it would be probably microbial, because I do mention that the conditions we thought are maybe too extreme for life, but they're probably too extreme for anything more complex than a bacterium. The question of how these bacteria can even exist there revolves around, "where do they get their energy from?" If this was a lake on the surface, the answer to that question is they would be getting their energy from sunlight. This is not an option in these systems, so there has to be an alternate source of energy. An ecosystem is kind of like an engine. It needs fuel and one of the main questions we're trying to address is, "what is that source of energy for these organisms?" and the short answer is those are chemicals; chemicals which are actually liberated from sediments that are in the lake and chemicals that are liberated from rock. So essentially, we're talking about organisms that eat rock. Very cool.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:07:34] Very cool. So it's really fortunate that you were able to find so many living organisms, but it seems like success wasn't always a given. Isn't it true that during the 20 years that your team spent putting this expedition together, there was actually a passionate debate as to whether or not these lakes could even support life?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:07:53] Yeah, that's right. There was a very active debate between a group of researchers, which I was part of and other researchers who actually claimed that the lakes were too extreme to support life. And that debate really wasn't solved until we at first were able to drill into these systems and understand them in a holistic way.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:14] Wow. So you're going to have to prove everyone wrong basically?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:08:17] It sounds like that. But I guess I might say that it was a minority opinion that a lake underneath the ice sheet would be completely sterile. In fact, if we had drilled into these lakes and found that there was no life there, it might be a bigger story. It would mean we drilled outside the biosphere and no one's ever done that before. So it would have been certainly interesting and I would have been surprised by that, but I would say that what we found is not only what I hoped we would find, but also what I expected we would find.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:50] I can't believe he actually proved his hypothesis.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:53] Also, like the fact that you can previous hypothesis and bring students there...

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:57] The students, I'm sure, came back with more than just water. I guarantee not only did they have some pretty amazing stories about their time in Antarctica, they had some pretty cool skills that most students in the world don't have.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:09:14] Yep. And they also have research that nobody's gonna scoop because you would literally need to plan your own expedition there so they know they're the only people studying this.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:09:24] How cool. So it's not every day that you hear about students having the opportunity to contribute to research with such broad implications. And we asked Brent about what some of those implications might be for the rest of society.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:09:43] All right. But now that the debate is settled, polar lakes do support life. What does that mean?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:09:50] Yeah, why does it matter? Why do we care about these ecosystems that are so far from our reality? Compare them to a system that we're much more familiar with in Florida. We know that water that runs off of Florida into the marine ecosystem around it affects the biology of those systems. So those are biological phenomena which are accelerated by nutrients that humans add to water that runs off into the ocean. The same thing happens in Antarctica, but we don't directly observe it. So those kinds of nutrients and outflow that come off Antarctica end up in a place called the Southern Ocean, probably not the ocean that you pick to go to on your vacations, but globally, a very important ocean. That ocean absorbs a billion tons of CO2 per year. It absorbs that through processes of little organisms that live in that water and fix CO2 and those organisms receive nutrients from somewhere. So these rock eating organisms that I'm speaking of, part of what they do is they take these nutrients which are in rock and they liberate it into water. And that could be very important for seeding one of most important marine environments on the planet. Another thing is that these could actually be ecosystems which could influence global climate. And an example from this I'll give you is the ice sheet is a protective layer that sort of seals anything that's beneath it. That includes a bunch of organic carbon which is buried, buried underneath the ice sheet from millions of years ago when there wasn't ice cover there. Well, what happens when you bury that organic carbon and you add microbes is the same thing that happens in our swamps. You might know about swamp gas. Those bubbles are in part methane, and that's a very important greenhouse gas. So there's been a lot of speculation that when you remove the ice sheet from Antarctica, that this methane will be released in the atmosphere, which will warm the planet, which will melt more ice, which will release more methane.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:11:57] So did you find anything in your research that might help control the amount of methane released into the atmosphere?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:12:05] In our studies of these lakes, we've actually found microorganisms that eat that methane. So they use that energy as the source of fuel and carbon. So when I was talking about alternate ways that we have to think about organisms that live in the dark and how they have to generate energy, this is one of those examples. But more importantly, by actually eating that methane, there are attenuating the release of that methane from the ice sheet. So they could be really important in mitigating release of greenhouse gases as the ice sheet retreats. The third reason that we might be interested in studying these systems is that they're the closest earthly analog to the kinds of environments that have been described in our own solar system where there are large bodies of water under thick ice shelves. Examples of this include Europa, which is a moon of Jupiter and there are about a dozen other places in our solar system where we know these large oceans exist. You know, Earth does not only have the only ocean in the solar system, it doesn't have the biggest one. And so if we want to understand how life could operate in an environment like this, you should be in Antarctica studying those systems. Those are the closest we can get to on our planet.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:13:19] So I can imagine, you know, with all of this research, you must have a massive team. Can you tell us some about the students that help you with this research and that work on your projects?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:13:29] Our team consists of graduate students and undergraduate students as well. And in some cases, not in this case, undergraduates have actually accompanied me in the field to Antarctica, to Alaska, Greenland and other places. So students are the mechanism by which that we do the research so they're extremely important, maybe even more important than I am.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:13:53] How unique of an opportunity of this for them to be able to go to Antarctica?

