Right now, ISCRM researchers in more than 130 labs are harnessing advances in biology and engineering to confront the root causes of diseases and conditions impacting billions of people worldwide. The discoveries they are making today are only possible because of the trailblazing scientists who came before them. Here, we celebrate the contributions of Black scientists past and present to the field of stem cell and regenerative medicine and related areas of biomedical research. Thank you to BlackPast.org for making the stories of pioneering Black scientists available. (All sources are listed at the bottom of the page. Photos are public domain except where noted.)
Introducing just some of the many Black scientists at UW and ISCRM contributing to biomedical breakthroughs in biology, engineering, and medicine.
Princess Imoukhuede, PhD
Princess Imoukhuede is a chemical engineering and bioengineering leader in systems biology research, engineering education, and academic diversity initiatives. In 2022, she became the chair of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington, where she holds the Hunter and Dorothy Simpson Endowed Chair and Professorship. Dr. Imoukhuede, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, studied chemical engineering at MIT, earned a PhD at Caltech, and worked on vascular growth factors as a postdoctoral scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Her main research interests are the signals and receptors that regulate the formation of blood vessels and the implications of blood vessel growth for wound healing, obesity, and cancer. Dr. Imoukhuede also leads NIH-funded obstetrical research using both quantitative methods and computational modeling to improve the efficacy and safety of administering oxytocin during childbirth. Her work has been recognized with numerous honors and awards, including the Biomedical Engineering Society 2021 Mid-Career Award, BMES Fellow, AIMBE Fellow, IMSA Distinguished Leadership Award, National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the Young Innovator in Nanobiotechnology Award, the AIChE Journal Future Series in 2019. Last year, she was named one of the 1,000 “inspiring Black scientists” by Cell Mentor.
Priscilla Boatemaa is a third-year Biochemistry student at the University of Washington and an undergraduate student researcher in the Musculoskeletal Systems Biology Lab, led by ISCRM faculty member Ron Kwon, PhD. In the lab, Boatemaa studies a gene (TNFSF11) that regulates bone resorption and that is linked to impaired bone health when suppressed or mutated. In one recent project, she performed sophisticated image analysis to confirm for the first time that TNSF11 functions the same way in zebrafish as it does in humans, thereby validating zebrafish as a model for further study of the gene and its role in bone health. Boatemaa, who has always gravitated to math science, hopes to pursue a STEM career as a lab researcher, possibly focused on genetics or viral infections. She is also a board member of the UW Black Student Union.
Aisha Cora is a second-year Electrical Engineering student and an undergraduate researcher in the lab of ISCRM faculty member Kelly Stevens, PhD. In the Stevens Lab, Cora is learning cell and tissue culture techniques as well as tissue engineering, applying electrical engineering framework by regulating the heat produced during 3D bioprinting, and contributing to a team effort to build human tissues. Cora, who grew up in Seattle, hopes to explore her interests in synthetic biology and use her training in engineering to advance technologies that make an impact on human health and that increase equity and accessibility in medicine. In December 2021, she received a Mary Gates Research Endowment Scholarship and is active in AVELA (A Vision for Electronic Literacy & Access), a UW-sponsored organization that provides STEM outreach to elementary, middle and high school students from predominantly underrepresented backgrounds.
Abdiasis (Asis) Hussein is a PhD student in the Ruohola-Baker Lab in the UW Department of Biochemistry. His research is focused on the molecular determinants of stem cells and on the genes involved in the development of stem cells from the earliest stages of life. In 2019, Hussein was the lead author of a study published in Developmental Cell that explored the metabolic and genetic factors that regulate entry and exit from a state of cell dormancy known as diapause. Insights from that study on inducing or inhibiting cell growth could inform medical therapies that someday benefit cancer patients or hopeful parents seeking assisted human reproduction. Hussein, who was born in Somalia, grew up in Kenya, and moved to the United States as a teenager, is the first from his family to attend college and now plans to pursue a career in stem cell research while also helping other underrepresented students find opportunities in biomedical science.
