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Amanda Bradley is a PhD candidate in molecular and cell biology. Richard Gardner, PhD, is her mentor. We sat down for a conversation with the two researchers, who received a Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The fellowship’s purpose? To foster diversity and inclusion in the sciences.
UW Medicine. Why are you two committed to diversity?
Amanda Bradley. I don’t see enough people like me. That’s why I’m so passionate about diversity in the sciences. I was one of only three Black people in the room when I was graduating from the Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate Program. My friend from Zimbabwe and I were just looking at each other like, this is uncomfortable.
Richard Gardner. One of the things that science has suffered from for a very long time is that there is a very set group of stereotypical people — old White males — who are in it. Science only thrives when there are diverse thoughts, opinions and backgrounds.
UWM. How did you hear about the fellowship?
Bradley. A classmate on Facebook messaged me and said, “Have you ever heard of the Gilliam Fellowships? I think you’d be really great and you should apply.” I looked it up and saw that I had to be nominated, so I emailed Rich.
Gardner. Both of us were super-interested in the fellowship because it actually melds both of our scientific interests with our desire to help increase diversity in the STEM fields.
UWM. What are you two working on?
Gardner. We study how proteins misfold. A protein will adopt a certain structure that will give it properties so that it can do its normal functions in a cell. But stuff happens in life, and proteins will, all of a sudden, lose their structure. Just like we all lose our cool sometimes! Some of these aberrant proteins underlie diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s; others do functional things.
Bradley. And specifically, I study how environmental stressors affect how proteins misfold and how that affects the cells in your body. The two stressors that I’m most interested in are ethanol stress, which can result from heavy alcohol consumption, and hyperosmotic stress, which can result from a high-salt diet.
Gardner. To think of it another way — what happens when you stay in the ocean for too long? Prune fingers! Because you’re in a high-salt environment, the water is getting sucked out of your body, and that’s causing stress in your cells. Basically, our cells experience stress all the time in many different ways.
Bradley. Right! And by understanding the signaling mechanism with which cells respond to stress a little bit better, we’ll improve our understanding of many other fields. For example, think about cancer and how cancer cells respond to stress. Just thinking about the mechanisms behind it is fascinating.
UWM. How is the Gilliam Fellowship helping you, Amanda?
Bradley. The fellowship allows me to do experiments that I otherwise would not be able to do. It also fosters important collaborations and connections. For example, I’m traveling to Sweden soon for the International Yeasts Conference in Molecular Biology and Genetics.
Gardner. So, imagine the yeast you can find in a grocery store. Then imagine a bunch of yeast biologists sitting around a table, talking about how we can use it as a model organism to study human disease. That’s what the conference is like.
UWM. How about you, Rich?
Gardner. It’s helping me become a better mentor. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has a yearly symposium in September for mentor training. I used to think I was a good mentor, but then you go through these workshops, and you see there is a lot of room for improvement.
UWM. Let’s talk about roles…
Bradley. I feel like Rich and I have a dynamic relationship. I like that he lets me explore things on my own and allows me to come to him with questions. I picked Rich to be my adviser because we both started graduate school at age 28. He understood me having spent time out in the world.
Gardner. While technically I’m Amanda’s mentor, the way I like to run my lab is that graduate students are my new colleagues, and they’re going to be part of the future of science. So, yes, we’re in a mentor-mentee relationship, but I don’t think that’s as important as being able to share similar life situations and talk about struggles.
UWM. Last words?
Gardner. Having Amanda in the lab helps bring a different perspective to our projects. And being able to work through the tough times, which always happen in science, builds communication. Research gets better the more you communicate, and the fellowship has really been helping us do this even more.
Bradley. Ideally, in the future, I’d like to be tenure-track faculty somewhere. Perhaps even a director of a program, like Rich. Wherever I end up, I’ll definitely create space for a more diverse student body — so there can be more than three of us in the room.