Dr. Brent Christner [00:13:57] I have been to Antarctica eight times and I still haven't gotten over the uniqueness. Every time I go, it feels almost like the first time again. So I would agree with you, I mean.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:14:06] Yeah, tell me about it. I feel like this is something that is a once in a lifetime thing. You've done it eight times. How incredible of a career opportunity that is.

Dr. Brent Christner [00:14:19] It is. And it's something I never really thought you can make a career out of this. As a graduate student, when I was working in icy systems, I was like, you know, this is very interesting, but eventually I'll have to find a real job. There's no way that I can actually support this research, but one thing climate change has done is focus attention on polar systems and the area that I study is wide open because we know almost nothing about the life forms that live in most places that are associated with ice, which is typically underneath it.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:14:51] Well, thank you, Brent, for sharing your story and your research with us.

Dr. Brent Christner [00:14:56] Well, thank you. It's my pleasure.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:15:00] So I don't know about you, but I am thoroughly impressed. The fact that he was able to go and just lead this research expedition to Antarctica under just super uncertain terms and then actually come out with a proven hypothesis that impacts things like climate change. People think of climate change as being like this super far off thing that is going to impact people, you know, not in our lifetime, but the fact that he can do research today that can impact the future like that's so transformative to me.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:15:34] I agree, like he's clearly incredibly passionate about the work that he's doing and to spend 20 years of your life devoted to something that you don't know is going to work out is... Wow. Like, I am entirely too nervous about, like, what's gonna happen a month from now.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:15:57] Yeah.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:15:58] 20 years from now? I don't have that kind of patience, steadfastness... Faith, maybe? I don't.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:16:07] Yeah and imagine being like one of his PhD students and you're like, "my advisor has been working on this thing for 20 years"... So I feel like he's like a really good, like mentor for his students because they're able to just see perseverance modeled in the lab like in real time.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:16:23] It's admirable that students are willing to sign on for a project that took 20 years to reach completion and I love that, you know, that kind of defines who we are here at the University of Florida.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:16:38] Absolutely.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:16:41] This is Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:16:46] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome, thanks for joining us.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:16:56] Unstoppable Minds is produced by Endeavor Content and Catherine Welch. Managing Producer Samantha Allison, creative development by 160over90 and Benjamin Riskin. Engineering and Post-Production by Ameeta Ganatra and Adam Allison.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:17:12] Unstoppable Minds, owned by the University of Florida, is created with many thanks to the talents of Alisson Cark, Emily Cardinali, Matthew Abramson, Brianne Lehan, Wise Clairvoyant and Brian Sandusky.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:17:25] If you like what you're hearing, please rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more information about our show and the awesome professors at University of Florida by visiting our website at ufl.edu/unstoppableminds. Until next time, go gators!

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Cast

  • Mariel White, a junior studying sports management in the College of Health and Human Performance
  • Dr. Kyla McMullen
  • Dr.Jeremy Waisome

Topics Covered

May 19, 2020 18:11 minutes

Episode 2: Undeterred by Disease

Five out of a million people are diagnosed every year. She was one of them. Mariel White talks about her diagnosis with Eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis (EGPA)—formerly known as Churg Strauss syndrome—and the lengths UF went to help her return when it left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Episode Notes & Details

Show Notes

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:01] Welcome to Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida. Looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia and research. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen, an assistant professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:18] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome, a postdoctoral associate also here in Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. We know quite well that science research, learning, it's all about trial and error. So we're sitting down with some of our colleagues here at UF who've stared down some pretty big challenges in the quest for knowledge.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:39] In this podcast, we've primarily focused on talking to professors. But in this episode, we'll be talking to an extraordinary student and when I say extraordinary, which is a word I don't use often, I really mean it in this instance. I actually know this student personally. And so we're going to hear a little bit about her story.

