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Allsop, Davis-Reyes, Smith Named Among 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America

January 13, 2021
by Jordan Sisson

Three members of the Department of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine were included in Cell Mentor’s recent list of 1,000 inspiring Black scientists in America.

AZA Allsop, Second-Year Resident in Psychiatry, Brionna Davis-Reyes, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychiatry, and Keisha Smith, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychiatry, were among those listed in the category of “Rising Stars.”

The list was compiled by The Community of Scholars, a group of Persons Excluded because of their Ethnicity or Race (PEER) composed of postdoctoral fellows, early-stage investigators, instructors, and consultants.

“This post is for the present, but it is also a foundation of the future,” The Community of Scholars wrote. “This is for our brothers and sisters that believed that they were alone in the struggle or did not know that there were others like them. For the Black scientists whose quirkiness was ridiculed not accepted. We hope that this post enables the next generation to fulfill their need to change the world.”

Allsop did pancreatic cancer research, while minoring in jazz studies and philosophy, at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), before entering the Harvard/MIT MD-PhD program. In addition to his work as a resident, Allsop is also a music artist and co-founder of Renaissance Entertainment LLC, a company that operates at the intersection of art, science, and community building to drive culture.

At Yale, Allsop and his group are decoding the computations that lead to social bias and using music and mindfulness to decrease the negative impact of stress and facilitate social cohesion in communities of African Descent.

“It’s really an honor and privilege to be included in this list of people who I look up to and who have served as mentors,” Allsop said. “At this early stage of my career, it’s great to see a publication highlighting how many amazing scientists are coming out of the African diaspora.”

“I would love for future generations to not need a list like this because the very definition of what it means to be a scientist is inclusive and not steeped in a legacy of white supremacy. I think to continue moving towards that goal, all of us in academia need to double down on our efforts toward truth, justice, equity, and inclusion. I hope that everyone on this list continues to bring their full self to the academic space so that we can continue to transform the culture of science. I’m really grateful to be in Yale’s Psychiatry department where we have the space to confront these social challenges within our department and the larger academic community.”

Davis-Reyes is a translational neuroscientist with specializations in addiction neurobiology and protein biochemistry. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Prairie View A&M University and completed her graduate work at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) under the tutelage of Noelle C. Anastasio, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. At UTMB, Davis-Reyes’ studies largely revolved around understanding the neurobiology of impulsivity, or action without sufficient foresight, in the context of glutamate utilizing preclinical models.

In her work as a postdoc at Yale, she studies cognitive control in the context of substance use disorders using clinical neuroimaging tools under Marc Potenza, PhD, MD, Professor of Psychiatry in the Child Study Center and of Neuroscience, and Director of the Yale Program for Research on Impulsivity and Impulse Control Disorders. She also spends time spearheading social justice initiatives and is the co-founder of the Yale School of Medicine Black Postdoctoral Association (YBPA). The YBPA stands to create a community of Black scholars who feel included by highlighting Black scientists within and outside of the organization, creating community outreach programs, and finding ways to socialize in a pandemic.

“Being featured in ‘Top 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America,’ published by Cell Mentor in collaboration with The Community of Scholars, is a great honor. As a Black Scientist, I know that we often feel isolated and alone. Seeing this list, and being a part of it, is a reminder that we are out here, and we are doing great science, and I think that is critical. Representation matters,” Davis-Reyes said.

Davis-Reyes also elaborated on the additional burden of being a Black woman in science. “Although I am a unique individual, the root of my story as a Black woman in science is not unique. I am talked over, overworked, underpaid, undervalued, and rarely confident despite being overqualified. The truth is, Black women in science endure, but the marvel is that we exist despite the multitude of ways in which we were meant to fail. Our representation is the catalyst that will ignite fires in little Black girls who are curious about the world. These little girls are our champions. They will step into our footprints wearing their own shoes, at a sprint that we could never have imagined, our stories immortalized through their success.”

Smith graduated from The University of Memphis in 2007, where she earned a bachelor's degree in biology with a minor in African and African American Studies . In 2019, she earned her PhD in biomedical sciences, with emphasis in neuroscience, at Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 2019 under Tultul Nayyar, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Pharmacology. There Smith investigated how the use of hormonal contraceptives may correlate with the development of depressive symptoms and she found that women using progesterone-only contraceptives had reduced beta-arrestin1 levels and higher depressive symptoms, as well as elevated plasma levels of IL-1β.

Currently, Smith's research focuses on using neuroimaging to evaluate the brain’s response to different hormonal processes on stress and addiction, as well as sex differences, as a way to study, prevent, diagnose, and treat mood disorders such as stress and anxiety in substance use disorders.

"Being included on the list of 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientist in America is a cumulation of one of my lifelong goals, and that is to show Black students on all levels what a scientist is and that they look like me!" Smith said. "Hopefully, this exposure will inspire a new generation of Black scientists and researchers to pursue their dreams despite what obstacles they may face."

Submitted by Jordan Sisson on January 13, 2021