February is Black History Month in the United States. This year, ACS Axial is looking forward and highlighting noteworthy African American chemists working today, engaging them in conversation about their life and work.
Blanton S. Tolbert is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Case Western Reserve University.
How would you describe your current area of focus?
I don’t like putting myself in a box, but since it’s required of us sometimes, I would describe myself as a biophysical chemist/structural biologist. Our scientific interest really lies at the interface of trying to understand protein-RNA molecular recognition and how the formation of protein-RNA complexes contribute to gene expression. We pursue that by way of studying RNA and related retroviruses.
How did you become involved with this field? What inspired you?
My Ph.D. was done at the University of Rochester. I had kind of an unusual, I would say, Ph.D. trajectory. I started out in a lab that was doing protein crystallography biophysics, and that lab’s scientific interest was on the ubiquitin-proteosome system. About halfway through my Ph.D. training, my Ph.D. advisor took a position at a different institution. Therefore, I was kind of in this very unfortunate position of having to find a new Ph.D. lab to go and finish my training, or leave the program altogether or go to another university.
I ended up switching to a lab where the focus was on RNA thermodynamics and structural biology. At the time, it seemed like, ‘Oh man, any Ph.D. student would hate for something like this to ever happen.’ But it was probably one of the most fortuitous things to happen because it got me thinking about protein and RNA. I knew then that I kind of wanted to try and combine these two areas in my own lab.
Once I left my Ph.D., I ended up doing a postdoc with Michael Summers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. And his lab really focused on the structural biology of RNA viruses, HIV in particular, and MLV, Moloney leukemia virus. That’s where I developed the interest in virology. But the scientific approach that we take to that in my own lab, I could trace back to working in those very two different labs as a Ph.D. student. If it wasn’t for my initial Ph.D. advisor leaving the institution, I probably would’ve ended up on a completely different path.
Could you dig a little bit more into what that period was like for you? How did you decide what the next step for you was going to look like?
I talk about this a lot with my own students and students in general because the Ph.D. process can be daunting and challenging when it’s smooth, and you end up in one lab, and you finish in that lab. That in itself can be challenging because there are ups and downs with experiments, and that goes on.
That period, in particular for me, was quite tough. I’ll be honest with you. When it first happened, there were many thoughts that were racing through my mind. I considered just leaving the Ph.D. program altogether, maybe going to pursue an MBA. I considered maybe law school could be an option, or even just trying to find a new Ph.D. program altogether at a different institution to enroll in.
I’m very fortunate to have worked for some really just great, in my opinion, mentors. The guy who I started my Ph.D. with sat me down and said, ‘Blanton, you have a knack for this. You have a passion; you’re good at it. I can help you find another lab to join,’ knowing my interests, which at the time was really basic science and molecular recognition, how molecules interact with each other. It’s still my passion today. He helped me identify the lab that I ended up finishing my Ph.D. in. So really, he played a key role in helping me make that transition.
But I wanted to have some publications from my initial lab to verify that I worked for this guy. So there’s about a period of six months where I literally worked in that lab alone after he left to take his new position. The lab was kind of small. There was a student who had just joined, so that person found another home rather easily. There was another student who was in his sixth year, who was pretty much just writing their dissertation from home, and then there was me. And there may have been a technician or two who had left. So, for about six months, I had to go into the lab every morning, open it up, run my experiments, collect my data, close the lab down at night, go home and analyze the data and communicate with him via email.
It was in that six-month period that I had to learn to be independent as a graduate student. I think it benefitted me, in the long run, to be quite honest. It’s not something that I would ever encourage that someone would have to go through, but for me, personally, it gave me a sense of self-confidence, and it also demonstrated to me that, ‘Hey I can do this on my own.’
I imagine it eventually made setting up your own lab a little easier.
It did, in many ways, because you don’t gain a lot of experience when everything works out exactly the way it should. I got that experience kind of early in the process. And now it’s an interesting story that I share with people, particularly because the Ph.D. is not easy, and I like to communicate to people my own story, so they get an idea that, ‘hey you know, you can get through these things for sure.’
You mention not wanting to be put in a box, scientifically speaking. How do you fight that? How do you keep your work fresh for yourself?
For me, personally, I pursue what my interests are. I had to sort of make that pivot and now start working on RNA, which I had never really thought about. When I joined the Ph.D. program, I was very much protein-centric. I wanted to do protein structural biology; that’s all I cared about. I didn’t even really care about the general area. It could’ve been cancer, immunology; I just wanted to do protein-centric structural biology. So, when I had to make that pivot and start thinking about RNA, I started really thinking about protein RNA recognition. That’s where my passions are to this day. I think it’s fascinating to think about how molecules find themselves in a complex environment like the cell, right? And make sure they’re forming the right type of interaction to regulate biology.
And so, to answer your question, I stay fresh and avoid putting myself in a box because I pursue the questions that I’m interested in. I let the biology determine what techniques we use, who we collaborate with, and where we end up. I’m very much a question-based person, as opposed to a technique-based person, as opposed to, let’s say, ‘I’m a chemical biologist, and I want to design small molecules to do x, y, and z.’ That’s not me; I’m really interested in biological questions. I figure out, ‘OK, so, how can I put together the right set of people, the right set of experiments, so that we can carve out the answers to those types of questions?’