Mariel White [00:01:04] Hi, I'm Mariel. I am a junior here at the University of Florida. I'm studying sports management. I'm hoping to graduate in the fall of ‘21.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:01:14] So everything went well for the first year of her being here in Gainesville and she assimilated. She joined a sorority. She was living a normal college life and out of nowhere, she just started exhibiting these crazy symptoms. And ultimately, you know, we didn't know if she was going to make it. And by, in my opinion, the grace of God, she was able to make it through this experience and come out of it, but not unscathed. I mean, it changed her life forever. And the story of how she's persevered and overcome all of the challenges that she's faced is remarkable.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:02:08] So Mariel, I know Jeremy is already very familiar with your story, but if you don't mind, I'd love for you to recount a bit of what you were experiencing going into your fall semester of 2017. What happened?

Mariel White [00:02:20] So at the beginning of my sophomore year, I started having neck pain and I wasn't really sure what caused it, but it just kept getting worse and worse. And then I started having flu like symptoms, started feeling really sick. They found that I had two strains of the flu and viral meningitis. I developed blood clots in my legs that were so bad that I couldn't walk. At that time around November/December, I decided I wasn't going to be able to return to UF for the spring semester. And then that's when it really took a turn for the worse.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:02:54] Yeah, we were all kind of concerned that you wouldn't make it at that point.

Mariel White [00:02:59] So I remember going into the E.R.. I remember being checked in, taken to my hospital room, and then I don't remember anything after that for the next two weeks.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:03:09] Wow.

Mariel White [00:03:10] Yeah. So at that time, I first had the three strokes in my brain and when they were trying to stop the bleeding, that's when it caused the fourth stroke in my spine. So all of that caused paralysis, vision loss and gave me trouble with words and numbers.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:03:30] So with everything that happened to you, it sounds like you lost the ability to do a lot of things that, you know, you were just used to doing without thinking about. What tasks became challenging and like, how did you start to recover?

Mariel White [00:03:44] Yes, so I lost the ability to do pretty much everything. So I had to learn simple things when it came to the paralysis from sitting up in bed, getting dressed, getting into my wheelchair, getting around in my wheelchair. So all of those steps took a very long time to like kind of build up. But then on top of that, when I first had my strokes, I couldn't read at all. So I had to completely learn how to read again, do simple math. I would look at numbers and wasn't sure what they were, so I had to learn those simple things and also had to adjust to my field of vision.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:25] I mean, you lost a lot of things and it was really sudden, but you never lost the ability to work hard. And that's what I admire so much about you.

Mariel White [00:04:34] Thank you.

Mariel White [00:04:37] Yeah. That's something that I've always been like that, but when you go through something like that, it really pulls it out of you. You just kind of have to take it one day at a time and work to kind of get back to where you were.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:04:52] I could imagine you thinking about, "Okay, I was a college student before this happened." Did you ever wonder about your return?

Mariel White [00:05:00] Yes. That was something I was really worried about. As soon as they brought me into the Shepherd Center, they told me that I wanted to be able to return to school for two years until the fall of 2020. So at that time it was January 2018, that felt like forever away. And in my mind, I didn't really know how severe my situation was. I didn't really realize the limitations that I had and how rocky my health still was. So in my mind, I just had to learn how to get around and I'd be able to go back. But it was a really long transition of learning simple things and getting ahold of my health and all of that to be able to get back to the University of Florida. But that's really something that encouraged me to work hard and get back to being myself again so that I could return.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:05:56] So as Mariel was working on her recovery, there was an entire team back at UF that was cheering her on, including like her sorority who raised money for her and even helping her install like different stuff in her house back in Georgia so that she could have mobility.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:16] Yeah, that is so supportive. Like that's so important to have as your recovering, you know, to have that support system.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:23] By the way, so after everything happened and she was able to recover, she re-enrolled in fall 2019.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:32] Oh, wow. She is persistent.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:34] Can you imagine?

