I was delighted to speak with the incomparable Angeline Dukes recently, a Neuroscience PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine and Founder/President of Black In Neuro. During our conversation, Angeline candidly shares her path to present day; she initially thought she would become a pediatrician, then realized she felt most fulfilled in the classroom, teaching and mentoring the next generation of young scientists. After graduating from Fisk University—a historically Black college/university (HBCU) in Nashville, Tennessee—she began her neuroscience career at UC Irvine, studying the effects of adolescent nicotine and cannabinoid exposure in mice. Future Dr Dukes is just a few short months away from finishing her PhD, and she is thrilled to be joining the University of Minnesota Medical School as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neuroscience. As Angeline begins her new position—which will be equal parts teaching undergraduate classes and leading diversity, equity, and inclusion projects—I hope you will join me in celebrating the beautiful legacy of mentorship and community that she is continues to build and cultivate.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Angeline Dukes: I firmly believe that every single person can understand science, belongs in science, deserves to see themselves as succeeding in this field, and they just need someone who can provide them with that reassurance and that guidance and be like, 'No, this is how you do it.'
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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 Angeline Dukes, a Neuroscience PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine, where she studies the long-term effects of adolescent nicotine and cannabinoid exposure. She previously completed her BA in Biology at Fisk University, followed by her MSc in Neuroscience at UC Irvine. Future Dr Dukes is also the President and Founder of Black In Neuro, a grassroots organization that fosters community and connection between Black neuroscientists around the world. I am over the moon to chat with Angeline today about her research, about Black In Neuro, her plans for the future, and so much more, but let's start from the very beginning—Angeline, what's your story?
AD: Thank you so much for having me first of all. I'm really excited to be on this podcast and I absolutely love the work that you do with it, so thank you!
AB: Thank you!
AD: With me, starting [at] the beginning would be that I am a first-generation American. My parents are immigrants—my mom is from Trinidad and my dad is from Haiti—and so growing up, I didn't even know that being a neuroscientist was a career option. I had absolutely no idea what that meant. I never saw anyone who looked like me who was a science professor. You grow up and you see Albert Einstein, you see Bill Nye, right? And they're old white men. So, as a young Black girl, I did not see myself in these spaces at all, and as a daughter of immigrants, I really wasn't sure of all the different career options I could have. I knew growing up, becoming a doctor—a medical doctor—or becoming a lawyer were the things that you could do to make your parents proud, and I had no interest in political science at all! <Laugh> That was just not my thing, so I decided at a pretty young age that I was going to be a pediatrician. I was like, 'Oh, I love babies! I think kids are great, and I could help them, I wanna help the world, so this is what I wanna do.' That was my path. That was what I was going to do.
All throughout elementary school, middle school, high school, if you asked me what I was going to do with my life, I was going to medical school. I was going to be a pediatrician. I had that set. I just knew that that's what I was going to do.
I went to Fisk University for undergrad. It's a historically Black college/university. It's in Nashville, Tennessee. It's fairly small. It's about a thousand students in total, so it's a very small.
AB: Oh wow, really?
AD: Yeah, it's really small, <laugh> but it was perfect. I absolutely loved my time at Fisk. It was the best experience I've ever had. It's where I met my best friends. I met my husband there. But that's also the place where I first met Black women who were professors and who were scientists. [That] was the first time I ever met someone with a doctorate who was a Black woman, and that experience in itself was so meaningful for me, especially when about halfway through undergrad, I realized I didn't wanna go to med school and I didn't want to be a pediatrician. I didn't want to do this thing that I had been dreaming of my entire life because I wasn't actually passionate about it.
I realized that I wanted to do it because my family wanted me to, because I felt like it was something that would make them proud of me, and it wasn't really where my heart was. So then, I had to really reflect and think about the things that made me happy, the things that I was passionate about, the things that brought me joy, and I realized I really love teaching! I love mentoring. I love talking to students. I love getting them excited about science. I was a tutor and I was a mentor all throughout undergrad and [I helped] my peers understand scientific concepts that they previously did not. They were just like, 'I don't know what this is. I don't care what this is.' Just helping them, like, 'No, you can really understand this; this is a thing, this is how it benefits your life. This is how it relates,' and just having them gain that level of understanding and just being able to see themselves like, 'Okay, maybe science isn't so hard, and maybe I do belong in this field. Maybe I can understand these concepts in a way that's relevant to my life'—I really love doing that.
