Black Microbiologists Push for Visibility Amid a Pandemic

A few days before her fifth-grade science fair, Ariangela Kozik awoke to the overwhelming scent of poultry past its due. It was exactly what the young scientist had been hoping for.

“Whew,” she recalled thinking at the time. “There is definitely something growing in here.”

She rushed into her kitchen, where a neat stack of glass Petri dishes awaited her, each filled with a gelatinous brown disk made of beef broth and sugar. Atop many of the cow-based concoctions was a smattering of what looked like shiny, cream-colored pimples. Each was a fast-ballooning colony, teeming with millions and millions of bacteria, including several from the swab of raw chicken juice she had dabbed on three days before.

Dr. Kozik, then just 11, had set up an experiment to determine what brand of dish soap was best at killing bacteria. (The answer: Joy dishwashing liquid.) But her results yielded an even bigger reward: a lifelong love of microbes, exquisitely small organisms with an outsize impact on the world.

“It felt like I had just discovered a new form of life,” said Dr. Kozik, who is now a researcher at the University of Michigan, where she studies microbes that live in human lungs. “It was so cool.”

The team at the helm of the event, headed by Dr. Kozik and virologist Kishana Taylor, numbers 23, most of whom are Black women. They have partnered with sponsors such as the American Society for Microbiology, the American Society for Virology and scientific journals eLife and PLoS Biology that will help compensate speakers and organizers and keep the group afloat as it seeks nonprofit status. A Twitter account dedicated to the event has garnered thousands of followers. Dr. Kozik and Dr. Taylor said that they expected interest to grow, and are already brainstorming how to keep the momentum going after the campaign has formally concluded.

At the University of Georgia, Dr. Taylor was the only Black doctoral student in her department. Her love for science was sparked early, by films like “Flipper” and “Free Willy,” which instilled “an obsession” with dolphins and other cetaceans, she said. After initially pursuing studies in veterinary medicine, she stumbled into the world of infectious disease and was instantly hooked.

Dr. Taylor said she aims to start her own laboratory someday, focused on the intersection of humans, animals, disease and the environment — intricately connected factors that can each tip the scales toward an infectious outbreak. But by the end of her Ph.D., years of toxic interactions with colleagues who pelted her with criticism and condescension had pushed her to the brink. “I was super ready to leave science,” she said. “‘Everything you do is terrible’ played over and over in my head.”

Mentorship from new advisers in her postdoctoral fellowships helped change that, Dr. Taylor said. But ever since, she has fought to ensure the same thing won’t happen to another student in her position. Championing her fellow Black microbiologists, she said, is a step toward that.

“I think a lot of the message is, ‘We are here,’” said Dr. Johnson, who also leads an outreach program to connect Black, Indigenous and other undergraduate students of color to academic mentors.

In 2014, during his postdoctoral fellowship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Dr. Johnson gave a public talk on one of his favorite topics: how copper affects microbes. He was floored when a Black woman from the audience approached him afterward. Her comment wasn’t about microbiology — at least, not directly.

“They said, ‘My kid wants to be a scientist, I didn’t know a scientist could look like you,’” he said. “Breaking through to those communities is important. I think this week will be a wonderful contribution to that.”

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