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:36] Not at all.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:06:37] Just a few years later! And I think what really helped her do that is that UF has so much support for students with disabilities. So our Disabilities Resource Center is something that supports over 3000 students across our campus.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:53] Oh, yeah, absolutely. I use them for some in my classes, like for if you're a student who needs someone to do something as much as taking notes for you in class or giving accommodations for exams. You know, they have their own private testing rooms, whatever it is you need, D.R.C. will figure out a way to accommodate you. And I've been so amazed in just how much support they offer to students, like it's really good.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:07:19] And another piece of the puzzle that helped Mariel get back to life on campus is the incomparable Cyprus Hall.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:07:28] Oh, yeah. That place is nice. It was opened in 2015 and as part of the reason why U.S. News and World Report ranked the University of Florida 6th for inclusion of students with disabilities. Mariel and her service dog Molasses, a.k.a. Lassie, were kind enough to take us on a tour of Cypress Hall to show us how the facility helps her tackle day to day activities.

Mariel White [00:08:00] This is Cypress Hall. It's one of the most successful dorms in the United States, which is really incredible. The mailboxes are lowered so that everyone could get into them. Even the paying mechanisms on the vending machines are at a different height so that everyone can use them. All the accessible dorms are on the first floor. So that's where my room is.

Mariel White [00:08:25] So this is my room and I use the bang bar to open the door. It's like the circular accessible door buttons that you push, but it's vertical so that people who don't have very much function in their hands can just bump into it and then it opens. Most of the rooms have these lift systems to help people get out of bed or into the bathroom. So it goes all throughout the room and the bathroom. It's at the ceiling and there is like the motor, I guess, and then you can attach different things to it. You can attach like a sling kind of thing. So I have my own room and then I share this adjoining bathroom with a suitemate.

Mariel White [00:09:12] So the toilet has handrails next to it that you can move up and down so you can use them if you need to or if not, it also has a bidet, if that's something that you like to use and it flushes just when you close the toilet seat so you don't have to actively push something to flush it. And then in the shower, it's a nice wide stall. There's a shower bench and the faucet is handheld so that you can take it off and use that as you need to. And then the sink is adjustable so it's a good height for me.

Mariel White [00:09:52] I'm not really sure how I would kind of take care of myself independently without having an accessible dorm like this. It's more accessible than I need it to be, but that's great because it means that people who need that level of kind of accessibility and inclusion are able to get it. So and it's great for me because I'm able to benefit from all these resources while I'm here.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:10:23] Mariel, what were you most worried about when you returned to the University of Florida?

Mariel White [00:10:28] So as kind of shallow as it sounds, I was most worried about, kind of, what people were going to think when they looked at me. I was used to just kind of blending in, being just an ordinary student. So that was something that I really kind of had to conquer coming back. Kind of ignoring the stairs and trying to not think bad thoughts when I would notice people looking at me. But one thing that I'm thankful for is when people look at me, they see my dog Lassie more than they see the wheelchair so that kind of helps because it gives them a more positive response to, kind of, when they see us. So, yeah.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:11:12] So what would you say has been the biggest challenge then?

Mariel White [00:11:16] Other than that, it's really been my energy level. That was something I was really worried about coming back because I still have pretty bad fatigue. So learning to kind of balance my classes and just kind of my life outside of that, along with completely taking care of myself and getting around by myself, that's been difficult, but it's gone more smoothly than I thought.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:11:42] Yeah, and I know, like in your classes with your professors, you're not asking for additional accommodations.

Mariel White [00:11:49] I do have accommodations, but I kind of try not to use them, which is good and bad. It kind of pushes me to do it on my own. But I also kind of need to be careful not to overdo it. So sometimes it does really come in handy that I do have those accommodations, but I do try really hard to be just a normal student doing everything that everyone else is doing.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:12:12] It's there for the bad days.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:12:15] So Mariel, I know you found a mentor in Randy Wright at the College of Journalism and Communication as you explore your passion in sports. Can you talk about how that's going and what you've been working on in that world?

Mariel White [00:12:26] Yeah. So I've had some really great opportunities this semester and I'm really thankful for the help that he's given me. So I've interviewed almost all of the seniors from the gymnastics team and have been able to write features on them that have been published in the programs of the gymnastics meets. And one of them was actually put up on Twitter the other day because they were posting something about Sierra Alexander and kind of mentioned me in it to read the feature that I did. So that was really cool.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:12:58] That's exciting!

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:12:59] That is really cool. Are there other things that you're working on?

