Pathways: The Professor And The Proteins
Rad Scientist / November 25, 2020
Gentry Patrick was born in South Central Los Angeles to a 16-year-old single mother. Through grit, serendipity, mentorship, and wits, he went on to study science at some of the most reputable institutions and ultimately earned his doctoral degree and landed a job as a professor of biology at UC San Diego. There he studies how proteins in the brain get recycled while also paving the way for underserved students to follow in his footsteps.
Gentry’s Convocation Speech [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeboCHowDFM]
PATHways to STEM homepage [https://paths.ucsd.edu/]
Message from Gentry as Director of Mentorship and Diversity for Biological Sciences [https://biology.ucsd.edu/diversity/directors-message.html]
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Margot: Ikran, I thought today we could start with a clip of our guest.
Ikran: Ooo. Something different, let’s do it.
Gentry Convocation Speech: Fear, angst, ego, imposter, struggle.
Margot: That’s Dr. Gentry Patrick speaking at UC San Diego’s 2019 convocation laying out the emotions that the newcomers might feel that he felt throughout his education and journey to becoming a professor of neurobiology at UCSD.
Gentry Convocation Speech: Failure, disbelief, hope, strength, truth, empathy, love, joy, creativity, innovation.
Margot: So do you know him?
Ikran: Um-hmm. He’s dope. The minute I end up hearing there is a Black professor in Biology, I’m like, “Okay, Hello, my name is Ikran Ibrahim.” [Laugh] I heard his story somewhere and I was just really really really impressed because it reminded me so much of my upbringing and what I had to face. So I emailed him and we talked about, more about himself and a little more about me, he was very inquisitive.
Ikran: And even just seeing him made me look up to him in a lot of ways – like he’s here – I actually belong in this space.
Margot: Gentry was the assistant director of my neuroscience doctorate program for while I was there and I mostly knew him because he used to DJ our retreat parties.
Ikran: [laugh] Oh my god.
Margot: Which I thought was pretty cool, but I never really knew his story until now.
Gentry Convocation Speech: So as I pondered what I might say to you all today, It occurred to me that I might simply speak to myself as a freshman in 1988, who had recently left home to attend college and embark on a lifelong journey, a journey of the unknown, full of fear and hope. A journey. That would be my story, a story worth telling and a power within.
Margot: Stay with us because…
Gentry: This is Rad Scientist.
Gentry: Okay, we're recording. All right.
Margot: Gentry Patrick and I speak over zoom where he sits in front of the spires of Wakanda, the fictional land home to the Marvel superhero Black Panther. It’s his zoom background. We’re reminiscing about a time before COVID. When you could gather the whole incoming class of a university in one space to listen to an inspirational speech.
Gentry: It was a little daunting up there.
Margot: He’s up on a big stage behind a wooden dais, with big screens projecting his face. And, like always, he is dapper.
Gentry: I had a suit jacket on - blue of course. I like colors. And I had just got a fresh cut. So I had a nice faux-hawk going. I was rocking that and I just looked out at the crowd and I just knew that it was almost like I was talking to one person.
Margot: Giving the convocation speech – becoming a tenured professor of neurobiology and the director of mentorship and diversity for the biological sciences – these were successes that he couldn’t have imagined for himself as a kid.
Gentry Convocation Speech: To give you some context, let me tell you a bit about who Gentry was back then and the serendipitous journey that brought me to this stage today. Gentry was born in 1970 in South Central Los Angeles to a single mother of age 16 and was the first to attend college in his family.
Gentry: Where I grew up, it was, um, NWA’s first album cover at Colin P. Kelly Park. And, uh, and I lived around the corner from that.
Margot: If you don’t know NWA, you may know some of its early members: Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, or Ice Cube. And that part of Compton was home to gangs like the Kelly Park Compton Crips.
Gentry: You know there were a lot of drugs and gangs where I grew up and I have several family members who've been murdered, cousins are in jail. The system just caught up, you know.
Margot: But his neighborhood was also filled with families that looked out for each other.
