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How Dr. Chantell Evans Is Rewriting the Story, Igniting Aspirations of Black Women In Science

PhenomenalMAG Staff  |  Black Girl METAS

Chantell Evans, PhD, didn't know many Black women like herself who wanted to become scientists when she was growing up in a small, predominately white town in central Illinois in the 1990s.

However, her mother supported her in pursuing her interests in math and science and in following her aspirations.

Evans, an assistant professor in the Department of Cell Biology and a Duke Science and Technology Scholar in the School of Medicine, stated, "I noticed I was different from the other kids at a very young age. My mom always tried to put a good light on it, encouraging me to stand out in school and in sports, and I simply took that support and fully went with it," she said.

Her high school performance earned her the Gates Millennium Scholarship, an award given by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that assists deserving minority students from low-income families with the costs associated with pursuing an undergraduate degree in any field of interest.

Evans selected Southern Illinois University in Carbondale to pursue her chemistry degree. In a research experience for undergraduates (REU) supported by the National Science Foundation, she looked into the chemistry and energy transfer of polymers used for chemical and biological sensors.

She wanted to go into the deep end after dipping her toes in research, so she decided to pursue a PhD in molecular and cellular pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Because I could use my skills in chemistry to address biological issues and problems, it was a fantastic fit,” said Evans.

A Career Based on Brain Chemistry

Evans chose to conduct her doctoral research in the laboratory of Ed Chapman, PhD, the Ricardo Miledi Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Evans was thrilled with how the Chapman lab taught her to use her training to investigate brain communication. She focused on understanding how synaptic vesicles, which are tiny sacs present in nerve cells throughout the body, release neurotransmitters, the chemical compounds that allow the nervous system to communicate by allowing them to jump from one neuron to another.

Evans enjoyed her work but wasn't sure if there was a future for her in academics when her PhD was finished.

Although she had a lot of support from her mentors, she noted that there were hardly any women of color among the faculty as a whole and very few women overall. "That made me ponder whether individuals like myself had a place in academia. However, my advisor gave me the confidence I needed to carry on by saying, ‘You can completely do this, which was incredibly encouraging.”

Evans' next move was a postdoctoral research position at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked in Erika Holzbaur's lab under the mentorship of a William Maul Measey Endowed Professor, where she developed her live cell imaging skills. She visualized the structure of nerve cells at the cellular level using this method. The most stunning and alluring organelles she had ever seen were mitochondria, which she discovered there.

She remarked, “Mitochondria are highly fascinating organelles and are stunning to imagine. They move around the cell a lot. They are continually joining and splitting apart. They are really interesting organelles that have their own DNA. The production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) has long been the emphasis, although mitochondria perform a myriad of other functions that are now beginning to receive attention.”

Evans noted that each nerve cell in an adult human is home to around two million mitochondria, which serve as the cell's microscopic power plants. Humans have all the mitochondria they will ever have at birth. The cell gradually eliminates and swaps out old mitochondria for younger ones as they deteriorate or become dysfunctional.

Evans began to ponder issues such, "How does the cell know how to sustain all of those mitochondria? How does it keep track of which mitochondria need to be made, how many need to be replaced, who is healthy, who is damaged, and so on?

She argues that it is crucial to comprehend the intricate system because disturbances can cause nerve cells to malfunction or even die, which exacerbates neurodegenerative illnesses like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

A Dedication to Diversity

Evans was designated a Hanna H. Gray Fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2017. The fellowship program seeks to attract and keep people from underrepresented gender, racial, ethnic, and other groups in the life sciences while also assisting them in their aspirations to become leaders in academic research. As a member of the fellowship's first cohort, Evans worked alongside 14 other scientists.

"I actually feel like I have a sense of community now. Being associated with such outstanding young scientists from such varied backgrounds is great, said Evans. "During COVID, in particular, we really came together and formed partnerships. They are folks I can talk to and bounce ideas off of regarding the difficulties we face in academia.

Evans ultimately realized and accepted that she not only belonged in the sciences, but that she was also urgently needed as a result of her excellent experiences in the HHMI fellowship program and the support of other female scientists, notably Holzbaur. She made the decision to make it a goal of hers to attract other outstanding women from underrepresented groups to the academic research field in the future.

"I believe it's critical to keep being seen. Since I didn't encounter many people who looked like me in academics, I almost quit," she claimed. Few Black women work in STEM fields. I have a strong desire to alter this narrative. As a result, I take my responsibility as a mentor and role model seriously.

As part of Duke Science and Technology, a significant new commitment to enhance and sustain excellence in the sciences at Duke, Evans joined the university in September 2021. The Duke Endowment provided funding for his recruitment.

"Evans was hired for her promising research program into how mitochondrial diversity and dynamics interface at the molecular level with neuronal physiology and neurodegenerative disorders," stated Scott Soderling, PhD, the department's chair of cell biology.

The focus of Evans' most recent study is on describing an unique mitochondrial repair mechanism and figuring out when and where these various neuronal pathways are triggered. She anticipates that knowledge of these pathways will be useful for treating a variety of neurodegenerative disorders.

Two Duke undergraduate research assistants, one research technician, and two PhD students from the Cell and Molecular Biology and Neurobiology graduate programs make up Evans' lab at the moment. These students will rotate through the lab until May 2022. Adapting mentoring to each person's specific needs and assisting students in choosing the research topics and methodologies they want to use within the parameters of her lab, according to Evans, are major elements of her mentoring approach.

When people are enthusiastic about their initiatives, Evans added, "they have a greater feeling of ownership and work harder."

She claimed that Duke's emphasis on diversity and the research environment attracted her to the institution. "I feel like there are many different ways I can make a difference here," the speaker said.

Few women of color held high leadership positions at several institutions, she claimed. "To see a school value that and promote women into top positions meant a lot about the organization. As a junior faculty member, I also want a location where I would receive support and guidance. In addition to anticipating further partnerships and discoveries, I'm thrilled to launch my lab at Duke.

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