Mariel White [00:13:03] I volunteered with the Pro Bowl in January, so I actually did that trip totally on my own. I took a bus to Orlando because I can't drive because of my vision. But I booked a bus ticket, booked a hotel room, worked there two days and got some good experience before coming back to Gainesville, so that was cool. My main goal right now is focusing on my career path and what I kind of want to get involved with to see where I want my future to be, so that's a lot of what I'm working on right now.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:13:37] Well, we don't know what we're made of until we're tested and nobody knows better than you that it's our ability to handle what life throws at us that defines who we are. Did you know that you were this strong Mariel?

Mariel White [00:13:51] I always knew I was strong, but not this strong. It felt, kind of, easier because it wasn't thrown at me all at once. It was also, kind of, a slow transition from leaving school to being at home and being sick and trying to figure out what was going on. So in that time, I was able to kind of come to terms with my situation and realize that I was going to have to fight this no matter if I wanted to or not. It's something that you really have to take one day at a time because if you look ahead to the future, it's too overwhelming. You think this is gonna be the rest of my life, how am I going to do this? But if you take it one day at a time, like I just have to wake up tomorrow, I have to do this and this and then the day will be over, we'll move on to the next day.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:14:44] Well, Mariel, I have enjoyed getting to know you and just hearing your story and you are such an inspiration. So what would you say to other students who are facing challenges in their lives as well?

Mariel White [00:14:55] I encourage people to focus on what they're passionate about and work to be able to do that again. I realize over the months of getting back to who I am was that with each new thing that I learned, it made the next thing easier to do. Once I was able to sit up, it made it easier to get dressed and then once I was able to do that, it made it easier to do the next thing. So kind of built that momentum.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:15:23] Mariel White, thank you so much for joining us. You are truly an inspiration.

Mariel White [00:15:29] Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:15:36] Now that we know a lot more about her health and how she's overcome this, it's amazing to see her. We ran into each other on campus the other day, you know, and so to see her back on campus thriving and doing well and really not taking her diagnosis as a death sentence, because that's really what it could have been, it's outstanding. Her spirit, her ability to overcome, her willingness to share her story... It's beautiful. And it's a story of redemption.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:16:17] Yeah. I'm also super inspired by how she holds herself accountable and how she really stresses just being treated like any other student. And, you know, she's someone who has very visible disabilities as well as some that are invisible, like cognitive challenges and energy levels. So she's truly remarkable.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:16:36] I think it's amazing how you can approach challenges and have like a certain mindset that will help you accomplish things that most people might see as impossible.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:16:47] The same way that the sports world embodies perseverance and accountability, having these exact same qualities are going to take her a long way as she moves into her career in sports communication.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:16:57] I think so, too.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:17:01] This is Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:17:06] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:17:16] Unstoppable Minds is produced by Endeavor Content and Catherine Welch. Managing Producer Samantha Allison, Creative Development by 160over90 and Benjamin Riskin. Engineering and Post-Production by Ameeta Ganatra and Adam Allison.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:17:32] Unstoppable Minds, owned by the University of Florida, is created with many thanks to the talents of Alisson Cark, Emily Cardinali, Matthew Abramson, Brianne Lehan, Wise Clairvoyant and Brian Sandusky.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:17:45] If you like what you're hearing, please rate review and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more information about our show and the awesome professors at University of Florida by visiting our web site at ufl.edu/unstoppableminds. Until next time, go gators!

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Cast

  • Dr. Laura Guyer, faculty in the Center for Gender, Sexualities and Women’s Studies Research in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.
  • Dr. Kyla McMullen
  • Dr. Jeremy Waisome

Topics Covered

May 12, 2020 17:51 minutes

Episode 1: Unpacking Bias in Healthcare

Do you think everyone receives the same quality of care when they visit the doctor? According to professor Laura Guyer from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, not always. Hear how she leads the only undergraduate academic program in the country designed to teach students across disciplines how to address barriers and take on unseen bias in healthcare.

Episode Notes & Details

Show Notes

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:01] Welcome to Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida, looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia and research.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:00:11] I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen, an assistant professor of computer and information science and engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:18] And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome, a postdoctoral associate also here in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. We know quite well that science research, learning, it's all about trial and error. So we're sitting down with some of our colleagues here at UF who've stared down some pretty big challenges in the quest for knowledge.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:00:39] So this corona virus is really taxing our health care industry like nothing that's ever come before it. And I think it's something that we just were not prepared for as a country, as a world, honestly. And it makes me wonder what communities are most susceptible to the virus as a result of not really having access to the understanding of the impacts of what it can actually do. Like, I've learn things about viruses that, you know, I didn't learn in high school or college. It's super important that we expose people to health literacy so that they can make informed decisions about their health care.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:01:24] Thank goodness we have a UF faculty member here who has dedicated her research to making sure that people are educated and they know what's going on in the health care industry and they're filling these gaps of understanding.

