The Fever Effect
Margot: Hello everyone. You may have noticed that it has been a while since Rad Scientist has been in your feeds. And that’s because I was busy getting this thing done: [play clip of end of thesis] Yes, I successfully defended my neuroscience PhD over Zoom which in the end turned out to be a good thing because my cat could make it and I think he was proud of me. As soon as I graduated, I started working on season three. And I brought on an assistant producer. I want to introduce you to her because she is going to pop in here and there, helping me present this season. Ikran: Hello! I’m Ikran Ibrahim, a Somali American and native San Diegan and I’m currently a rising senior at UCSD studying biochemistry and Cell biology. Margot: Favorite mode of transportation? Ikran: Definitely the four wheeled skateboarding. I enjoy it so much. Margot: A true San Diegen. Coolest research you’ve done? Ikran: Definitely has to be some Mass Spec instrumentation I’ve used at the Prather lab on campus. Margot: Nice. Aspirations? Ikran: Currently and I’m trying to stay stagnant with this, attending an MD/PhD program. Margot: Wait, stagnant - you mean like steady? Ikran: Yea I want to stick with it. Margot: And how did we meet? Ikran: I first approached you about working on the podcast at the end of season two and we got together for some coffee. Man, do you remember when drinking coffee inside a cafe was actually a thing to do? Margot: Nope, sadly can’t fully remember how joyous things were pre-COVID19. And really the circumstances of this time is what drove the idea for season three. For one, there was this pandemic happening that was - is disproportionately affecting people of color. Secondly, a social movement was brewing in response to the many senseless police shootings of Black people. It was a reckoning for many white people, like myself, who had been on the sidelines of social justice - complicit with the status quo that ultimately benefits us. Ikran: Yea, not so much a reckoning for me and my Black peers, we’ve seen this happen over and over again. But at the same time, it does seem to be opening up a lot more conversations about racism in realms where they haven’t happened as much before, like in academia. For instance there’s the hashtag #BlackIntheIvory where a lot of Black academics, Blackademics, have been sharing their first hand experiences of racism in the ivory towers. Margot: Yea- we like to think of science as not being biased, right? Like because our methods themselves are meant to help us get to the truth without bias, that the endeavor itself, the institution of science and thus the scientists is also without bias. Ikran: Right, but who gets to do the science - who decides what we study and how we study it? Humans are the practitioners of science and humans are biased whether conscious of it or not. Margot: It doesn't take a deep dive into the history of science to see the ways in which science was sometimes used to justify racism and to use the Black and Brown folks as unwilling or unwitting test subjects. Ikran: Take the Tuskegee syphilis study, Henrietta Lacks, experiments done on Black Slaves by the “father of modern gynecology” as he unfortunately called sometimes. Margot: But some may say, well that was the past. We don't do those kinds of things anymore. Ikran: You would hope, but this still happening today- for instance science that conflates genetic differences with social inequalities - still being published. Even more than that are all of the studies that might not happen - because Black folks aren't represented equally in science - they don't get to use the power of science to study the things they - that we- care about. Margot: So this season, we are going to hear from Black scientists at different stages in their careers who study bacteria in bugs, botany, birds, brains. Ikran: I like the alliteration. We are going to talk about their science, but also about what it’s been like, being Black in largely white academic spaces. Experiences that have made some of them question their future in science, and some that may have contributed to them leaving academia. Margot: And we don’t want to just hear their stories. We want to better understand how racism affects the lack of representation of Black scientists, so the last episode will be looking at why STEM isn’t recruiting and retaining Black folks and how we can proceed to make science more equitable. Ikran: Wow that’s been a lot of talking Margot. Maybe we should get to our first Rad Scientist? Margot: You’re right Ikran. Let’s do this. Today’s Rad Scientist is Melonie Vaughn, an Afro-Latina who realized in college that science was for her. Melonie: Working at a university, being a professor, all of that sounds awesome. Margot: But she found the lack of scientists that look like her both challenging and disheartening. Melonie: I don’t want to be the first or second Black woman to do anything in 2020. Margot: Stick around because… Melonie: This is Rad Scientist. ______________________________________________________________ Margot: Melonie Vaughn’s journey as a scientist began as many of ours does, with the question “why”. Melonie: I just always really wanted to understand why do some people struggle with certain aspects of their behavior, whether it's like compulsive behaviors or uh, intrusive thoughts and obsessions, or just depressive behaviors. I think growing up, it was a lot of just, you know, Oh, my mom is like tired all the time and doesn't want to leave her room and. Doesn't want to eat or, you know, my dad like has these bursts of, you know, like aggression or anxiety. And I don't really understand, like, what is triggering him or what's wrong with him. Margot: Those were behaviors that she observed in her family.Her dad was diagnosed with PTSD from his time serving in the military. Her mom was experiencing