I decided, 'I want to teach, I want to become a professor,' but I had no idea how to do that <laugh> at all! And like I said, I think I was really lucky in that I went to an HBCU because I did have these Black women who were professors who were like, 'You want to do what I do? Let me show you how!' and they were the ones who were like, 'You can go to graduate school, get a PhD. This is how you do this.' And I was like, 'Okay, cool. What's grad school?' <laugh> because as I mentioned, my whole life I had just been on this med school track; I just knew med school was the way to go. It’s what I wanted to do, and so the idea of going to graduate school was completely foreign to me.
When I—and I can tell you more about this if you're interested— when I was applying [to] graduate school, I only applied to... I was gonna apply to five schools. I actually submitted four applications because the night that the applications were due, I had this existential crisis where I was just like, 'There's no reason for me to apply. They're not gonna accept me. Why would I even bother? I don't have enough research experience. I don't know what I'm doing, so there's no reason.' And I had a friend who was just like, 'The worst thing they can do is tell you no.' And so, I was like, 'Alright!' I got three interviews and one acceptance, and that's how I'm here at UCI right now, which has been amazing in itself.
That's really how my story got started. It really just kind of happened when I was applying for graduate programs. Like I said, I didn't know what I was doing or what I was getting myself into. I only applied for interdisciplinary or interdepartmental programs, because I really wasn't fully sure what neuroscience entailed, all of the different research areas and everything I could do. UCI happened to have an interdepartmental neuroscience program, and so that's what made me apply to it, and I love it now. I absolutely love the field. I love all the people in it. And of course, as you know, I really love Black In Neuro.
AB: Absolutely! And we'll talk a little bit more about that later. I'm wondering if you could speak more to the crisis that you were feeling as you realized that medicine wasn't the thing for you. I have had people in my life go through very similar moments where they go, 'I've only dreamt of being a doctor.' Could you talk a little bit more about that? Did you panic? Did you think, 'My goodness, who am I without this path that I visualized my whole life'?
AD: Oh yes, absolutely! <Laugh> I was very distraught. That was my first existential crisis. That was the first one, and then the second one was when I was actually submitting applications for grad school! <Laugh>
I was actually part of a BS to MD program; my school had a partnership with Meharry Medical College, which is also an HBCU, and it was across the street from my university. I got into that program in my freshman year, and basically you would spend the summer taking pre-med classes, preparing for the MCAT, and meeting with doctors and residents and all of that. It's a fantastic program! I 100% recommend it for people who are interested in going to medical school. Through that program, I realized that this was not for me! <Laugh> I think just going through it, talking to different people, seeing what they actually do, getting that experience, I just knew I... I could do it, but I wasn't passionate enough about it.
When I first realized that, I absolutely freaked out. I had called my husband, who was then my boyfriend, and I was just like, 'I don't know what to do if I'm not a medical doctor; I don't know what to do with myself if this isn't what I'm going to do with my life.' And I was mostly really worried about telling my family. I think talking to my parents, and especially telling my dad too, because I just... I know how hard he's worked. I know, 'These are the sacrifices that you all have made. I know that this is what you want for me, but this isn't what I want.' And I think that scared me the most, but they were so supportive, after the initial shock wore off of 'This isn't what I'm actually gonna be doing,' eventually they did come around. My dad is so excited right now! He was just telling me, he's so proud of me for finishing my PhD this year, and he can't wait for graduation.
AB: Oh, yeah! I can imagine.
AD: Yeah, it took some coming around, but now whenever he tells people like, 'Oh, my daughter's a neuroscientist!' It's just... I can tell he's really proud of me, and I think that by choosing the thing that makes me the happiest, that's what makes him the most proud.
AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>. And I think so many parents, if they're listening to this—I don't know how many parents listen to this <chuckle>—even if they have young children, I want that to be in their minds, that a child being happy is so much more paramount than the success of their career, even though you're incredibly successful, so it's not like you even lost on that front, but for situations where some people might think, 'Oh, but I really want the security of a medical career,' well, girl, you got [the] security of a professorship! <Laugh> Congratulations! How did it happen? How did you choose the school that you're going to be joining very, very soon?
AD: Yeah! Honestly, it just kind of happened. I feel like this is, like, the theme of my life in general. <Laugh> I just happen to be in the right place, the right time, talking to the right people, where things just kind of happen. I don't wanna downplay all of the hard work and effort that I put into it; I'm really trying to do better at being like, 'No, I have worked really hard to be able to get into these types of positions,' but it really is similar to how Black In Neuro got started and everything. It came from a tweet! <Laugh> Being on social media is just a great way to connect with people.