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:01:37] My name is Dr. Laura Guyer and I'm a master lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Center for Gender Sexualities and Women's Studies Research. I'm also an adjunct associate professor in the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:01:59] So Jeremy, Laura actually leads a minor in health disparities in society, and it's the only program in the nation for undergraduates to learn about health disparities, cultural competency, health literacy. The overall goal for the program is for students to think about and consider the lives of people in marginalized communities and figure out a way to just help them and meet them where they are, explaining things in a healthcare setting so that people aren't just relying on information that they get from uncredible sources. You know, they're able to actually have information in an accessible way.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:02:36] I think it's interesting that there aren't more programs like this available to students across the country, because we know that there's marginalized communities all over the United States.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:02:49] And I would even think, too, that having this kind of minor, like since we're the only ones on an undergrad level, it probably encourages people who are from underserved populations to want to pursue health care background. That probably didn't consider it before. Yeah, absolutely. So, Laura. Who exactly are we talking about when we say marginalized communities?

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:03:16] So we're talking about populations that we don't often think about when we're setting the table: who are the people who are missing, perhaps people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community. We could think about those who practice minority religions. We can think about those from minority racial and ethnic communities. Also think about those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, disadvantaged communities.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:03:48] So what are the challenges that these groups face when it comes to health care?

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:03:52] Part of the difficulty is that as marginalized people, they're on the outskirts of society. They don't often understand their health. They may not have a strong background in science. They may not have strong literacy skills.

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:04:09] The other part of that is that we as health professionals aren't always trained to provide inclusive care. We don't learn how to provide health care for people with disabilities or members of the LGBTQ community.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:04:27] That's really interesting. I'm someone who's very educated and have my PHD engineering, but I'm a new mom. And as a black woman, you're probably very aware of the health disparities that exist with black maternal mortality rate. Absolutely. And I personally felt like I needed to advocate for myself because that disparity doesn't even have socioeconomic status or education level related to it. It's just a racial bias that exists. I can't imagine not knowing how to advocate for myself, what language to use and all of those things.

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:05:05] Well, and like you said, you're an educated person. The unfortunate reality is that we assume that educated people understand health. I can look at you. I can see you're an educated and intelligent person. You're nodding your head appropriately. I'm assuming that you're understanding the two questions that we ask that we should never ask. Number one, do you understand what I'm saying or what I've told you? Because adults will nod and say yes, even if they don't understand. The other terrible question that we often ask is, do you have any questions? The reason that's a terrible question is because if you don't understand your health well enough, you can't formulate a question. And when I ask you if you have a question and you say no. My assumption is I've done a good job when in fact, that's not at all the case. I'm the expert. I should be asking you the questions to verify that you understand.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:05:59] That's amazing. Yeah. That's something that I've ever thought about.

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:06:03] Well, the other point that you brought up that was really excellent - you said you had to learn to be an advocate for yourself. All of us need to be advocates for ourselves, even those of us like myself, who's a health professional. I need to be an advocate when I visit my physician, because my position is my position, the expert in medicine. But I'm the expert in my life. Right. And so I have information that if I don't know to advocate and share, my physician won't have time in the 15, 20 minutes dedicated to my appointment to think, to ask me everything that's important. So for me to learn how to be an effective advocate, that's something that I try to talk to my students about. I teach through the lens of the patient's experience because in medical school and dental school, pharmacy school, we will learn how to provide care for a variety of patients.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:06:58] It seems like part of the issue with patients' ability to advocate for themselves is whether or not they feel they can trust their doctors. There have been so many documented times in history where medicine has used black bodies, you know, for its own investment, like the Tuskegee experiment.

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:07:14] Absolutely.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:07:15] I know personally as a black woman, you know, my parents and their brothers and sisters to go to the doctor can be so challenging. What are some ways where you think we can start to rebuild that trust between minority groups and their doctors?

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:07:30] That is a terrific question. You know, we talk about implicit biases, those unconscious biases that all of us have. So health professionals have biases.