bouts of depression, which Melonie would later experience firsthand. And her brother was having trouble as well. Melonie: I always knew my brother was sensitive to certain things like loud sounds, my brother didn't like going places. He didn't really like change. And he had some difficulties in school that I just didn't really understand. And my parents always told me that I had to look out for my brother because there were just certain things that I was better at. Like I just kind of grasp things easier in life. Margot: He was diagnosed with autism in elementary school. It added to her curiosity about the brain and behavior. Like.. Melonie: Why things were so much more difficult for him or why we were so different, even though we were siblings and I experienced the world one way and he experiences the world in a very different way? Margot: She didn’t really know what to do with her curiosity until she got to Harvard Melonie: I didn't even really know that doing research was possible for someone like me. Margot: She landed an internship sophomore year to go to Spain and do research on anxiety disorders. It was a watershed moment for her. It was unlike any work she had done before. Melonie: I've worked a couple of different kinds of jobs in my life. I've been a bartender and I've worked in retail. I even worked as a janitor for the school for a bit. I never was excited to get out of bed and go to work the way that I was when I was living in Spain and knew that when I got to my job, I would be doing actual scientific research that might one day help somebody. Margot: When she returned from her magical summer abroad, she immediately joined a lab at Harvard that was studying the very thing her brother was diagnosed with. And she was studying a strange phenomenon that had been reported in autistic people, the fever effect. Melonie: So it's been self-reported by parents and by people with autism for many, many years, people on the autism spectrum, when they developed a fever about 20% of the time, they saw a reduction in their autism related symptoms. So no matter how high the fever was, or whether the children were sick with bacteria or viral infections, you saw this same kind of symptom reduction across the children with fevers. So it was just crazy and not very well understood. Margot: Melonie wanted to understand why this might be happening. A lot of times when you want to get to the nitty gritty of a disease and look inside the brain, you can’t use humans, you have to use animal models like mice. But, how do you even go about studying something like autism in a mouse? Melonie: Obviously you can't really give a mouse autism in the way that a human has autism per se. But what we try to do is imitate autism linked genes in these mice. And then we look for behaviors that are similar to, or may. In part replicate what we observe and the human population. Melonie worked with mice that had human linked autism mutations and observed their behavior. She tested if their behavior was altered by these mutations. Would they act like un-mutated mice also known as “wild-type” mice or would they display behaviors that are reminiscent of autism-like behaviors? What she saw? Melonie: They just did not prefer to be around other mice, even if in terms of fighting or just like interacting at all, they just didn't touch each other. Whereas in normal wild type mice, you usually see that when you put two of them in the cage, especially two males, the first thing they want to do is sniff each other, check, check the other mouse out, and then sometimes they do attack, obviously. Margot: So yes, the mice seemed to display some autistim-like behaviors. That's a good first step. The next question was, would the autism-like behaviors go away with a fever, just like had been observed in humans. To answer that, Melonie would induce fevers in the mice by injecting a non-lethal foreign agent. Melonie: What you get is a robust immune response - fever, lethargie. Margot: So you have these mice before fever hanging out on opposite sides of the cages, avoiding other mice. Give them an injection, wait till a fever develops, and see what happens. And there was a dramatic shift in behavior. Melonie: Increased like sniffing, chasing each other around - in some cases, they would actually cuddle together and like sleep next to each other and this was while they had a fever. So they were also sick. So we were pretty excited about the social behavior changes, because this is obviously, this is one of the main components of Autism Spectrum Disorder. So we then turn to try and see what's really going on in the brain during these fevers. And what we found was really cool. Margot: It has to do with a part of the brain called the hypothalamus that is known to be important in regulating all sorts of bodily functions including immunity. The weird part was what the some of the brain cells located in the hypothalamus, responsible for kicking off the immune response, were also releasing a special chemical – a substance that is sometimes reductively is referred to as the “love molecule.” Melonie: Oxytocin. It kind of doesn't make sense. So we decided to look into that. Margot: It turns out that this Oxytocin released in the hypothalamus could explain the increase in sociability of the autism model mice when they were given fevers. Melonie: Obviously we can't just go around giving children with autism fevers all the time , but potentially if you're able to activate these oxytocin cells, Without actually needing a robust immune response That could be one way that some of these findings might be able to be used in humans. Because as of right now, there is no FDA approved medication to treat autism. Margot: Apart from being a super interesting research finding that had translational potential and for a disease so close to Melonie’s heart, it really