Gentry: My family members and friends in the neighborhood were very, very protective of me. I’m not sure why when I think about it. There's no reason a priori for them to say, “Hey, Gentry, you're the smart one, you might go do something with your life”. They had no idea what I would do.
Margot: Maybe it was his smarts. He always did well in school.
Gentry: I was kind of a nerd. I was a nerd.
Margot: He went to a magnet school in Watts that specialized in medicine and science and he had hopes of one day helping people in his community by being a doctor and serving those without quality healthcare. When it came time to think about college, Gentry had his eyes set on one school in particular.
Gentry: I applied to school and I realized, “Oh, I only have enough money to apply to one school. Oh, I want to go to Berkeley.”
Margot: He only applied to one school!!
Gentry: Luckily I, they took me or else, you know, we wouldn't be here today.
Margot: He packed up his stuff, and moved up north. And he thought that things up north would be really different from where he grew up. In some ways that was true, in other ways, not so much.
Gentry: You know, I'm coming from South Central LA and I show up at Berkeley. And while you might think it's nothing but flower childs and everyone wants to sit down at the table and is able to contribute to society and the community. Nah. There was a lot of things like police brutality, there were lots of racist incidents at Berkeley back then.
Margot: Despite that disappointing reality, Gentry got settled in quickly. He found friends with similar interests – people that liked music as much as he did.
Gentry: Part of a little DJ collective. We were called B Eazy and we danced and we, like, we were like a little crew, uh, of rapper dancers.
Margot: And he got a job to support himself, working at a government agency called the EDD – The Employment Development Department.
Gentry: So I had a job there giving out summer jobs to other people.
Margot: He’s divvying out jobs. “Why don’t you apply to this landscaping position.” “I think you’d do well working at this hotel.” But then, a job came across his desk. It wasn’t glamorous, but it paid pretty well. Better than his current position.
Gentry: A job came through for washing dishes at a laboratory and I set myself on that interview.
Margot: He got the job and he was like, “See ya EDD, I’m gonna go rinse these flasks for the big bucks.” What this job would be more than a summer position – he’d stay there throughout college often working full time on top of school. And he wouldn’t only wash dishes – he’d get to help with experiments and he’d learn from the other lab members about the world of research.
Gentry: As far as academia, education and science, I didn't understand any of that back then,
Margot: Gentry still applied to medical school come senior year. And, although he interviewed at a few schools, he wasn’t accepted.
Gentry: And I'm like, well, I like molecules. I like proteins.
Margot: Gentry thought, maybe I want to research anyways and learn more about proteins. He remembered hearing about the Research Training Program at the University of California San Francisco that funded two minority students to do research and get their masters in biochemistry and biophysics. So he applied. But there was a small problem. Gentry had a low GPA.
Gentry: I think I had like a 2.1 or 2.2, but I had good MCAT scores.
Margot: Even though he had done really well on his MCAT, a notoriously difficult standardized test, it was hard for the program to look past his grades.
Gentry: I assumed that admissions committees just said, this guy is smart, but he doesn't know what he wants to do. He's just lazy or something.
Margot: If lazy were working basically a full time job while completing pre med courses, sure. But Gentry also felt like he was missing a network to lean on for academic support.
Gentry: I just didn't have the stability to understand where I needed to go. I didn't have the right mentors.
Margot: Gentry got word that the program wasn’t going to take him. So he made a phone call to the head of the program, Dr. John Watson.
Gentry: Dr. Watson. You got to give me a chance.
Gentry as Dr. Watson: I don't know. I, you know, your, your grades.
Gentry: Dr. Watson, I promise you, if you give me a chance, I will not disappoint you. Please give me a chance. I know that this is what I'm supposed to do.
Margot: It worked! Ultimately, Dr. Watson decided to accept Gentry into the program.
Gentry: And to this day we laugh. He's like, what if I had said no? You know what if I had said no.
Margot: Because this experience ultimately launched his scientific career. After the program, he got into Harvard’s neuroscience doctorate program, then went on to Postdoc at Caltech. At each stage, from masters to PhD to postdoctoral fellowship, he had mentors that built him up – they were all women.
Gentry: And so those three women scientists played a major role. They showed me what real grit looks like. They showed me how to not take no for an answer. And, uh, they also promoted me. They were advocates.