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:07:42] Patients also have biases. I do an activity with my students in class where I show them a picture of 16 random people and then I ask them to work in groups and tell me who do they think makes the highest income and who do they think lives in a rural community? And then when we finish the activity, finish talking about who we put where. And finish laughing. I remind them that every patient there going to see has had some kind of experience with health professionals. And it's good to ask, I think, if you want to build trust: tell me about the kinds of relationships you've had with your other physicians or other dentists.

Dr. Jeremy Waisome [00:08:24] Right. That's so great.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:08:27] So it sounds like better communication between the patient and the doctor is the first step to rebuilding that trust, which makes so much sense. I can also imagine that language and language barriers are a huge issue there. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Dr. Laura Guyer [00:08:41] That is such an interesting and current problem in health care. If you accept federal dollars ie. Medicare, Medicaid for payment, you must provide access to health care in the first language of the patient. Well, how do we do that in this country? We speak more than three hundred seventy five different languages besides English.

Dr. Kyla McMullen [00:09:02] Wow.

Jeremy Waisome [00:09:03] So what about like a percentage of the students who are enrolled who speak another language? Do you know what that is?\

Laura Guyer [00:09:09] I do. About sixty seven percent of the students speak a language other than English at home. We are 22 percent black and African-American. We are about a third first generation of college students. We are about a third immigrant. About a third first generation Americans. The students who self-select for the minor in health disparities are a very different group from the traditional undergraduate student at UF.

Jeremy Waisome [00:09:37] It sounds like it's hitting really close to home for those students.

Laura Guyer [00:09:40] Very close to home. Yes.

Jeremy Waisome [00:09:42] So even if the students are speaking English or the patients are speaking English. Medical instructions and health information aren't always written in the most accessible manner. So you have students who are enrolled in the minor and they're learning to write medical handouts. Is that right?

Laura Guyer [00:10:00] Yes. We're learning how to simplify medical concepts. We don't in health care often think about literacy as being something we should be concerned about. Right. With regard to the handouts that you were talking about, most are written at maybe the 12th grade level. Well, people don't read the same level of formal education. So if we have handouts that are written at the 12th grade level, that would require more than college education to read and understand. And again, remember, people don't understand their health. Right. So learning how to simplify handouts and take complex concepts and make them easy is really important.

Jeremy Waisome [00:10:40] So your career has really been balanced between academia and the health care system. That brings a really interesting perspective to this, like real world experiences that you can take into the classroom with you. How does your work in these two arenas influence each other?

Laura Guyer [00:10:58] So I teach the two courses that are the bookends for the minor in health disparities in society. I teach the cornerstone that you build everything on. And then the capstone is what holds everything together at the top of the arch right over the door.

Jeremy Waisome [00:11:13] You're speaking my language. I'm a civil engineer over here.

Laura Guyer [00:11:16] You shouldn't be talking about corner stones and caps. So in the capstone experience, I place students in 37 different community agencies locally that serve different populations with health disparities. We have some clinics that serve people who have low incomes who are uninsured or underinsured. Some agencies serve people in rural areas, some people with disabilities. It's really terrific that my work in the community has been able to inform my teaching because I've been fortunate to work in clinical care in a hospital. I have worked in public health and I've worked in academia. So being aware and having those relationships is what enables me to have a robust practicum program. I know those students are going to get an outstanding learning experience. And because I know the students, I know I'm sending to the agency students who are going to meet the needs of their agency.

Kyla McMullen [00:12:18] So speaking of your students, it it sounds like your program offers its students really robust training across all areas of health care. What kind of career paths have your students chosen after graduation?

Laura Guyer [00:12:29] It's really exciting to see where they're going. The majority of those who enroll in the minor and or take my courses are interested either in a health care profession or public health. Some are interested in health care administration. There are, again, several who are working in the community at the Latrobe County Health Department in different positions. Other students go into medicine. They go into pharmacy, dentistry. Some students have been interested in journalism and communications. I have about 5 percent who have gone to law school, so they go in all different directions.

Jeremy Waisome [00:13:08] What are you hearing not just from your current students, but also from past students? That gives you hope that this minor is having an impact or having the impact that you wanted to have.

Laura Guyer [00:13:18] They have names to explain what they've lived. Number one. Number two, all of them are going to be participating and receiving health care. So they are learning to become more effective advocates for themselves. And on behalf of their family members, those who do go into health professions do enter with a more solid foundation. They really are more advanced. They've only learned concepts as undergraduates, but they've had experience working with the communities that are underserved. And I'm seeing more students gravitate toward areas of medicine that are related to primary care, such as family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, maybe emergency medicine, OBGYN, dentistry. So I'm I'm seeing students move into areas where they can use the information that really influenced the direction of their careers in their undergraduate years.