Jordan Jackson is a post-baccalaureate scholar in the Mathieu Lab, where he is part of a cancer research team investigating the use of designed-protein nanocages to regulate a biological pathway (known as TRAIL) that plays a role in cell death. The researchers hope that this technology can help induce death in cancer stem cells, while sparing healthy cells. Jackson, who grew up in a family with an affinity for science and earned an undergraduate degree in Microbiology at the University of Washington, plans to pursue a research career focused on a combination of cancer therapy, drug design, and vaccine development. He is also passionate about improving accessibility to science through better public-facing communications and is a co-founder of Basilica Bio, an environmental justice organization that promotes local food systems, de-pollution, and overall community health.
Kendan A. Jones-Isaac is a PhD candidate in the Department of Pharmaceutics in the University of Washington’s School of Pharmacy. His research involves utilizing organ-on-a-chip technology to model kidney disease states with a focus on the early events of kidney stone formation. As an undergraduate, Kendan gained early experience with microfluidic devices developing a lab-on-a-chip platform to study interactions between bacterial pathogens and mouse immune cells. That work, in the Department of Electrical Engineering, helped prepare Kendan for a multi-year effort to study kidney function and pathophysiology in micro-gravity environments, a project that has taken him to the Kennedy Space Center to help oversee the launch of kidney-on-a-chip experiments to the International Space Station. He has also mentored other young scientists through the Stipends for Training Aspiring Researchers (STAR) and GenOM ALVA (Alliances for Learning and Vision for Underrepresented Americans) programs. These initiatives connect undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds with senior mentors in the health, biomedical, and behavioral sciences for paid research experiences. After completing his PhD, Kendan plans to focus on bringing promising pharmaceutical products from the development stage to the end-stage, ultimately improving human health.
Anne Onyali is a fourth-year double major in Biology and Public Health Science at Santa Clara University and an undergraduate student researcher in the UW Musculoskeletal Systems Biology Lab led by ISCRM faculty member Ron Kwon, PhD. In the lab, the Tacoma native studies the impact variants of the TRAM family of genes have on bone mineral density and osteoporosis formation. Prior to her current role, Onyali was a summer intern at UW through the STAR program, a paid summer research experience designed to engage underrepresented minority students in the health, biomedical, and behavioral sciences. Her career plan is to attend medical school, practice medicine, and help address racial and economic disparities in healthcare. At Santa Clara University, Onyali is the president of the Pre-Health Club and a member of the Igwebuike (Black/Pan-African) student organization.
Kiana Reynolds is a fourth year Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology student and a Research Assistant in the Murry Lab. Her interest in regenerative medicine began when a high school course of Sports Medicine lead her to wonder about the possibility of regenerating brain and nerve tissue. Now, Reynolds is a part of a research team using cardiomyocytes derived from induced pluripotent stem cells to remuscularize injured hearts. As a Research Assistant in the Murry Lab, she analyzes how a chemical process known as DNA methylation impacts the expression of genes that play a role in cardiomyocyte maturation. Reynolds, who is a Mary Gates Research Scholar, a WRF Fellow and an ISCRM Fellow, hopes to reduce racial inequities in medicine and increase representation in health care by becoming a doctor herself or pursuing a master’s in public health.
Chardai Thomas is a senior Biology major at UW Bothell and a student researcher in the lab of ISCRM faculty member Beno Freedman, PhD. Thomas was introduced to stem cell biology in a course – Stem Cells – taught by UW Bothell professor Bryan White, PhD. In the Freedman Lab, she differentiates gene-edited stem cells and develops the cells into cysts for the purposes of studying polycystic kidney disease – with the ultimate goal of helping Freedman and his research team identify therapeutic targets for the disease. Thomas, who is an ISCRM Undergraduate Fellow, and a 2021-2022 WRF Research Fellow, hopes to pursue a career in the field of Cosmetic Chemistry – allowing her to apply her laboratory training to the development of safer, more effective cosmetics, perhaps even with products with regenerative potential.
Fred Yeboah began studying neurological disease during a summer internship at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York after recognizing the urgent need for better therapies for people suffering from brain disorders. Yeboah later joined Novartis in Boston, where he contributed to a protocol that is currently used to screen schizophrenia drug candidates. Now a PhD student in the lab of Jessica Young, PhD in the UW Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Yeboah is part of a research team using human induced pluripotent stem cell technology to identify potential therapeutic targets for Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, Yeboah is focused on the role of the gene HDAC2 in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Long term, he plans to build a career that bridges science and business to bring treatments for schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurological diseases.
