Meet Black Scholars in Biology at UMD
Students launched an organization for Black graduate students in the biological sciences.
Earlier this year, Black graduate students studying biology came together with a common mission: to create a professional and social network for Black graduate students in the biological sciences at the University of Maryland. They created Black Scholars in Biology (BSIB) to address the gap in representation of historically marginalized groups in the biological sciences.
“Our action items are threefold,” said BSIB Co-Founder and President Aurelie Niyongabo. “First, to provide professional development workshops to Ph.D. students who self-identify as being of African descent. Second, to organize mentorship opportunities to the undergraduate population interested in scientific research careers. Third, to organize mentorship opportunities to local high school students interested in scientific research careers.”
Meet six members of BSIB who are biological sciences Ph.D. students conducting research on viruses, bacteria, disease and more.
Binghamton University (B.S. '17, biochemistry)
Hood College (M.S. '20, biomedical sciences)
Niyongabo is a Ph.D. candidate in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Assistant Professor Gilad Ofek’s lab. Her research focuses on structurally defining the antibody recognition of the viral glycoprotein on Marburg viruses. Obtaining structures of antibodies bound to Marburg viruses improves understanding of these deadly viruses—and could inform future vaccine and immunotherapeutic design.
As co-founder and president of BSIB, Niyongabo is committed to bolstering the community of Black graduate students at UMD.
“We decided to start BSIB with the goal of fostering a change toward achieving inclusive and diverse scientific environments for underrepresented students in the biological sciences,” Niyongabo said.
Towson University (B.S. '20, cell and molecular biology)
Aolani Perry is a Ph.D. candidate in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Professor and Department Chair Kevin McIver’s lab. Her research focuses on how amino acid transport impacts Streptococcus pyogenes infection. She is also the co-founder and vice president of BSIB and a member of the American Society of Microbiology at UMD.
“We started BSIB during the pandemic when things were still online, and there really wasn’t a strong sense of community or belonging in our cohort,” Perry said. “We wanted to create a community of scientists from different backgrounds, as underrepresented faces within our program, and build long-lasting friendships and networks. The Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Department along with the Biological Sciences graduate program have been extremely collaborative and a huge key in our success on campus.”
Randolph Community College (A.S. '16)
Hampton University (B.S. '19, cellular and molecular biology)
Eastern Virginia Medical School (M.S. '21, biological sciences research)
Ravin Fisher is a Ph.D. student in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Professor Volker Briken’s lab. She studies how lipid formation and immune system receptors react once exposed to the lab’s hypervirulent mutant of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. The goal of this work is to uncover novel mechanisms that lead to exacerbation of the disease. In addition to her research, she serves as the administrator of BSIB.
“Through my involvement with BSIB, I’ve learned that it is OK to be vulnerable or scared to take a chance towards your dreams,” Fisher said. “I’d encourage others to position and believe in yourself—and know that being told no doesn’t mean you’re not worthy.”
St. Olaf College (B.A. '21, biology)
Cierra Wilson is a Ph.D. student in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Associate Professor Jiqiang (Lanny) Ling’s lab at UMD. Her research focuses on defining the molecular mechanism of pH-dependent filamentation observed in a Salmonella mutant that has increased translational fidelity. This work will help characterize the poorly understood role of translational fidelity in Salmonella-Host interactions. Wilson serves as the treasurer for BSIB.
“Being part of BSIB has given me a community of acceptance and empowerment while in grad school. It’s a supportive environment that I wish I had had as an undergraduate, so I’m glad that we’ve been able to share our knowledge and encourage younger students, while also building our own support system/network in the process”.
Virginia Tech (B.S. '20, biological systems engineering)
Spencer Lewis is a Ph.D. student in Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Professor and Department Chair Kevin McIver’s lab studying how Streptococcus pyogenes regulates an adaptive response to heme stress. Although S. pyogenes infections can be treated with penicillin, there is no available vaccine and the disease remains a burden, especially to underdeveloped nations. Identifying the mechanisms of this regulation may present novel targets for future therapeutics. Lewis serves as the secretary for BSIB.
“My time with BSIB has shown me that I am not alone when it comes to the highs and lows of grad school. I am lucky to be a part of this supportive community which has given me more confidence as I progress with my research," Lewis said. "I encourage others to join BSIB to be a part of an uplifting community that will be an integral part of their support system in grad school, career and beyond.”
Lehigh University (B.S. '20, biology)
Aisha Abdulkarimu is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering Assistant Professor Katharina Maisel’s lab at UMD. Her research focuses on how mechanical cues received by lymphatic endothelial cells affect their transport and permeability. The human lymphatic system can malfunction and become “leaky” in pathological conditions leading to a poor immune response; her research aims to understand lymphatic functions in disease and identify therapeutic targets. Abdulkarim serves as the activities coordinator for BSIB.
“Being a part of BSIB is empowering. I am so grateful to be a part of a community of like-minded individuals who share similar experiences, remind me that I belong and utilize our position to mentor and give back,” Abdulkarimu said. “Join our group to remind yourself you are not alone in your experiences and to celebrate each other.”