Margot: Gentry feels like there were many people along the way that had his back. He recalled this one time he was flying in to give a talk at an east coast meeting. And a senior member of his field, Harvard professor Alfred Goldberg, was giving the keynote and needed a ride.
Gentry: And, uh, he’s like, “Gentry, why don't you fly in and pick me up. I have to give the keynote speech for this meeting that night, and then I can finish my talk in the backseat while you drive.”
Margot: So Gentry is driving while Alfred is finetuning his presentation in the back, when Gentry notices flashing lights.
Gentry: We're almost there. I pull up to a light cop, pulls me over. He comes up to the window, you know, and he kind of unclips his gun. And I know, you know, I have street smarts and book smarts, so I know that I, how I'm going to handle the situation. No, sir. I'm sorry, whatever, regardless, I'm not going to like, try to blow the spot up.
Gentry: And he's talking into the back to this famous, famous scientist, sir. Are you okay? Are you in distress? Do you need help?
Margot: It’s at this point that both Gentry and Alfred realize why they’ve been pulled over. Gentry is staying calm – you know, not blowing up the spot. Alfred on the other hand is not keeping his cool.
Gentry: He really got upset and he was like, This is complete racial profiling and he got out of the car and I was like, please get back in the car. I can't show up at this meeting and say that the keynote speaker is now in jail, you know?
Margot: The cop lets them go, they get to the conference, and Alfred goes up to the stage for the keynote.
Gentry: What was interesting is that he brought it up during a speech during his talk, right? He's like, this is what happened. And I want you guys to know that this is not okay.
Margot: Gentry was wrapping up his postdoctoral fellowship and started hunting for jobs as a professor.
Gentry: I took a job at UCSD not only because it's a great community here of neuroscientists, but because they gave me a job, let's be honest. I didn't know how to like wheel and deal and figure out the best package for me. I was just like, are you kidding me? I'm this kid from the inner city. And now I have a job as a professor.
Margot: I’m back with Ikran. So the main thing that I took away from Gentry’s story is that it really took a lot of support from family, neighbors, and mentors to pave the way for his success.
Ikran: It really does just take one or two people to take a chance on you to succeed sometimes -- you know to see your potential and understand your circumstances and now that you have so much more in you. Personally, I’m very lucky I have multiple mentors who really do push me to do better and constantly reach out and constantly check in with me. But, the earliest example of someone really seeing that potential and wanting me to do better is a biology professor here at UCSD, Sarah Stockwell. First time I’m in a 300 person class, I got a C on my first midterm and I’ve never gotten a C before, so of course I’m balling my eyes out. And she emailed me immediately after posting grades letting me know that this doesn’t define me and that we can work on ways to be able to do better and to pass her class because she knows I can and I have the potential to do so.
Margot: Wait, so did you pass?
Ikran: I did!
Margot: Yay! So Gentry really reflected on what others did to help him succeed, and he has tried to emulate with others. All of that is to come after the break, when we delve into the next chapter of Gentry’s life as Professor Gentry Patrick.
Margot: When we left off, Gentry had just landed a job as a professor at UCSD which means he got to start his own lab and steer the direction of the research. And he was really interested in the life and death of proteins in the brain.
Gentry: All right. Let's talk about science.
Margot: Okay, so first let’s do a quick refresher on how proteins get made.
Gentry: You have your blueprint, you make RNA, you make protein - first amino acid to the last amino acid. It folds it has a structure and it has a function.
Margot: And the protein lived happily ever after. Oh oops, wrong story. Let me just check here [pretends to be flipping through pages], oh – and the protein it gets chopped up and recycled for parts. The End.
Gentry: I think a lot of people don’t think about the fact that proteins don’t live forever.
Margot: You might think it is wasteful to discard proteins after making them, but there is a good reason to do so. Sometimes proteins build up causing disease, or sometimes they misfold and no longer work properly. But also, steadily breaking down proteins allows the cells of the body to change when needed. So some proteins may only hang around for minutes.
Gentry:. Versus some other proteins which might live for years.