Saluting just a few of the countless remarkable Black scientists who helped pave the way for the modern field of regenerative medicine.
Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941)
Ernest Everett Just was a biologist whose research at world-famous institutes in the United States and Europe made him one of the first internationally-recognized Black scientists. Highly regarded for his skill in the design of experiments, Just contributed to modern understanding of evolutionary and developmental biology. In the course of a career launched at Howard University and the University of Chicago, where he earned a PhD in Zoology and recognition from the NAACP, Just published two books and more than 50 papers on cytology, fertilization and early embryonic development. His legacy includes lasting insights into intercellular structure and the role of cell surface in the early embryo that influenced the German developmental biologist Johannes Holtfreder, a protégé of Nobel Prize Winner Hans Spemann.
Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916)
Alice Augusta Ball was born in Seattle. She first made her mark as a chemistry student at the University of Washington, where she published a paper in the Journal of American Chemical Society, a notable achievement for a Black woman. As a PhD student at the College of Hawaii, Ball studied the chemical make-up of native plants, an expertise she would use to develop a more effective treatment for leprosy. After Ball died, at the age of 24, the Dean of the Chemistry Department published her work in his name – an injustice that was not incorrected until the 1970’s.
Mary Logan Reddick (1914-1966)
Mary Logan Reddick was a neuroembryologist whose embryogenesis and neurodevelopment studies in chicks made important contributions to the practice of tissue transplant and cell differentiation. Among other findings, her research, which employed early time-lapse microscopy techniques, shed light on the degree to which environment affected developing brain tissues. Reddick earned a doctoral dissertation from Radcliffe College (at Harvard), became the first female biology instructor at Morehouse College, was the first Black woman to receive a prestigious Ford Foundation science fellowship – enabling her to study at Cambridge University – and rose to full professor and chair of the Biology Department at the University of Atlanta.
Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003)
Marie Daly was the first Black American woman in the United States to earn a PhD in chemistry (awarded by Columbia University in 1947). As a Postdoc at the Rockefeller Institute, she studied the cell nucleus and its constituents and examined how proteins are constructed in the body, helping to the lay the groundwork for breakthroughs that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Daly developed methods for separating out the nuclei of tissues and measuring the base composition of nucleic compounds, investigated protein synthesis, and was cited by James Watson upon his acceptance of his Nobel Prize in 1962. As an investigator she conducted groundbreaking research on the relationship between cholesterol, hypertension, and cardiac health.
The stories above represent just a fraction of the contributions Black scientists have made to current understanding of cell biology and its potential for improving human health.
Seven University of Washington scientists are included in Cell Mentor’s list of 1,000 inspiring Black scientists, published in December 2020. Cell Mentor is a collaborative resource between Cell Press and Cell Signaling Technology.
Ernest Everett Just
Selassie I, W. (2007, January 30) Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/just-ernest-everett-1883-1941/
Jeffery, William R. (1983), “Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941): a dedication. Biological Bulletin 165: 487.
Byrnes, W. Malcolm (2009) Ernest Everett Just, Johannes Holtfreter, and the origin of certain concepts in embryo morphogenesis. Molecular Reproduction and Development 76 (11): 912-921
Alice Augusta Ball
Jackson, M. (2007, September 20) Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/ball-alice-augusta-1892-1916/
Wermager, Paul; Carl Heltzel (February 2007). “Alice A. Augusta Ball” (PDF). ChemMatters. 25 (1): 16–19. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-07-13.
Mary Logan Reddick
Nielsen, E. (2020, April 30) Mary Logan Reddick (1914-1966). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/mary-logan-reddick-1914-1966/
Radcliffe Women in the Sciences”. Harvard University Library. Harvard University.
Mary Marie Maynard
Diaz, S. (2007, March 07) Marie Maynard Daly Clark (1921-2003). Retrieved from https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/clark-marie-maynard-daly-1921-2003/
Watson, James. “James Watson – Nobel Lecture”. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media. Retrieved 7 November 2018.