STEM is still a field where African Americans are underrepresented. What do you think needs to change in order to address that?
There are a number of things, to be quite frank, that need to change. I think one of the things, for sure, is we need more examples of people who have gone on to be successful. That is very powerful, the ability to identify with someone who has been successful at the end of the STEM pipeline. That, in many ways, is how a lot of underrepresented minorities fall out of the pipeline. I think that having more examples of people who have struggled with the pipeline but who have figured out strategies and mechanisms on how to be successful and they are willing to share some of that advice will be a part of that solution.
I also think that part of the solution is just for people in general, to just see each other as individuals and not by our ethnicities and the color of our skin, right? We want to, you know, get to know a person on an individual basis and start to develop relationships with those people. I think that’s going to be a key component.
Then the other thing it kind of relates to is, how do you identify talent? How do you evaluate talent? The metrics for evaluating talent in many ways need to be broadened, reconsidered, or expanded. I think those are some things that are actually within reach, they don’t take a whole lot of effort, and that would make a difference.
When you talk about evaluating talent, are you talking about standardized testing? Are you talking about mentorship?
Looking beyond the number, looking beyond the score. One of the things that I personally do when accepting students in my lab, this might sound bad, but I really don’t place a lot of emphasis on what the person’s academic background or track record may have been.
What I try to do, as much as possible, is get a feeling for their motivation, their interests, their leadership abilities, their abilities to work in a team environment. I use those types of characteristics of what we would probably call soft factors to figure out if the person will be a good fit for my research group. I think that when we stick to these formulas, which are largely driven by how many papers, or how many citations, or x, y, and z, then you might miss some very innovative and creative and sharp individuals because the metric is just too narrow.
I’ve thought about why that isn’t adopted more broadly, and I don’t have a really good explanation for it. In part, I think it’s easy because all of us can count, right? So it’s easier to just look at numbers and say this person will be successful or not. But it also, in many ways, just doesn’t require a lot of effort. To do what I’m suggesting requires you to spend a little more time and to try to get to know the individual, and so I think that plays into it as well.
What’s the piece of advice that you wish you’d received before you started your career in chemistry?
I’ve been asked this question recently over the past year a couple of times now, and there are many different things that I would have probably advised my graduate student self on, based off of where I am now and what I know. But I think the singular most important piece of advice to me would’ve been to say, ‘There’s this concept that’s known as impostor syndrome, and we all experience it, and we may not actually be comfortable with admitting it or saying it.’ But to actually understand that impostor syndrome is a complicated dynamic. You, as an individual, have to know what your values are, what your contributions are, and know that you deserve to be there and that you can be successful. I would say, ‘Look at impostor syndrome head on’ and say, ‘This is a complete waste of physical and mental energy and that I need to stay focused on what my goals are.’ And let that be the motivation to get me through whatever challenges I might face along the way.
Who were the chemists that have inspired you? Past or present?
I’ve really been inspired by a number of scientists for different reasons, some of them just by their approach to things. Linus Pauling, when I first learned about him. He received two Noble Prizes, in chemistry and the peace prize. I was blown away by that. Just because we don’t see a lot of scientists who have that demonstrated range of thought or, let’s say, motivations or interests. So he was a big inspiration to me.
Other scientists that have inspired me are ones that I looked at, and I thought they had a similar cultural experience as mine. Early on, as I was even considering biophysics, I was trying to search and see, ‘OK are there any Black biophysicists out there, some people I can actually learn about?’
Steve Mayo at Caltech, was definitely one of the people who just stood out. He was a leader and still is, and a pioneer at the time. For me, he was quite an inspiration. I don’t think he knows this; I mean, we don’t know each other, but definitely, he was someone that I could look to and say, ‘This is an example of someone who at least looks like me who has gone on to be very successful.’ So, I must be able to do this. I just need to figure out how.
What do you wish I’d have asked you?
I don’t know. Maybe a little bit about my background?
What should people know about your background?
I’m from a small town in South Carolina; the name of the town is Greenwood. The town has about 25,000-28,000 people. There are a lot of interesting things about being from the south, being Black, being from a very small town. I would not have imagined, growing up in my town, that I would end up where I am today – running a research lab and training people from all over the world. I look back on that, and I’m like, ‘That’s really cool.’
I had a very good family foundation. I’m the youngest of 3. My older brother is a physician, a medical doctor. My sister is a middle school principal; she has her EDD. And my father is deceased, but he was a minister. My mother has her doctorate in theology. And so, I was, to be quite honest, lucky to be born into this sort of nuclear family that put a lot of emphasis on education.
And I had personal role models. Number one, my first role model in my early life was my older brother, seven years older than me. And I think that really gave me a lot of encouragement and a lot of confidence that you can be successful. Even coming from this small town like I did. That’s one of the things I like to share with people. My background is very important to me. Where I came from is very important to me because it established my values system.