Margot: Like your tooth enamel or the crystallin proteins that make up the lens of your eyes. Those basically last your whole life. But for the proteins that don’t get to stick around, how do they meet their maker? There are two main trashcan systems in the cell. You’ve got your lysosome – an enclosed sack of enzymes and the proteasome…
Gentry: A barrel like structure proteins get fed into it, unfolded and chopped into pieces.
Margot: And there is this molecular post-it note that gets attached to doomed proteins that basically say, “garbage”. It’s called ubiquitin.
Gentry: It’s the tag that gets you to the trash can.
Margot: If a protein has been tagged, you say it has been ubiquinated – which I think would make a pretty great diss. “You’ve been ubiquinated.” Try it on a friend.
Margot: So, getting rid of proteins is especially important when cells have to change in some way. And one group of cells that need to be especially flexible are neurons – the cells in your brain that get excited and send signals to each other allowing you to sense, to think, to move. If your neurons couldn’t change who they are connected to and how strong those connections are, you wouldn’t be able to learn new things.
Gentry: So what my lab has been working on for the last 16 years is really understanding how the trashcan system…
Margot: The trash can and the tag.
Gentry: …of neurons actually receives instructive cues by excitable cells.
Gentry: And so what my lab discovered and probably one of the biggest discoveries that we had was the fact that, um, a type of glutamate receptor…
Margot: Called the AMPA receptor– it’s one of the main ways that neurons in the human brain chat with each other. The AMPA receptor which is just a protein, gets glutamate from other neurons and says let’s get excited and send that signal along! So if you add more of these receptors to the outside of a neuron, or get rid of them, you are essentially changing the strength of the connection to other neurons. And Gentry and his lab found out that these receptors, when activated, can be destroyed by the trashcan system.
Gentry:. It can be modified by ubiquitin and that can cause it's internalization from the membrane and eventual degradation by the lysosome.
Margot: Essentially he had found that a way that brain cells can change their properties is by responding to signals, and using the trashcan system to eat up protein receptors. And that means the trash can system could be important for things like learning and memory. But Gentry is also interested in the consequences of what might happen if that system malfunctions.
Gentry: What happens when protein turnover goes awry.
Margot: It could be a factor in brain diseases like epilepsy and in neurodegeneration, but more research is needed.
Gentry: Theoretically, while people might not be very interested in, say for instance, the ubiquitination of AMPA receptors and the role of it on turnover and function, it is a bonafide thing. And so it will one day land in a textbook
Gentry: Six words and then just close the textbook and then I just cover myself up dirt. That's okay. That's okay. Right.
Margot: Sure, some discoveries may seem small, incremental, but really that is almost all science. Breakthroughs are very rare – and they are often called breakthroughs even though they are really building off of tons of previous work. Even so, there are things that are just as important to Gentry as the science, like mentoring. Gentry is on his 10th graduate student.
Gentry: That is one of my highlights ,when I get to see them go from one stage to the next and knowing that I had a little bit to do with it, that’s cool, right?
Margot: But he also mentors people outside of his lab. Three years ago, he started a four year scholarship program at UCSD for under-represented and under-resourced undergraduates called PATHways to STEM.
Gentry: Because I wanted to model what I got in grad school and beyond. And what I boiled down to me was access, mentorship and advocacy.
Margot: Gentry recognized what helped him succeed –the ability to be in a lab, the strong mentorship he got after college, the chance that Dr. Wilson took on him. But he also took stock of the things that almost led him out of science like the need to work full time to support himself while in school and the lack of guidance during college.
Gentry: I said, you know what? I want to build. I want to build a scholarship program that rivals nepotism. If we give these kids just about everything, what's the likelihood of their success.
Margot: Freshman who are accepted to the program go through a summer bridge program, they get financial support, paid internship opportunities..
Gentry: They have academic coaches, graduate advocates They go on a retreat every year.
Margot: And Gentry says it’s as much about building a scientific community as it is about academic excellence. Each incoming group is encouraged to work together and build relationships with each other and with their mentors.
