27 Steven Universe
For our latest episode, I spoke with Daril Brown II, an Electrical Engineering PhD Candidate and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient at the University of California, San Diego. We begin our conversation by exploring his path to present day, starting with the family members who inspired and nurtured his academic and professional pursuits, and continuing onto his transformative time as a Mechanical Engineering undergraduate student at Howard University. At the moment, his fascinating work explores the use of songbirds as a promising animal model for neuroprosthetics research, a project that has yielded recent publications in Current Biology and PLoS Computational Biology. When thinking about a title for this episode, we considered quite a few options, but decided on ‘Steven Universe’, which happens to be one of Daril’s favorite shows! In Daril’s words, Steven Universe has ‘central themes of the power of empathy, dealing with loss, resilience, and the need for a strong support network’, and the conversation we'll be sharing with you today touches upon those exact themes.
Please note that the latter half of this episode includes mentions of death and bereavement (TW/CW).
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Daril Brown II: Resilience isn't necessarily how many blows can you take before you fall. It's more so how do you take whatever life has given to you and still make forward progress, even if that forward progress is only, like, micrometers, and make sure that when you finally get to that destination that you have not fallen apart.
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we will be chatting with Daril Brown II, a PhD Candidate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and the Psychology Department at the University of California, San Diego. He previously completed his BS in Mechanical Engineering at Howard University—HU, okay!—and his MS in Bioengineering at UCSD. Daril is a part of the UCSD Cuyamaca Pathways Program, which provides guidance to first-generation community college students interested in transferring to four-year institutions. And he is also an ambassador for ComSciCon, where we met in 2019! ComSciCon is the communicating science workshop for graduate students. I am so thrilled to be catching up with Daril today about his research, his SciComm, and a whole lot more, but let's start from the very beginning—Daril, what's your story?
DB: Well, as a start, I was born in Maryland to an OBGYN, a doctor, and an electrical engineer, so I've always joked as a kid that you bring an electrical engineer and a doctor, you get a biomedical engineer! That was always my joke as a kid—I wanna help people, but I also wanna build things. So, we moved from Maryland to Tennessee—Nashville for a bit—back to Maryland, then down to Texas. A lot of my formative years were down in Texas, so Plano, Texas, which is a suburb of Dallas.
AB: Wait, no, are you serious?
AB: I lived in Plano! That is such a small world moment! <Laugh>
DB: <Laugh> Then, we moved to Keller, Texas for my final two years of high school, and then I ended up going to Howard University. Growing up I've always been... A good lodestone in my life was the fact that my grandfather on my mother's side was paraplegic, so he never could walk. He was never able to walk during my lifetime, and I was always very curious of, 'how can I help him?' Very compassionate kid, always wanted to help others, and also very curious kid, always like, 'Why? Why this? Why can't I do that?' And so it [got] me really interested in the brain and biomedical, and I was very interested in neuroprosthetics from a very early age. When it came down to it, I wanted to do biomedical engineering, and when I was applying for college, I got advice... I did summer camps and things, and we went to college visits, and I remember there was a professor at UTD [University of Texas at Dallas] and I was like, 'I think I wanna major in biomedical engineering 'cause that's what I wanna do.' And he was like, 'Yeah, don't do that!' <Laugh>
AB: <Laugh> Okay...
DB: At the time, the accreditation for biomedical and bioengineering programs for undergrads were still coming up with their own norms, and so he was like, 'Major in one of the foundational engineering—so either electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemical engineering, and then go to grad school, and specialize in biomedical.' That was the advice he gave. And so me, in my naivete, and the fact that I loved my physics class—I took both Honors Physics and AP Physics—I was like, you know, if I can see it and I can touch it, I can understand it. I got it: Mechanical Engineering! Of the three: Mechanical. Electrical, I'm gonna get shocked. Chemical... I suck at Chemistry. And Mechanical, that must be where it's at, so I will apply for mechanical and aerospace programs.
I'll let you decide whether to cut this out or not... So, I applied everywhere. I really wanted to go Johns Hopkins, or Duke, or Carnegie Mellon, Case Western [Reserve University], as well as Texas A&M, UT, University of Texas at Dallas, SMU [Southern Methodist University], Baylor... all these great engineering schools, but all very white schools. That was the concern my parents had, 'cause... You've lived in Plano, which... It's a diverse suburb, but it's very white. It's very white, it's also very Asian, and so my parents were concerned that I wasn't going to go outside of my comfort zone.