Last year in, like, August, I think, or September, I had just put out a tweet mostly mentioning that I had a busy quarter coming up. I was adjuncting two classes—I was teaching my own classes over the summer, and then in the fall I taught my own class at another university—I was really excited about that. I was also wrapping up my dissertation experiments, and that's when I officially announced that I was on the job market. And that in itself was a little scary, just because I was very openly saying the types of positions that I was looking for aren't what you traditionally think of for someone who's now gotten a PhD, right?Most of the time they expect you to be a PI and to run your own lab, and I had no interest in doing that at all. And I knew that from the beginning; the reason I went to graduate school is because I love teaching and because I wanna teach my own classes, not because I wanna run my own research lab.
AB: Gosh, same here actually. Okay, then! <Laugh>
AD: Oh! I love that. <Laugh> It's so good to hear just because, normally, that's what they expect. Even being in graduate school, you know, they kind of push that on you a little bit and they're like, 'Oh, but you could, and you should!' And I think there's also a little bit of guilt there too, because you and I both know, right? There aren't a ton of Black PIs. There's not a ton of Black people in our field doing all this research. And so, you feel a little bit guilty because you know you want to be that for someone else. You want to be an amazing PI, and you want to run a research lab that's supportive and inclusive and really represents all the good that there is in science. But I also knew that that would take away from what I set out to do. I want to have a classroom that is inclusive and that teaches students that they belong in this field, that shows them, 'This is what a scientist looks like. This is what a professor looks like. This is what I look like, and I belong here as much as anybody else, and so do you.' I knew that that would take away from that, so I was very open in that I wanted a teaching-focused job, or I'm really also interested in program directing. Being president of Black In Neuro and has shown me how much I really love leading diversity-, equity-, and inclusion-focused programming, and how important that is to create those spaces for people. And so, I knew that this is something I would really love doing. And I was just like, 'Yeah, I'm open to either. If anyone knows of any job opportunities, just let me know.'
Patrick Rothwell, who's over at the University of Minnesota, had seen my tweet and he is the one who contacted me... He actually contacted one of my friends, Danielle Watt, who works at Minnesota as well, and was like, 'What would it take to get her to come here?' <Laugh> She's the one who told him that I really love teaching, so that's how the conversation got started. We kind of went back and forth a lot because originally, we were looking at me being a program director for their post-bac programs. There's the MINDS [Minnesota Inclusive Neuroscience Development Scholars] program, which is this post-bac program that specifically [provides] research experience for recently graduated students, specifically Black, Hispanic, Indigenous students, or those from other historically-excluded backgrounds, to provide them with research experience and opportunities for professional development, that way they are better prepared for applying to PhD programs or medical school. So, I was like, 'Oh, that sounds really cool, but also, I really love teaching and I wanna keep a foot in the classroom. I would love to be able to teach my own classes.' Together, us and Paul Mermelstein—who is the Associate Head of the [Neuroscience] Department there—we all kind of worked together and came up with this new position that I have now, which is absolutely amazing because it encompasses everything I want to do. I don't feel like I have to let go of anything! I get to do all of the things that make me excited and make me happy. And I really feel like I can help as many students as possible in this way. I'm really, really excited about it. I'll be splitting my time between teaching undergraduate neuroscience classes and leading my own DEI initiatives, as well as co-directing the MINDS post-bac programs. I'm super excited!
AB: That's so perfect for you. So, so perfect!
AD: Thank you! I think it's amazing. I really could not believe that they were so willing to work with me, that people wanted to recruit me so badly, wanted me at their institution, and want to pay me to do the things that I love to do.
AB: Yeah! Oh, that's so beautiful. And one of the other things that you're very, very famous for, beyond being absolutely spectacular, is running Black In Neuro, which is a wonderful initiative that I have been cheerleading this entire time. I'm such a huge fan and in awe of every single one of you. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you've learned over the last, I guess, almost two years now, of Black In Neuro, because it started summer of 2020. For those who might be listening to this and are interested in possibly starting a grassroots organization like Black In Neuro, what are some of the obstacles that you all have faced that someone could keep in mind so that they don't hit their foot on the same rock, as my mom would say?
AD: It's a good saying! I think one of the biggest things that I have learned is that you need a lot of really good people who are equally passionate about it as you are. There were times, and I'm not afraid to admit this, that I couldn't focus on Black In Neuro; although my heart was in it, I did not have the energy to give to it. I had experiments to run. I had, you know, teaching to do. I had other things that were demanding my attention that I couldn't focus on Black In Neuro as much as I wanted to, and I felt a little bit guilty about that, but also because we have such an incredible team, there were other people who were willing to step up and be like, 'Oh no, I can do this or I can do that!' Or like, 'Don't worry about it; I have it covered.'