Gentry: What happens is, that students come from underserved populations, communities, and they show up here, they don't really trust the system. And even though on paper, they're just as smart, just as talented. In many cases, they have a lot more grit than in someone coming from, you know, private school, X, you name it. And because they don't have a community because they don't have a support network. It's those things that we don't, that we may think are really, should not be that important.
Margot: It’s things that may explain part of the reason behind the lack of for instance Black people at the professor level. For a while Gentry was the only Black professor in his department and the UCSD biology program is non an anomaly.
Gentry: To this day, I can go to a meeting and I'll be the only black professor that will be speaking.
Margot: Gentry hopes that his program and similar ones will diversify the field. But he also just wants to give students like him, from underserved populations, the chance to fall in love with science no matter if they decide to pursue it as a career.
Gentry: I have this almost innate interest in helping my community, helping others like myself.
Margot: But even though this program was something that Gentry was so strongly driven to create, the reality is that he is only one person.
Gentry: I like started this thing and I didn't know where I was going to, uh, do to actually keep it going because I need to be doing science. And it's a, it's a balancing act, right. Oh, yeah, there's kids and bills and life.
Margot: So it was a big relief when, last year, the program received a large grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – the foundation started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan. This has allowed Gentry to hire dedicated program leaders.
Margot: PATHways to STEM is still young. The first cohort are in their junior years. Gentry says he already sees the changes in them – their resilience, their willingness to reach out for help, their identities as scientists. And he can only reach so many with his program so he hopes that others will take stock of their academic communities, and ask, “What can I do to make this space better.”
Gentry: The fact that I do all these things outside of my lab, It's not just because it's just this thing. It's not a hobby, right. I'm impacting human lives. You know, I'm hoping that my colleagues and the rest of our community, whether it be neuroscience STEM, our, our institutions, academic industry, we have to get to a point where we're realizing that you know, we don't live in an, in a bubble are not isolated, the things that we do, the choices we make, they do impact others.
Gentry: That's where I am right now. That's my day to day. I think about science and I think about trying to, you know, make, make it a little bit better. And then when I, when it gets too tough, I just go to my, my turntables.
Margot: As Gentry was closing out his convocation speech, imagining that he was talking to his younger self, he had one clear message: “You Belong.”
Gentry Convocation Speech: Lastly and very importantly, part of my message today is related to your self-identity which will consistently be challenged perhaps causing you to feel like you don’t belong or you don’t fit in. It doesn’t matter if you come from a public or private school, if your parents went to college, if your first language is English, If you are rich, poor. No matter the color of your skin, you must first know and believe that as you stand here today, you belong here. And guess what? That's half the battle.
Margot: If you want to listen to the convocation speech in its entirety or learn more about the PATHWAYS to STEM program you can find the corresponding links in the show notes.
Margot: Now it’s time for “Here’s some words you need to know today”, with Ikran Ibrahim.
Ikran: The words of the day are “stereotype threat” -- which is the fear of your actions confirming a negative stereotype about some group you are a part of -- whether it be gender, ethnicity, or race. One of the earliest studies on this effect found that -- when race was emphasized by a questionnaire or by the proctor -- Black students performed worse on standardized tests.
Margot: Ahh okay so the idea is that they were indirectly reminded of negative stereotypes which then led to decreased performance?
Margot: Well thank you Ikran.
Ikran: Thank you.
Margot: I have a favor to ask you all. If you liked this episode, this season, or seasons past. Please give us a review on apple podcasts. It really helps us out! And don’t miss our next episode – where we wrap up what we’ve learned from all of these stories from Black scientists and go into some research behind diversity within science touching on the question – why are there so few Black professors in STEM?
Margot: Now, for the credits. Rad Scientist is produced and written by me, Margot Wohl, the assistant producer is Ikran Ibrahim and the editor is Alisa Barba. Our theme guitar riff is by Grant Fisher, Logo by Kyle Fischer, no relation. At KPBS, Emily Jankowski is technical director, Kinsee Morlan is podcast coordinator, Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is program director. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions, Chad Crouch, Chris Zabriskie, Ryan Andersen, Titibles, Zifhang. This show is made possible in part by the KPBS Explore Local Content Fund. Until we meet again, stay rad.