Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Seen and supported: neuroscience and behavior PhD candidate Mélise Edwards reflects on creating community as a Black scholar

Neuroscientist Mélise Edwards creates space for underrepresented scholars in STEM
Catharine Li

There’s a certain mobility about Mélise Edwards. A sense of fluidity around her endeavors in science, mentorship and activism, intersectional to her identity as a biracial Black woman in academia. As a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the Neuroscience and Behavior program at the University of Massachusetts, questions of people and place are central to her work —as is her own reflection with the potential for shared identity across communities.

A non-linear path to higher education imbues her story with unique anecdotes of access and adversity, but also overwhelming tenacity. You cannot separate science from the systems by which they are practiced. But Edwards is intent on the dialogue she fosters, the noise she makes and the spaces she works tirelessly to create when envisioning science where scholars who look like her are not only seen, but heard.

Whether researching the impact of aromatase inhibitors like Letrozole on cognitive function, connecting Black youth and underrepresented communities to STEM opportunities, or engaging with feminist literature, Edwards is most confident pursuing models of “appreciative inquiry,” where the culmination of individual experiences can compose a stronger whole.

It is fair to say that moments of stillness are few and far between for Edwards. But at this current moment, Edwards — traveling between presentations and conferences, wrapping up loose ends before graduation — is simply just trying, as she says, like everyone else, to retain connections to her work and why they matter outside of an institutional space.

Edwards’ research investigates sex differences in disease with a focus on Alzheimer’s disease. Her broader interests explore the effects of estrogens and the cytochromes P450 enzyme family on gene expression and cell signaling in the brain.

As a former member of the Hormones and Cognition lab, Edwards brought RNA-sequencing skills to investigate the effects of the Letrozole on brain gene expression. Her work with common marmoset brain tissue helped her understand how aromatase inhibitors affect cognitive function. Her findings indicated that Letrozole-treated animals showed significant gene expression changes in the hippocampus of the brain, important for learning and memory.

“I had to teach myself a lot and find external sources who could help me learn how to design an RNA-seq experiment,” Edwards said. “I had never done any aspect of this work before, so I hope this encourages folks who think they have to be experts in everything before applying to graduate school.”

Edwards is the recipient of the Dissertation Award, issued by the Center for Research on Families, a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow and Spaulding-Smith Fellow among other campus-level, national and international accolades.

Now “all but dissertated,” Edwards finds a new opportunity to consider who she is, and what comes next.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in evolutionary biology, ecology and French at Appalachian State University, her undergraduate research solidified her passion for animals and nature. An internship to study flying squirrels, turtles and other species across the Blue Ridge Parkway further cemented a love for the outdoors.

It was not until she started her doctorate where self-advocacy and lived experience as a function of activism would position Edwards to think as critically with systems of privilege in academia. Edwards reflected on how she moved through spaces of higher education with a certain consciousness of value systems.

These systems, as Edwards explains, are baked into the cultural landscape of higher education, reflected in the disproportionate representation of women, Black and Hispanic individuals in science.

“Being able to obtain one of the highest degrees in the world – a degree that less than two percent of the world has – brings up many mixed emotions for me,” Edwards said. “On one hand, I am exceedingly grateful…I was repeatedly told by racially overrepresented scholars that I was a diversity hire and would never be fit for higher education. To make it this far having faced so many systemic and personal struggles from a very young age feels nothing short of miraculous.”

Being uncomfortable in a space of higher education is not unfamiliar to Edwards. It is, however, one of Edwards’ primary mechanisms to act and pave the way for change. She consciously integrates this idea into her perspectives on finding community.

“Community is such a beautiful and challenging topic,” Edwards said. “When we talk about community, it’s important to think about the many different types of communities that exist. There are some that we choose with intention and others we may belong to with varying sense of connection or belonging.”

This notion of visibility is the core of Edwards’ mentorship model. To be an effective mentor, there’s a sense of reciprocity Edwards believes must be curated between mentor and mentee. Edwards is certain of the sheer growth she herself has experienced while becoming a better mentor with time.

“At the most basic level, I think it is really important to foster an environment where accountability and healthy dialogue aren’t feared by people in positions of power or privilege,” Edwards said. “Scholars should be able to ask for what they need, share ideas, make decisions as a group without majoritarianism constantly reinforcing the status quo… and engage in dialogue without all conflict seen as scary.”

Many of the ways in which Edwards’ perception of community have changed are rooted in an embrace for its constantly transforming qualities. After co-founding MUSE Mentorship Inc. alongside colleagues of color in 2019, the intent to provide resources for underrepresented scholars, particularly Black and Native scholars, was also an earnest effort to provide representation. Edwards and her colleagues have been able to award over $40,000 in scholarships since beginning their respective doctorate programs.

When working with students and mentees, Edwards always approaches her work at a distance. Granting those she works with the agency and ownership of their own goals helps to foster a framework for mentorship that decenters the mentor, and effectively begins to deconstruct many of the same expectations for hierarchy present throughout academia.

“…In academia it feels like a very extractive and exploitative process,” Edwards said. “…Even though I’m learning from the student, they’re learning from me, and we’re… constantly doing this exchange — back and forth of information and ideas. The focus is on their career goals and their trajectory.”

Edwards believes in relationship-based learning that positions mentors and mentees on equal ground to employ strategies of co-creation. Where Edwards is transparent with her own shortcomings, she finds strength and greater purpose knowing that she does not have all the answers, and that knowledge is best shared through application — and failure.

“…It’s not about me making [mentees] a copy-cutter image of me,” Edwards said. “It’s being your own person and making sure that you’re happy and fulfilled and that we can co-create this sort of process together.”

One of the most important mediums for effective mentorship is conversation. Working through complex ideas, Edwards says, takes time. But being collaborative with others also “struggling with these ideas and concepts” helps situate academic concepts within greater themes of social justice.

Edwards’ own experiences with racism, gender discrimination, ableism, homophobia and classism are deeply impactful indicators of personal hardship for which she knows are often shared across the experiences of her minority colleagues. She also draws attention to the ways in which she benefits from attitudes of colorism as a lighter-skinned individual, which while not as light as white people, still offers her significant privilege.

“I see my job as like ‘how can I utilize my privilege and resources and power?’” Edwards said. “In a way that we can both kind of help you, [the mentee] have the best outcome possible.”

Edwards maintains agency over her story, but also recognizes the importance of constantly pushing boundaries, and pushing to amplify voices who come from similar backgrounds.

“Community has been something that hasn’t always been the most stable to me,” Edwards said. “Especially as somebody who’s biracial, I am Black, and that’s how I’m usually racially perceived but I also have that other part of my identity that also informs so much of my privilege and the way that I move through spaces.”

Ultimately, Edwards looks to keep her post-graduation options open as she defines new notions of community and pathways to explore the depths of her interests. While she considers potential research on whales as a model of hypoxia, and the translational benefits to human health, she is eager to continue learning and growing alongside scholars of diverse backgrounds.

“I also love that no matter what this university and these systems try to take from us, we will always have our capacity to dream of something different,” Edwards said.

Catharine Li can be reached at [email protected] and found on Twitter @catharinexli.

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