I think that has been the number one driving force of what has continued to make us be so successful. We have so many absolutely phenomenal people on the team who are just so willing to put in the work and get things done. And that's why every single chance I get, I love to shout them out because it's not a one-woman job, right? Like, I can't just be President and Founder, and I do everything, like, no, that is absurdly impossible and it's a lot of work. I think that's really what helps a lot; there's so many people who care deeply about this organization and want it to succeed, and are willing to donate their time and efforts. None of us get paid to do this. This is all volunteer work and we do it because we love it, and because we know how important it is for our community. We're willing to give our energies towards allowing it to continue and to seeing us thrive.
I think that that has been the biggest thing, finding people who care about it as much as you do, but also understanding people's other roles and responsibilities outside of that, right? For me, as President, one of the biggest things I do is I check in with everyone on the team regularly. And also, every year I give them an out, so I'm like, 'I appreciate all of the work that you've done. We love you a lot. We appreciate everything you've done, but if you need to step back, if you need to focus on your studies'—because most of us are trainees, right? We're graduate students, postdocs, undergraduates—'I understand those things come first, and so if you need to step back from Black In Neuro, no hard feelings; you're always welcome to attend the events, come hang out with us. Like, we still love you, but I understand.'
Allowing people to not feel bad for needing to prioritize other things in their life, I think that that helps a lot too. Like I said, having that big team helps in that regard as well, because then if someone does need to step back, someone else can step up.
AB: I want to say thank you before we move on to our next topic because Black In Neuro was... [BIN] came together at a time when I personally desperately needed it. And I know so many of us were searching for a space like this and I don't think any of us dreamt that something like this would exist. [I’m grateful for] the friends that I've been able to connect with because of Black In Neuro. We check in with each other. We just make sure that each other's good. I met a couple of the BIN team in person and it just made me so happy, so I thank you. Thank you for that initial tweet, for sending it out, and to all of the BIN team who hopefully will listen to this interview as well, thank you of you for your hearts, for your effort, and for doing this unpaid, when I think this work is so valuable, so incredibly valuable.
AD: Oh, I'm so glad to hear that. Like, I love... Sorry, it's gonna make me emotional, because I really love when I hear people from the community who let us know how much it means to them and what they've gained from it, because that's the whole point. That's why we do this. It's for you, it's for other Black neuroscientists to see themselves, and to know that this community is here, right? We love you, we want to support you, and we want you to know that there are people who care about your success so deeply. And so, I just, I love that you have that, that just... It means the world to me.
AB: Well, thank you. You all mean the world to me as well. I do want us to switch gears just a tiny bit because I'd love to hear about your research, the work that you've put together over the last, is it four or five years at this point? I'd love to hear about that as well. What do you study? I talked a little about it in the intro, but I'd love to hear more.
AD: Yeah, so I'm an addiction neuroscientist. I study adolescent exposure to nicotine and cannabinoids, like THC, and how that impacts long-term development and relapse-related behaviors. I use a mouse model to study this, and essentially what happens is during adolescence, mice are exposed to [nicotine]; we have this new system where we can expose them to vaporized nicotine. I'm not sure how prevalent it is in Canada, but definitely here in the US, there is quite a bit of exposure to like vape pens and Juul pods, all of those electronic cigarettes. Unfortunately, a lot of teens are using them too because they have all of those interesting flavors, and although they're trying to ban some of them, it's still accessible to youth.
[Using] this vaporized nicotine exposure system, we can then expose the mice to vaporized nicotine and see how that impacts them later. I also give them THC—I'm doing oral THC—so similar to how there's edibles, right? There's THC-infused gummies and brownies, and all of those things that also are very appealing to youth, because they're fun, interesting flavors that they wanna have access to. So, I do this exposure where they're exposed to the vaporized nicotine, to the oral THC, or they're exposed to both of them, because what we actually see is there's a lot of co-exposure happening. Usually, you know, teens might be eating edibles and vaping nicotine, or they might be vaping both of them. There's usually some type of co-exposure that's also occurring, so I have that being explored as well. After the initial adolescent exposure, I let them grow up, and in adulthood, I've performed a series of different tests, everything from like anxiety-associated tasks to food training. We train them; we put them in these boxes and we train them to press a lever to get food. After they've learned this really well—because they're a little hungry, so they're like, 'Oh, I can press this lever and I'll get food. This is great!'—then I do a surgery and I put a catheter in their vein. This time when I put them back in the boxes after surgery, when they press the lever, instead of getting food, they can give themselves nicotine, so they can self-administer nicotine. What this allows me to see is after they've been exposed in adolescence to nicotine or THC—or exposed to both—now in adulthood, do they self-administer more or less nicotine? Does this change their administration behaviors? And this kind of helps us see like, 'Okay, if teens are being exposed to these drugs during adolescence, then in adulthood are they more at risk of smoking more cigarettes, or more at risk of certain relapse-related behaviors?'