They pushed me to apply to a bunch of HBCUs [historically Black colleges/universities]. I applied to Morehouse, FAMU [Florida A&M University], Prairie View [A&M]. So, I ended up getting into all the HBCUs I applied for, and I ended up getting waitlisted at Johns Hopkins. I didn't get into to Duke. And I got into Carnegie Mellon, Case Western, SMU... Texas A&M, I got in, but they only offered Corps of Cadets, which I was like, 'Yeah... I don't know if I wanna enlist to be able to pay for college...' And what ended up happening was Howard actually gave me a full ride.
DB: Yeah, which is really, you know, great, but the problem was that both my parents went to Howard.
AB: Why is that a problem? <Laugh>
DB: This is not a problem now, but a younger, more naive, spoiled me was like, 'I want to go somewhere different than my parents.' I remember I actually threw away with my acceptance letter to Howard the first time.
AB: <Laugh> Are you kidding?
DB: It's really bad! That's what I was like, I'll let you decide whether to this throw away!
AB: No, we're keeping this! Are you kidding? What?!
DB: I'm not! <Laugh>
AB: This is amazing!
DB: <Laugh> And then, they sent another one. I still remember the sound... There's that sound, that squeal or screech or scream your parents can do when they're shocked; it's a positive shock, and they're super, super excited. And I still remember the sound my mom made when Howard apparently sent another one. I was not thorough enough. And my mom was like, 'Oh my gosh DJ'—which is the nickname my family calls me—'DJ, you got a full ride to Howard!' In the back of my head, I'm like, 'Darn it! Dang it!' Which is like, looking back on it—'cause I graduated from high school in 2010, which was the height of the recession— to be fair, my family didn't have enough money for me to be that spoiled, and I wasn't even raised to be that spoiled. It was like I decided to rebel in one very particular moment, and it failed spectacularly. And so, I still remember, I got partial scholarships for a lot of other schools, but in particular, SMU and Case Western seemed they really were interested in me going, they had me interview with the person. They gave me partial scholarships and they started giving me recruiting scholarships, like, a $7,000 one-year or two-year award, or here's a 14,000. But the schools are 50,000 a year!
DB: So, I remember I was telling my mom, 'Hey Mom, you know SMU is getting really close to a full ride.' My mom literally without dropping beat, 'I don't know why you're still emailing them. I sent your acceptance to Howard like two weeks ago!' And so that's how I found out I was going to Howard. And to be very honest, I am so happy my mom did that, because, like, it was stupid of me. A day or two after I realized it, 'no, this was... It was stupid of me.' If I had gone to the other schools, my parents would've had to use the money they saved for me for college to pay for college.
But the difference is they didn't know what the economy was gonna be like after the recession, and my younger brother needed to go to college too. It was like, 'Yo, you have a full ride. We could take the money we saved for you to go towards your brother,' because it paid for room and board, and it paid for tuition. And I'm a Jackie Robinson scholar, so you get this direct funding to you. It was basically enough money that I can pay for my textbooks, and as long as I'm not extravagantly eating out all the time, I can put food on my table all throughout college. It was the greatest thing my parents could have done.
As well as Howard itself was a great environment for me to grow as a scientist, because, and—I've kind of described this to other people before—growing up, especially in Plano, in Keller, I was like, you know, the nerdy Black kid. Insert adjective plus Black. Like, it was always in the context of this space, and the way that I moved and operated and thought was still in the context of me trying to fit into different environments, into different spaces as well as different expectations. Whereas at Howard, it was nice because I was just a nerdy kid.
DB: I was just a weird nerdy kid.
DB: It wasn't the 'weird, nerdy Black kid,' I was just the weird nerdy kid. And I found other weird, nerdy kids who happened to also be Black. It was a nice space to grow. It was also nice in terms of classes, because I never really had to worry about like, 'Are they treating me differently because I'm Black? No, they're not! They're treating everyone like this.' It was a very nice experience, as well as having lots of role models who understood where I am in my career, where I want to be. And there's a certain level of brutal honesty that you get with Black mentors towards Black mentees. You know, the world is not gonna coddle you. Like, me being spoiled, throwing away my acceptance letter to Howard, that's never going to fly. That was your first...
AB/DB: And last!
