They’re Right In Front Of You

[En español]

The story of the neuroscientist that almost wasn’t and the role of advocacy within neuroscience.

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South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s was essentially a war zone. The area had become a hub for crack cocaine dealing, which only worsened the violence from street gangs and pushed the area into deeper poverty and turmoil. It’s here that we find a young, nerdy Gentry Patrick. Such a nerdy kid, he claims, that his cousins would insist on shielding him from the troubling environment outside. “You’re the smart one,” they’d imply, “We expect you to go do something.”

And go do something he did. Now an Associate Professor of Biology, Vice Chair of the Neurobiology Section, and Co-Director of the UCSD Neurosciences Graduate Program, Gentry has many influential publications and an outstanding research program. Supported by a team of researchers, he is unraveling the protein modifications to synapses that underlie learning and plasticity.

As a young kid who didn’t know much about neuroscience, or have any scientists around, Gentry wouldn’t have predicted this future. Set on getting through high school – that was the definition of success in his community – he worked hard and earned good grades. In Gentry’s words, he was in “survival mode.” With thirty dollars in hand, he had enough money to apply to exactly one college. With some thought, Gentry decided there was just one school he’d like to attend: Berkeley.

On behalf of neuroscience at large, I’d like to thank whoever was on that Berkeley undergraduate admissions committee. Despite an initial period of adjustment to the strange world of an undergraduate campus, Gentry eventually hit his stride. Soon enough, he found a position washing labware at a pharmacology and toxicology company off campus. Working both full time and going to school, he studied while also gaining independence in the lab. With a Bachelor’s degree in hand, he began working with Erin O’Shea to further his research experience and prepare for graduate school.

After a speedy 3 ½ year doctorate from Harvard with Li-Huei Tsai and a 4 year post doc with Erin Schuman, Gentry began his lab at UC San Diego in 2004. Interestingly, Gentry’s three primary advisors were all women, which wasn’t intentional, but rather based on their personalities. “I was drawn to the passion and drive that they had,” Gentry recalls, and it’s clear the passion was contagious.

Neuroscience has changed quite a bit over the past couple of decades, but it still has a long way to go to achieve equal opportunity. Even now, Gentry will often be the only African American scientist at an entire conference of molecular neuroscientists, which can be quite overwhelming. “I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Gentry recalls, feeling like he is responsible for representing an entire community. Although Gentry has experienced his share of disparities over the years – even here at UCSD – he continues to fight for an equal standing for himself and others like him.

Looking back: advice for aspiring neuroscientists 

In addition to his cousins protecting him from a fraught environment, Gentry attributes his success to several aspects of his personality. “I wasn’t afraid to talk to people,” he says, “I always consider myself kind of a chameleon because I can dive into any realm and fit.” As a first year graduate student, that meant walking into a foreign lab – past the secretary – and asking a well-established scientist to show him a technique.

Gentry also remembers trying to learn from those around him; for example, when someone gives a great talk, try to emulate it. And although opportunities may not come in multitudes, it’s important to be aware and ready to seize opportunity:

“As opposed to having the privilege to sample opportunities and accumulate evidence, I literally had to be in tune with maybe the one experience, or the one conversation of someone telling me about ‘X’. If I didn’t take advantage of that, my academic and scientific trajectory would have been quite different.”

Lastly, Gentry insists that you need to find your passion. Interested in something? Read about it. “Show up,” he says, “Put yourself out there – you need to be visible.” However, he also notes that being visible can be a double-edged sword for minorities; it might mean becoming a positive example, but is also implies being vulnerable to unjust scrutiny from your peers strictly based on your race or gender.

Advocating for those often overlooked 

At the end of our interview, I asked a rather naive question: “How do we find those individuals in communities that are overlooked so often who have the potential to be great scientists?” Gentry quickly corrected me: it’s not a matter of finding those people, as if they’re a lost dinosaur. “They’re right in front of you,” Gentry insists, “It doesn’t have to be the one kid – a large majority of them have the potential, you just have to advocate for them.” Students from minority communities may not have as many role models and may face additional challenges at home, but that does not mean they do not have the potential: “I don’t want it to be like winning the lottery for every African American kid to become a neuroscientist. It should not be that way.”

The common thread throughout our entire discussion of Gentry’s past and neuroscience’s future is the pivotal role of mentors, especially for diverse students. Gentry cares immensely about UC San Diego, and is actively working to diversify his communities here:

“I would like to see this campus, which is the most non-diverse out of the UC’s, make some changes, and not be afraid to talk about them. A large majority of faculty in higher education probably, subconsciously, don’t think that academic excellence and diversity can go hand-in-hand. They think it’s something extra that we have to do. I want people to see that they have to be advocates.”

Often, we become obsessed with the idea of only admitting the best students or researchers. Yet, this simple idea is complicated by how we might define “the best” in these situations: does an individual need good grades to succeed in graduate school? I’d argue that success in research often depends on a different type of academic excellence; namely, grit, drive, and passion. It is crucial that we build an education infrastructure that allows everyone to succeed. As researchers, our job is to advocate for individuals who have demonstrated commitment to science, but might not fit into our preconceived notions of a scientist’s trajectory.

Gentry is now taking this on, as a great graduate mentor and newly minted Director of Mentorship and Diversity for the biology department. He also cares deeply about outreach, and is working with local schools to introduce techniques like microscopy and electrophysiology. Even bringing in compound microscopes to a local school is spreading the love for research:

“Sure we can do science for the sake of all sitting in a room and saying how great we are, but it would be good to know that you leave something for the rest of the world or you bring them in on the secret. This is why you’re so excited about this, and I think kids see that. We are here to train the next generation to do something bold and big with their lives.”


Featured image by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

For more on Dr. Gentry Patrick and his new role at UCSD, check out this article and the video below:

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