AB: Mm. And what have you found so far?
AD: I'm in the process of analyzing all of the things that I have so far. In preliminary studies, when we were doing nicotine injections—because before we did the vaporized nicotine, we did injected nicotine—we found that certain groups, looking at both sexes—we look at both males and females, which is really important because we do find sex specific effects—males that are exposed to cannabinoids like THC self-administer more nicotine at lower and moderate doses than control groups, which is really interesting, whereas females who were exposed to nicotine during adolescence actually administer a little less. I’m curious to see how these things go. And like I said, those were some of the initial studies, so I'm going to be analyzing, for my dissertation, everything that we've been finding so far with the vaporized nicotine and the oral THC. It'll be interesting to see how they compare.
AB: Absolutely! Now that you're switching over to a more teaching role, do you think there will be anything, anything, that you miss about research?
AD: Oh, I think so! I actually... I'm gonna miss the mice. <Laugh> I know that sounds weird, especially because it's not something I ever thought I'd be doing when I was an undergrad. Like, you would've never had me even think about working with mice on a regular basis, but you get used to them. And it's really interesting that you can get really attached unfortunately, but just being able to work with them all the time, and the skills that I've gained are so niche, but also so amazing. Like, when I tell people that I can get a mouse to self-administer nicotine, it's like, what? But it's cool! It's really cool.
AB: It is very cool. And you can take all the knowledge that you've accumulated over the last couple of years in the research world and directly apply it into your teaching role as well, so that's exciting. I did wanna talk a little bit about the notion of paying it forward, because that seemed like a theme that was pervasive in your earlier years, and also now. Earlier with your involvement in the programs at Fisk and learning things from your professors, wanting to be the representation that you saw your professors be for you, did you realize then, when you were still an undergrad, that you could pay it forward, that you wanted to pay it forward, because of all of the amazing people and minds who had poured into you?
AD: Yes! In undergrad, I definitely did. I think that is one of the major driving forces of why I wanted to become a professor, because I knew how impactful it was for me to have these types of professors who genuinely cared. One of my favorite stories that I remind myself of, as far as the type of professor I want to be, is my freshman year, we were about to take our first final for my Intro to Biology course, and Ms McCaroll, who was my biology professor at the time... there were two students who were missing, and like I said, my school was very small. There weren't a ton of students in the class, [so] she noticed that these two students were missing and this would be the only time they were able to take their final exam.
She had their friends call them on the phone and wake them up and be like, 'Hey, you need to come to this 8:00 AM final before you miss it!' And I've never seen a teacher or professor, like, anybody care so much about wanting these students to have the opportunity to succeed. That was just, like, wow, oh my gosh! That was just one of the most impactful things for me because it wasn't just like, 'Oh well, they'll miss it. They're just gonna fail.' It was like, 'No, you need to be here. You need to do this, because we know you can do well. You just need to do it!' And it resonated with me so much as far as, you know, I care very deeply for my students, and I want them to succeed as much as possible and, like, [I want to do] anything I can do to help them get there.
It means the world to me because I firmly believe that every single person can understand science, belongs in science, deserves to see themselves as succeeding in this field, and they just need someone who can provide them with that reassurance and guidance, and be like, 'No, this how you do it. This is how you can do this because you can do it.' I want to be, if I can, that person for one or two people, it will make my life, because I just... I really want them to see themselves with this potential to succeed because I know that they have it in them.
AB: Yeah, I guarantee you it won't be just one or two. I'm sure already, it's in the thousands. I can't thank you enough for being who you are and what you are to us. We will continue to celebrate you, all of your achievements, and everything that comes next. And I hope you feel that love and you feel that support in everything that you do.
AD: Oh, thank you so much! I really appreciate that. And I do! I will say, that has been one of the biggest highlights, just the support that's come from this community. Even me getting this new position and stuff, I feel like when I win, all of us win, and I really love that.
AB: Well, with that, I will say thank you. Thank you so much, Angeline for... I'm not gonna call you by your first name. I'm gonna call you Dr Dukes, because you know what? It's basically already done at this point. Thank you so much, Dr Dukes. Thank you for sharing your story. And I look forward to seeing what's next.
AD: Oh, thank you so much for having me! I really appreciate it.
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