Q&A: Stanford neuroscience fellow talks Forbes 30 Under 30, being Black in neuroscience

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Stanford neuroscience postdoctoral fellow Brielle Ferguson was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list on Dec. 1 in recognition for her work identifying a particular brain cell that plays a key role in basic attentional processes.  The discovery could lead to the development of better treatments for people with psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or autism. She is also a co-founder of BlackInNeuro, a group that has created a space for Black neuroscientists to connect with one another and find Black mentors in the field. At Stanford, she is the co-president of the Stanford Black Postdoc Association. 

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: Your Forbes 30 Under 30 profile discusses the important work you are doing such as studying how people pay attention. Could you talk a bit about the work you’ve been doing and what implications this work could have on the field of science?

Brielle Ferguson [BF]: I have studied how mice pay attention so that we can better understand how people pay attention. My work is trying to understand basic attentional processes and the circuits that support that in the brains of mice so that we can potentially develop better treatments for humans that have attention impairment. To do that I work with regular mice as well as mice that have diseases linked with attention impairment. 

Currently, I’m working with mice that have a mutation in a gene that is linked to absence epilepsy. I have mice who have a mutation in the same gene that’s found in [absence epilepsy] patients, and I train them to perform attention tasks so I can see how their attention ability is different from regular mice. Hopefully from that we can develop better treatments in people.

TSD: How did you first become interested in neuroscience? 

BF: I took a class as an undergraduate about how we study learning and memory in mice. My professor at the University of Virginia laid out these beautiful experiments where he could tag cells that were activated by a particular memory, and then go back and see if those cells were reactivated when the animal was put in the same context as the previous memory. I thought that was the coolest thing that I had ever heard. So I started volunteering in [my professor’s] lab and I loved it. I got to work on a project where we were looking at reactivation of fear memories. I just fell in love with it. 

TSD: What excites you most about the work you have been doing recently for BlackInNeuro?

BF: Being a Black person, or a minority in general in STEM  and neuroscience, can be super lonely and isolating. We are often the only Black person in our cohort or in our department. Even if we are lucky enough to have another [Black] person in our cohort, nine times out of 10 there won’t be a faculty member that is Black. This makes it very difficult to find Black mentors, and it was really important for me to create a space for people to see that not only were there people that looked like them in the field but people that looked like them in leadership roles. I wanted to show Black students that not only can they make it through what they are going through now, but they can also be a leader and run their own lab. 

Through BlackInNeuro we’ve created this network of Black neuroscientists that one can literally scroll through in our database. One could reach out to them if they need mentorship and connect with them at our events. It’s just creating and connecting this community that has been so spread out. 

TSD: What advice would you give young students of color or young women who might be interested in STEM?

BF: I would say: Find your people and mentors. It is going to take work because the network of people who look like you are not going to be immediately available, but do the little bit of extra work to find out if there is a marginalized graduate group on campus or a virtual network through some type of society, group or organization like BlackInNeuro. There, you can find people that look like you or share some other similarities in experience and hardships that you have potentially gone through. Putting in the work to find your people makes all the difference. 

TSD: What are some of the equality issues within STEM fields and what can be done to address them?

BF: The easiest thing to address is numbers. We are not represented at a level that is comparable to our proportion of the population. It’s bad at the graduate level, but it’s worse at the postgraduate and faculty level. We have to find better ways to recruit underrepresented minorities into the pipelines. A lot of focus has been placed on recruitment, so we are slowly inching towards better numbers, but we are not doing the work to make sure that we have a supportive environment for trainees once they arrive at a program whether it’s graduate or faculty level. 

Building better programs and networks to support diverse faculties is really important and rare. There’s no excuse for a neuroscience department to have no Black faculty in this day and age. I think departments need to set aside positions for people of color. That’s a good place to start, but we need to build better support systems for people once they arrive. 

TSD: What does being a member of the 2021 Forbes 30 under 30 list mean to you?

BF: It’s surreal. As a Black woman it can be very easy for me to doubt myself. A lot of us experience very strong imposter syndrome. Looking at the road ahead, while trying to get a faculty position I often wonder if I’m really cut out for this, so to see that somebody recognizes what I’m doing and thinks that I’m doing a good job means the world. I was going to continue grinding without it, but that recognition helps. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Contact Kavi Mookherjee Amodt at kavimookherjeeamodt ‘at’ students.berkeley.net.

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Kavi Mookherjee Amodt is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Winter Journalism Workshop.