solidified Melonie’s identity as a scientist. Melonie: I realized that I really could do this and I could be a scientist and I was a good one. Margot: I’m back again with Ikran, assistant producer. Ikran: Hi. Margot: So, what did you think about Melonie’s transition into science? Did it like resonate with you at all? Did you have a similar come to moment where you were like I need to do science, this is my life now. Ikran: Absolutely, mine hit me sometime sophomore year after being crushed by the O Chem and Gen Chem series, but after my first A on a midterm, I was like nah, I can do this Margot: And like here you are about to graduate in a year. Ikran: Just a few more courses. Margot: Yeah! Well, we'll hear what happened to Melonie after she graduates, after a short break Ikran: And, at the end of the episode, stick around for a vocab lesson... from me. ______________________________________________________________ Margot: Ok so, Melonie was gung-ho about science, but grad school seemed out of her reach at first… for financial reasons…. Melonie: It wasn't until I was actually talking to people in the lab that had PhDs. That I realized that you'll actually get paid to go to graduate school and you don't pay then and you get a stipend and it's okay. And I'd be able to survive. Margot: So the next step was applications and interviews. And she saw a pattern at the Universities that she visited. Melonie: They were lacking in diversity to say the least a lot of the programs. I didn't find anyone that really looked like me. Margot: Her Alma Mater tried recruiting her to their program..with a less than appealing pitch. Melonie: I was actually told that I would be the second black woman ever to go to the Harvard neuroscience graduate program. I don't want to be the first or second black woman to do anything in 2020. While obviously breaking those barriers and being a trailblazer at that level is important and someone needs to do that. I just felt like the burden of obtaining a PhD as a black woman in academia is hard enough without me being the kind of token diversity that they think is going to come in and change their program. Margot: In the end she chose the UC San Diego neuroscience graduate program (full disclosure – that’s the program I just graduated from. And the vibe she got from San Diego itself played a big role in her decision. Melonie: So I found that UCSD's campus was a lot more diverse, probably in part by the location being in somewhere like San Diego, where there's a huge immigrant community. I felt a lot more comfortable walking around the streets of San Diego than I did in Boston. And also the people that I met that were already in the program just seemed a lot happier with their experiences, especially the people of color that were in the program. Margot: The reality of being in the program though was a bit different – mostly having to do with one incident. Melonie: So in one of my classes that the first years all have to take,it's kind of like a lecture series type class where there's a different professor that presents every time. One of the professors who was giving a lecture, made several racist comments that were anti-Black and anti-Asian in nature . And the way that he was framing these comments was in an almost scientific way, which was very upsetting to say the least. I think that that kind of behavior and that kind of rhetoric should never be accepted. And I was extremely disappointed with the initial response that the program had when me and a couple other students of color went and talk to the administration about what had happened. We weren't really met with the kind of support that we needed. Margot: It was pretty upsetting for many of the students. They pushed back and asked the administration to take a firmer stance on what happened. And this time they were met with more support. Melonie: After those events have occurred, I have noticed a shift in the faculty and the administration, and a lot more has been done to listen to the students of color. And I've been able to push for a lot of reforms and changes to the neuroscience program that I think were really necessary. Margot: There were many meetings discussing how to prevent issues like that in the future and make sure that the administration was ready to hear students should something like this happen again. They came up with two main commitments. The first was a climate statement, written by students and administration that can be signed and will appear on the program website. And also the commitment to make a new hire for the department – a Director of Graduate Student Diversity, Recruitment, Advocacy and Retention who would have many roles. Melonie: Like Leading a racial bias and sensitivity training for all faculty and students organizing something where students of color, who faced bias or discrimination or harassment can go and either anonymously or at whatever level, they feel comfortable actually report to someone who can then give them the resources they need to address it. Margot: To be clear, there is an office at UCSD that handles reports for harassment and discrimination, but their definitions only allow for rather severe forms of behavior. Melonie: Like, “Oh, I didn't get hired because I'm a certain skin color,” things like that. But we all know that that is not where racism stops. Racism is also the comments that occur when you're in lab. And someone is like touching your hair, or someone makes a comment about your religion or your sexuality and things like that. Things like that they really hurt the racial climate. Margot: While Melonie and other graduate students have been able to already push for change in the neuroscience graduate school, it couldn’t happen without the director and assistant director of the program on board. It’s likely a change they wouldn’t have thought of to make either. Melonie: You have students of color, but you have no one with power that is of color. And when you have such a power imbalance, it becomes difficult to enact any sort of change within the community because the voices who are calling for change are at the bottom of the totem pole. If my administration did not think that racism was an issue. Then no matter how many protests I hold or how many speeches I give, well, how many petitions I sign? I cannot accomplish these things without having a white ally. And no matter how much I advocate for the need for these things, if the white people in charge decide it's not important to them, then nothing gets done. Margot: And that’s a big problem with many academic institutions. The people at the top are overwhelmingly White. Melonie: I think that part of the way that we're going to enact real change is by getting black women, black men, indigenous people, Afro Latinas, indigenous Latinas, actually in charge of some of these programs and give the power to the people who are experiencing the oppression the most, Margot: And one day that could be Melonie. She could be the professor or director that enacts that changes. But she isn’t sure if in the end, the cost of getting there is worth it. Melonie: Working at a university, being a professor, all of that sounds awesome. Hopefully like I'd be able to have some power. I'd be able to help younger students like myself, get involved and like, learn about science and see themselves in science, Oh, I don't know. The road to academia is extremely difficult for people that look like me and I am hyper aware of that. I'm not sure if dedicating so many years of my life to an academic institution that doesn't care about me is the correct way for me to go. Margot: All of this work that the neuroscience program has been doing to change the culture and the systems in place started months before the recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Tayler, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. And with these events and the ensuing outcry from protestors came equal measures of trauma, frustration, and tentative hope. Melonie: I think that it has inspired some more people to help enact change and to reach out and see what they can do. But at the same time as a black person, seeing these events and these protests and taking apart in these protests is extremely traumatic and it affects every aspect of your life to see someone that looks like you to see someone that looks like your father, your brother, your Tias, your Tios, your Primos on TV being murdered over and over again. It shouldn't take such, such in your face instances of violence against black people, for you to have empathy for them. I'm just tired all the time. I'm tired, I'm sad. And I'm angry. Margot: This year has been a tough one for Melonie – first year of graduate school is stressful enough without being compounded by issues of racism and of course COVID19. But she has been taking the extra time and space that the lockdown has afforded her to do something that refuels her and makes her feel connected with her heritage. She puts paint to canvas – recreating the Panamanian flag, or pollera - ruffled skirts and blouses that Panamanian women wear during festivities. Melonie: For me, being a Panamanian is something that I have the most pride in and being a black Panamanian specifically is a great source of pride for me. And when I paint these pieces about my country, I feel connected to my ancestors and I feel connected to my culture. I'm a descendant of slavery. And to think about the things that my ancestors went through and the things that they were able to survive. It gives me strength sometimes to know that those ancestors are still with me and they had an incredible amount of resiliency and an incredible amount of strength and they endured something no one should ever have to go through. And I feel like sometimes through my paintings, I'm able to connect with them more. whenever I'm feeling like hopeless or sad, or like, I can't do it anymore, I will talk to them. And just sit with them. I'll light a candle and just speak to them. And I know that their spirits hear me, and I know that their spirits are able to heal me. and they're able to comfort me cause I always feel better after I do it. Margot: That’s it for this episode of Rad Scientist, but before we go, here is a new segment we are doing to end each show where Ikran schools you with a vocab lesson. Here’s a word you need … to know today, with Ikran Ibrahim. Ikran: The word you need to know is “minority tax” aka the ‘cultural tax’ is a term used to denote the ‘tax’ of extra, and typically uncompensated, responsibilities and expectations placed on minority faculty, staf, and students ( basically anybody in a position that has a very low representation of minorities ) as a poor solution to achieve more diversity within that institution ( whether a university or cooperation). Such individuals are still expected to fulfill their original roles to the T amongst these responsibilities. Thanks for listening. Margot: Rad Scientist is produced and written by me, Margot Wohl. The Assistant producer is Ikran Ibrahim, and Alisa Barba is the editor. Our theme guitar riff is by Grant Fisher, logo is by Kyle Fischer, no relation. Additional music was by Podington Bear, Lee Rosevere, and Blue Note Sessions. At KPBS Emily Jankowski is technical director, Kinsee Morlan is podcast coordinator, Lisa Jane Morrissette is operations manager, and John Decker is director of programming. This show is made possible in part by the KPBS Explore Local Content Fund. Until next episode, stay Rad. On the next episode you’ll meet Daril Brown. Daril: I am a Black engineering researcher. I can’t just be an engineering researcher because everything I do and experience will be through that lens. Margot: Coming in two weeks.