What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Have faith in yourself. Science can be incredibly difficult because of the nature of what it is. It’s failure and experiments and growth. If you run out of faith, then lean on the people that uplift you and support you. Be your most authentic self in the spaces that you will thrive in and that are made for you.”
Dr. Kaela Singleton knew she wanted to be a neuroscientist since the 7th grade. For Kaela, her “aha” moment came when she dissected a sheep brain in science class. “I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” says Kaela. “It was the most hands-on experience I had had thus far. And so that moment was really it for me.” For Kaela, this dissection sparked a number of questions. How do people come to be? How do things come together? How do our experiences shape our lives? Science, she observed, was the means to answer these questions. Despite this realization, science was not Kaela’s favorite subject in school. Instead, she was drawn to her English classes, where they dissected stories and discussed the art and magic of storytelling.
For Kaela, storytelling has always been a foundational skill — so much so that as an undergraduate at Agnes Scott College, she double majored in neuroscience and classical studies. Drawn to the myths and stories of ancient civilizations, she translated Ancient Greek texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey in addition to studying her neuroscience coursework. Having that balance opened her mind to looking at neuroscience through a different lens. “It help[ed] me stay well-rounded and emphasize that storytelling aspect,” says Kaela. While scientific results are gathered through a process of experimentation and observation, this process can feel dry and opaque. Storytelling adds richness and depth to any type of science, making it more accessible for non-scientists and more enjoyable for all.
As Kaela transitioned to graduate school in the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University, she looked to build a complete narrative of the brain by focusing on the process of neurodevelopment. It was important to Kaela for a lab to have “a complex and beautiful history of telling whole stories of the brain.” Kaela found this narrative aspect in the lab of Dr. Elena Silva, which researches the foundations of neural development. There, as a graduate student, Kaela found answers to those questions she had begun to ask in 7th grade. Learning how the brain forms and how neurons develop their specialized functions, she built a deep appreciation for the story of how the brain grows from a single group of cells to the main organ of the nervous system. Kaela earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience in May of this year, finishing this chapter of her journey in science.
Currently, Kaela works as a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Victor Faundez at Emory University and studies what happens when the process of neurodevelopment goes wrong. In particular, her research focuses on Menkes disease, a form of childhood neurodegeneration that results from dysregulated copper levels. In the body, copper is essential because it facilitates a variety of cellular processes and reactions. Normally, copper molecules are carried out of cells by a protein called ATP7A. However, in Menkes disease, ATP7A is changed by a range of genetic mutations. When this occurs, dysregulated copper levels damage and trap mitochondria, an energy-producing organelle, in brain cells, preventing them from reaching their intended targets. This results in neurodegenerative deficits in Menkes-afflicted patients such as seizures and delayed development. Ultimately, Kaela hopes that her research will lead to better tools and methods for studying and treating Menkes disease.
Kaela’s journey in science, however, has not always been smooth. Early in her graduate career, she experienced a failed mentorship relationship that, as she now reflects, was fueled by implicit bias, micro-, and macro-aggressions. “It can be hard to feel like you have to walk into a space and prove yourself [each] time. To overcome it, you have to have a lot of confidence and faith in yourself.” Looking back, she admits that the toxic mentorship destroyed her sense of self and made her question the awards she had won. Kaela explains how difficult it is to regain self-confidence: “It takes a lot of work to build that back up in yourself. The courage and the motivation have to come from within.” Although the work of rebuilding self-confidence is yours, Kaela says, you do not have to go through it alone. After this initial hurdle, Kaela leaned on the support of her peers and loved ones as she worked to regain her faith in herself. Indeed, Kaela’s friends and family have been vital to her success as a scientist.
“It can be hard to feel like you have to walk into a space and prove yourself [each] time. To overcome it, you have to have a lot of confidence and faith in yourself.”
As a career-driven individual, Kaela admits that a lot of her science journey involved sacrifices that many do not see. “There are nights where I don’t go out and times when I have to work really late,” she says, “but for me, those sacrifices pay off tenfold because I love my job and I love what I do.” Through those late nights, she has found a family among her colleagues and the unofficial mentors who have helped her along the way. She also has loving support from her parents who unequivocally want her to be happy. Bolstered by these relationships, Kaela has moved forward through any challenge, both large and small, and learned to believe in herself even more than she had before.
“Those sacrifices pay off tenfold because I love my job and I love what I do.”
This confidence — now rebuilt and fortified — prompted Kaela to speak up after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When the Georgetown administration was silent after these tragedies, Kaela wrote a letter to her program demanding answers and an apology. This action introduced her to a whole community of Black students at Georgetown and across the country who supported her speaking up. In connecting with these fellow Black scientists, Kaela helped create a movement that celebrates and amplifies the stories of Black neuroscientists.
Shortly thereafter, Kaela became a cofounder of Black in Neuro, an organization that amplifies the voices of Black neuroscientists. During the process of creating this movement, Kaela is motivated by “the opportunity to help students feel confident in these moments and times when everything feels hopeless.” Through Black in Neuro and similar organizations1, Kaela has discovered a new network of Black scientists. In grad school, she knew a handful of Black scientists, but now her network “is so empowering and amazing, especially because I completed a whole degree without realizing that we were all around.” Kaela is currently collaborating with her colleagues at Black in Neuro to organize a Black in Neuro conference (free registration at the link provided). Slated for October 31 to November 4, this event will feature the work of Black trainees at all career levels and host workshops for attendees on mentoring, public speaking, and job interviewing skills. With this platform, Kaela has found a way not only to share the stories of Black neuroscientists, but also a means to propel them on their own journey through science.
When she is not in the lab or working with Black in Neuro, Kaela enjoys watching UGA football, playing the violin, and reading. Most of all, Kaela enjoys being her most authentic self. It is this inner courage, this fearlessness to take up as much space as she wants, that will shape the story of Kaela’s path in science.
by Briana Chen
1https://www.blackincmdbio.com/, https://blackingeoscience.org/, https://blackinmicrobiology.org/, http://blackinai.org/, https://blackacademicsinscienceandtechnology.wordpress.com/, https://www.blackinphysics.org/, https://twitter.com/BlackInAstro. Please note that this is not a complete list.