DB: ... attempt at that. And that energy, that thought pattern, we're gonna beat that out because you're not gonna thrive outside in the world acting like that. You need that brutal honesty to grow as a person, especially when you're young and naive. And it was the greatest thing for me. I really lucked out: I was a junior at Howard University and two things ended up happening. 1) The University of California was just starting a program called the UC-HBCU Pathways Program. It's basically they recruit HBCU students for the summer, a 10-week program, and they get to do research. They also give you training on how to apply to the NSF [National Science Foundation], how to write grants, also GRE training class, because once again, there's yet another evil testing services test I have to take and study for to get into higher education. They also were telling me [about] this Black faculty who was working there who was doing biomedical stuff that was really cool. You probably [heard of him]: Professor Todd Coleman.
AB: Oh yeah!
DB: Who's a great mentor... I hadn't yet met [him], but they played his Ted talk and I was like, 'Oh my gosh. I really wanna work with this guy.' So, this new program is starting on top of that. If you get into the program and if you apply to UC and you get in, there's funding. You have about five years of funding. It switches off and on between the UC Office of the President and the local university, so I applied for that. And there was also another program funded through the NSF called Gear Up, where you get to do a one-month research experience in another country.
DB: You partner with a host university, you have a PI that's there and a PI that's at Howard, you have grad students you work with, and so I applied for that and it just happened, by the grace of God, that there was this four-week program at the very start of the summer, and then the UC-HBCU program starts a few days later, like 10 days after that. So, I ended up doing both!
DB: It was a blessing. It was great. I got to work in Buea, Cameroon. I was working with biomaterials; there's this palm fiber where we were trying to see if it could be used in industry or maybe for textiles, and then I flew back, and it was like a nine-hour time difference; super jet lagged! Stopped off at my parents' house in Keller for, like, two days, where I was only awake between 2:00 AM and 11 or something. It was terrible. And then I flew out to San Diego! That experience honestly solidified like, 'Yeah, I wanna do research. I wanna do grad school. I wanna do biomedical. And I'm definitely interested in the brain. This is it.' Getting to do the research that I originally came to Howard to do, at UCSD, was like, 'Oh, I love this. This is what I wanna do.'
AB: Yeah! Now, you study songbirds, which is quite a jump from everything that you've described to date. How did you jump into that research? And tell us more about that research.
DB: So, I was in Bioengineering, and I kind of unknowingly fell into the trap of a particular faculty, who was not my advisor, his bad side.
AB: Oh, okay.
DB: And they kind of made my life living hell for a while, and I ended up having to master out of the Bioengineering program, and I ended up transferring to Electrical Engineering and with my current advisor, Vikash Gilja.
I've always wanted to do prosthetics. There was a new project that was starting out, and in principle, we wanna see if we can make an animal model, or we want to expand an animal model. For upper limb and lower limb prosthetic research, like neuroprosthesis, it's useful to have an animal model, and the gold standard is a macaque monkey, which would make sense. They're very similar to us, both in neurophysiology and their actual physical physiology, and so, you can test case in the macaques and build a prototype, and build better understandings that we can then translate to humans in the clinic. But for speech and for communication, you can't tell a monkey to say hello 15 times in a row. And so, the original idea, which was really spearheaded by a postdoc in our lab as well as by my other advisor—so Ezequiel Arneodo, who's a postdoc, and then Professor Tim Gentner, who's one of my co-advisors—they were like, 'Okay, well, songbirds and the song motor system we already have found useful for understanding how we learn vocalizations, how we learn complex vocalizations from a tutor, from a mentor,' which is how we learn how to speak. When young fledglings are practicing songs it's very similar in terms of that learning process. The crazy question was, 'What if we could leverage songbirds as our test-case animal model for human speech?' They don't necessarily have to be the exact same, but if they have similar timing requirements for feedback... You know, as I'm talking right now, I'm checking to make sure what I hear as my feedback is what I intended to say. If they have similar feedback requirements, at the very least, we can test case systems to work with them, so we're not just starting from scratch when we work with humans. What really draws me to this project is it had the potential to really help a lot of people. If we are able to put the grunt work in and build something, it could lead to a lot of people having an increase in quality of life. And so the long term goal... Well, I mean, intermediately, we've gotten some success in terms of two papers that have recently come out of this project.
DB: Yeah! Yeah, they both came out last year. But we were able to synthesize the bird's song using their brain activity. The paper that I was first author, we were able to predict which syllable the bird's gonna sing, as well as finding neural features and neural correlates that are very similar to the ones that we see for humans.
AB: Oh, wow!
DB: I would love for us to have more evidence and more work, but the early evidence is there and it's kind of like a flag for the community. It's like, 'Hey, this seems like a good approach, and the more hands on deck and the more people who are aware [that can] work together, the faster we'll be able to move.'
AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>. And it's meaningful, and so fascinating. I remember you first telling me about this work in 2019, and I still remember aspects of it because it was so fascinating. I would've never thought of something like this because we have such, you know, 'traditional models' of disease, typically monkeys or mice or rats or pigs even, but I'd never heard of the possibility of expanding into songbirds for this kind of work. It's absolutely fascinating. I kind of wanted to circle back to how you handled that really difficult time when you had to master out of your program. What measures did you put in place to make sure that you were taken care of emotionally, you didn't lose yourself and you weren't really bearing the brunt of someone else's attacks on you?
DB: Honestly, I didn't at the time. <Laugh>
AB: Oh, no!
DB: I think the best thing that I did was I got therapy. I was seeing a therapist like every other week or every week, 'cause it got to the point I was having PTSD-like symptoms.
AB: Oh, goodness.
DB: But ultimately, therapy, support from my family, support from my PIs, as well as support from my community... The Black grads kind of rallied around each other and looked out for each other. But I am definitely cognizant that it is definitely survivor bias, 'cause I'm sure that there's plenty of other people who are in very similar situations who ultimately... they weren't able to turn a situation around. I think I was very fortunate 'cause hard work doesn't always work out, but I was very fortunate in both the environment that I had was ultimately supportive, the support network I had was there to give me nourishment, whether or not I was in a position to really appreciate it. I think one thing that really helped me was I always had my own external funding, so at the very least, I didn't have to worry about, how am I gonna pay for rent? How I gonna pay for food? That was how I kind of navigated and moved through that time in my life.
AB: I think it's so important that you mentioned therapy, not only just because a lot of grad students tend to listen to these kinds of programs, but also just because of the community that we belong to. I do think it's getting better with respect to the stigma associated with therapy, but I think the more we talk about it, the better it'll inevitably get, so thank you for sharing that.
DB: All my homies get therapy! <Laugh> And we all check on each other, like, if you're having a tough day and you need a vent, you check in like, 'Hey, do you have the emotional bandwidth for this conversation?' I love my friends and my support network. And I love the fact that there's a reciprocity in checking in with each other, communicating needs, explicitly communicating their needs. Like, 'Hey, I'm going through this tough time, but I don't wanna talk about it.' Or 'I'm going through a tough time; do you have bandwidth? I need to talk about it.' And being able to match each other and look out for each other, 'cause, without that, I don't know if I would've... I don't know if I'd be this far in my PhD.
AB: Yeah. Oh, I'm so, so grateful. So grateful that you have that, and so happy to hear that you have that. I'm hesitant to bring it up, just we've had such a light conversation, but I do know that one of the things that you wanted to talk about was dealing with loss in graduate school, because that is something that you've experienced and you wanted to kind of share your own story in the hopes that someone else who might be going through something similar might be able to see themselves and get some strength from the story that you have to share. But I'd like to let you tell the story, however you wish to tell it.
DB: So, in the first year of grad school, my grandmother passed away, at the very start of my second quarter. My grandparents are humongous lodestones in our family. They're kind of like pillars. My grandfather, who was paraplegic, he had passed away when I was a kid, but my grandmother, she passed away very early in my grad school career, which was very tough. I had to fly out to Alabama for a funeral, then come back.
AB: Oh my gosh.
DB: I tanked a quiz 'cause it was less than 48 hours after she had passed, and the professor was like, 'Yeah, like, don't worry about it. You will just get the grade. You have to work harder later.' And the following quarter, my mother was in the hospital for a month. She had an intestinal blockage, so there was a period of time where we were afraid we were gonna lose her. My first year was pretty crazy...
Going to therapy was very helpful. Having a support network to talk to. Having friends that you're okay crying with, and that's not too far for the friendship, it's understood for you to have real lived emotions, and then be validated. And then also, I went to the gym every day, which is something that I try to do in grad school. At the time, it was actually kind of crazy, I was doing two-a-days, so I'd go into the gym early in the morning, and then I'd go to water polo practice at night. I don't recommend that for grad students. Don't don't do what I did. Don't do that!