Kyla McMullen [00:14:21] So, Laura, right now, U.S. is the only institution offering this kind of program to undergraduates, teaching them how to close the gap around health disparities, cultural competencies, and health literacy. So what would be the impact of health care for marginalized communities if this was offered at most colleges and universities?

Laura Guyer [00:14:38] We would build a better medical student, a better dental student, a better graduate student, and they in turn would go on to be better professionals. And the idea is that if we can lay a stronger foundation at the undergraduate years in social and behavioral sciences, like we do in basic science, why don't we prescribe learning about the social determinants of health and about cultural competence and about literacy and health literacy, like we prescribe learning about chemistry and biology and anatomy and physiology.

Jeremy Waisome [00:15:16] That's so great.

Kyla McMullen [00:15:17] I love that. Dr. Laura Guyer, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you.

Jeremy Waisome [00:15:34] I don't know that as a student, you know, you choose your major, you decide like, I want to pursue this. And oftentimes, it can be one course that changes the trajectory of your future, and my expectation is that, of course, like health disparities in society might do just that. These students who are coming from disciplines all over our campus are now deciding to join that frontline and to really make a difference for marginalized communities.

Kyla McMullen [00:16:08] Yeah, that's so true. You get these classes that open your eyes to something that you had no idea even existed or was an issue. A lot of times we just learn the what in undergrad and not the who and the why and who this impacts and why it's important for society and the broader picture.

Jeremy Waisome [00:16:24] Yeah. And right now the who is really apparent. Right. Because all of us are so deeply impacted by what's going on beyond the confines of our campuses. And I mean, most of us aren't even on our campuses anymore.

Kyla McMullen [00:16:36] Yeah, that's one of the real values of the program.

Kyla McMullen [00:16:41] This is Unstoppable Minds, a podcast out of the University of Florida. I'm Dr. Kyla McMullen. And I'm Dr. Jeremy Waisome. Thanks for joining us.

Kyla McMullen [00:16:55] Unstoppable Minds is produced by Endeavor Content and Catherine Welch, managing producer Samantha Allison, creative development by 160 Over 90 with Benjamin Riskin, engineering and post-production by Ameeta Ganatra and Adam Allison.

Jeremy Waisome [00:17:11] Unstoppable Mines owned by the University of Florida is created with many thanks to the towns of Alisson Clark, Emily Cardinali, Matthew Abramson, Brianne Lehan, Wise Clairvoyant and Brian Sandusky.

Kyla McMullen [00:17:25] If you like what you're hearing, please rate review and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more information about our show and the awesome professors at University of Florida by visiting our web site at UFL.edu/unstoppableminds. Until next time, go gators.

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Cast

Cast

  • Dr. Kyla McMullen, assistant professor in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering's Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering.
  • Dr. Jeremy Waisome, postdoctoral associate in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering's Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering.

Topics Covered

May 12, 2020 1:40 minutes

Unstoppable Minds Trailer

Listen to the breakthroughs and backstories of the people powering real world change from the University of Florida. Hosted by Dr. Kyla McMullen and Dr. Jeremy Waisome from the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering's Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering.

Episode Notes & Details

Show Notes

Hi, I’m Dr. Jeremy Waisome

And I’m Dr. Kyla McMullen

Together we host Unstoppable Minds: a new podcast from the University of Florida looking at the challenges and triumphs that come with a life in academia.

We’re sitting down with students and professors to hear about the unstoppable things they’re doing to combat the world’s most formidable foes. Challenges like preventing brain trauma.

“And we want to develop unique features inside of the helmet to be to stop this energy that’s going through the helmet, through the skull, through the brain…”

Unpacking bias in medicine. “You know we talk about implicit biases, those unconscious biases that all of us have, so health professionals have biases. Patients also have biases.” Reversing childhood blindness and drilling into Antarctic ice in search for hidden life. “You can have all the planning that, um, you could possibly do, and still get there and the weather shut you down.”

And as the coronavirus has turned the world upside down, these stories of unstoppable achievers will uplift and inspire in this time. When it feels like our lives are in flux. So be on the lookout for the premier of unstoppable minds.

You can find us at ufl.edu/unstoppableminds. Or subscribe to our show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening right now.

Unstoppable minds. Questioning everything. Redefining impossible.

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