But keeping tabs of my nutrition was how I kind of kept myself sane. I will say that it's almost like a muscle that you work, being able to be resilient during tough times. Not like... I don't wanna really idolize, you know, 'let me just work through the pain!' That's not what I'm trying to say. It's more so being able to have something... terrible things happen; it's life. Like, it's not all good but be able to accept that something terrible has happened, accept your feelings, know they're valid, get the help and resources you need to work through those emotions, and make sure you're still taking care of yourself. And still be able to work at your own pace, and be in an environment where it's okay for you to work at your own pace. We're grad students, so we always have to be producing, whether it's producing at a 100% rate or 200%, or, you know, sometimes you need run on 25 or 5% for a while, so you can get back to your normal rhythm.
And so most recently I just lost my uncle just a couple weeks ago...
AB: Yeah, I'm sorry to hear that.
DB: Yeah. And I... You've been very supportive during that time! All my homies go to therapy, all my homies, they're supportive. That's the other thing I'll recommend: choose your village carefully, and your village will make themselves painfully apparent. When you meet people that you can vibe with and you can talk to and they can give you reciprocity and support, both in a professional and a personal level, keep them around, even if they're across the globe. I have friends all over the globe who I've met for a summer, but if they needed a couch to crash on, I'd be like, 'I have an extra bed if you like!' <Laugh> 'How long do you need?'
Having friends, that is a big impetus, especially... Like, resilience isn't necessarily how many blows can you take before you fall. It's more so like, how do you take whatever life has given to you and still make forward progress, even if that forward progress is only micrometers. And make sure that when you finally get to that destination that you have not fallen apart.
AB: Yeah! Oh, that's an important one. Do continue!
DB: I know when my grandmother passed when I first started grad school, that was a year-long grieving process. It was a year-long of not being as productive as I would've liked, whereas with my uncle, I'm not saying that it got easier in terms of grieving, but knowing that my feelings were valid, knowing that I had support, allowed me to kind of rebound a bit quicker, or at the very least be able to still function and for it to be okay for me to be functioning at a lower pace. You know, my bosses know what happened, my lab mates know what happened, my friends know what happened, and they're giving me the support I need at the time I need it. And then they're also listening to me when I'm like, 'Hey, no, I'm screwing up. I need to meet this deadline; hold me to this deadline.' And then knowing when to push and when to let things slide.
AB: Yeah, it's a delicate balance. I was concerned that you were kind of jumping back into things a little too quickly, which is why I was so hesitant to meet on the original day that we had planned to chat, because I thought, 'No, it's just it's too soon.' But you speak words of wisdom because I'm sure the first time around when it was your grandmother, you felt like you had to push forward, whereas you're giving yourself permission now and it feels different because of the permission.
DB: Most definitely.
AB: You're allowing yourself to have those moments. And I know that, for certain, you were also quite supportive of me when I lost my grandfather in November last year, where I gave myself permission to be sad.
DB: Oh yeah.
AB: Like, you just give yourself permission, go on...
DB: It is okay to cry! It is okay! And ugly cry, the ugly, you're holding yourself as you're rocking side to side with the snot dripping... It is okay to ugly cry!
DB: Something happened to you; your feelings are valid. I will say what's not okay is to suck it in. I'd rather those feelings come out violently with the snot and tears than violently with a heart attack.
AB: Yes, oh my gosh. Or coming out as anger to someone who didn't deserve it or...
DB: Yeah! Causing trauma or having a panic attack. Those feelings are going to get out. They're unstoppable. Whether they come out as fluid out of your eyes or a cardiac arrest is your choice.
AB: Yeah! Oh, that's so, so true. Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom with me, not only here, but also in the messages that we exchanged back and forth, because you had personal experience of having lost your grandmother, and I hadn't really lost a grandparent that was that close to me, so I appreciate that so much. I wanna take a moment to say thank you.
DB: You are very welcome. And there is nothing that can really prepare you for that.
AB: If there is anyone who's listening to this, who's going through this in the moment and you haven't recovered quickly after you've lost someone who's close to you, it's okay.
DB: It's very okay. Therapy is wonderful... good therapy—I should clarify—good therapy and a good therapist is amazing, and a good support network.
DB: It doesn't have to be your family if you are not close to your family, but [have] a good support network of people who you know have your back, who have your best interest in mind, and they can meet you emotionally, how you need them and you are the same to them.
AB: Yes, that's awesome. I can't think of a more perfect ending to our conversation. Thank you so much, Daril. Thank you so much Future Dr. Brown. It's gonna happen soon, so might as well start using the name!
DB: Dr. Brown's my mother! You can just call me Daril, <laugh> but thank you!
AB: <Laugh> You are welcome! Thank you so much for joining me today.
Her Royal Science jingle