Assistant Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at Agnes Scott College
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“STEM careers are challenging – you might be in a situation where the work that you’re doing is very difficult, but know that this is the case for others, and don’t compare yourself to others who are on that journey because they’re also dealing with the same thing. Just focus on what you’re doing.”
Although around half the human population has one, the clitoris is still portrayed incorrectly in most anatomy textbooks. Dr. Stacey Dutton’s lab at Agnes Scott College is trying to change that by studying the incredible biological complexity of this poorly understood structure, and in doing so understand its role in female sexual pleasure. However, Stacey isn’t just a successful behavioral neuroscientist whose expertise ranges from sexual behavior to epilepsy; she’s also a mom to her four-year old daughter. She’s a Black woman. She’s an activist for an objective, biological treatment of female sexuality. One of her favorite roles is as an educator and lifelong mentor to her many undergraduate students.
As a young child, Stacey took a keen interest in both her science and art classes. “It was the lectures on dinosaurs that really grabbed my attention,” she recalls. “I remember running home and sharing with my parents the different dinosaurs we were learning about in class. And I remember making dinosaurs in art, while we were talking about them in science classes.” In fact, Stacey’s mom still has the clay Agilisaurus Stacey made in her art classes.
This dual interest in art and science persisted throughout high school, with Stacey developing talents for mixed media art and biology/chemistry. When it came down to choosing a college major, however, Stacey chose to follow science at the suggestion of her parents. She enrolled as a chemistry major and first-generation college student at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore (UMES), a small Historically Black College and University (HBCU). However, within her first semester, she realized biology was the better fit for her intellectual curiosities. “The thing that originally drew me to biology is that it’s very mechanistic,” she explains. “I can see, I can visualize how things work in my head.”
Stacey’s passion for biology flourished at UMES, where she secured funding and access to research as a LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation) and MARC (Maximizing Access to Research Careers) scholar. Armed with these support structures, Stacey worked on immunology research as an undergraduate at the Center for Marine Biotechnology and the National Institute of Aging. At UMES, Stacey also met a mentor who would have a profound impact on her life and career – Dr. Kelly Mack, now a director at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “She came with a lot of professionalism and at the time, I had none,” Stacey remembers. Professional development and career advice were not the only thing Stacey gained from having Dr. Mack as a mentor – she also gained a trusted friend. “[Dr. Mack] showed me how personable you should be as a mentor if you really want to make an impact, particularly with a lot of young women of color,” Stacey explains. Dr. Mack blurred the line between friend and mentor, creating a welcoming space for her students to feel safe and comfortable, while not being afraid to give her honest take on life as an academic. This powerful mentorship shaped Stacey’s career in her undergraduate years and throughout her life.
“[Dr. Mack] showed me how personable you should be as a mentor if you really want to make an impact, particularly with a lot of young women of color.”
When Stacey was in her senior year of undergrad, her life changed dramatically. Her seventeen-year-old younger brother suffered a stroke that left him with impaired function in his legs. Stacey was thrown into a massive state of shock and uncertainty, as she balanced applying to graduate schools with caring for her brother. Dr. Mack supported Stacey, visiting her family in Baltimore while her brother was incapacitated. This traumatic event led her to immediately change her focus from immunology to neuroscience and specifically epilepsy, a neurological disorder associated with strokes. Stacey remembers feeling confused and shocked at how an otherwise healthy seventeen-year-old could have a massive stroke and how much such an incident could permanently change life. “It led to me just wanting to be more well educated on the brain, because this structure, if damaged, could literally change your life.”
“I found myself more interested in nurturing the students that we had, the undergraduates. We had developing relationships with them, training them on the basics of projects and just having conversations with them about their lives and what inspired them to be a scientist. I found that I fell into that area.“
Stacey went on to pursue her PhD in neuroscience at Emory University. Coming from the nurturing, familial environment of UMES, she felt out of place at a large institution where she was the only Black girl in her cohort. In fact, Emory had not graduated a Black woman with a PhD in neuroscience when she began her graduate studies, and many of the Black students who enrolled had dropped out without finishing their degree. Although she valued the resources and opportunities for collaboration at Emory, Stacey often felt lonely and isolated due to a lack of support for minorities, sometimes relying on older Black graduate students for a sense of community. Despite this, she obtained her PhD successfully, publishing several papers as well as receiving full funding through an NRSA and an Epilepsy Foundation grant. Even though she excelled, the struggle to find a healthy work-life balance and pressure to publish turned Stacey off from continuing her career at an R1 institution, where high-throughput research activity often takes precedence over focused undergraduate education. Stacey wanted to enjoy the research she was engaged in, and also focus on another critical aspect of science – mentorship. “I found myself more interested in nurturing the students that we had, the undergraduates. We had developing relationships with them, training them on the basics of projects and just having conversations with them about their lives and what inspired them to be a scientist. I found that I fell into that area.”
This realization led Stacey to set her sights on working at a teaching institution, so she applied to the FIRST (Fellows in Research and Science Teaching) at Emory. This NIH-funded program emphasized a half-and-half approach to research and teaching, allowing early career scientists to hone both key skills.
With this new experience in science education in hand, Stacey went on to teach at Clark Atlanta University, a HBCU in Atlanta, for two years. Afterwards, she adjuncted at Agnes Scott College, where she received glowing feedback from her undergraduate students. The faculty took note and quickly recruited Stacey as a tenure-track professor. Although she was initially developing her own lab to continue epilepsy research, an experience designing a course titled The Biology of Womanhood resulted in a shift in research goals. After a few Google searches returned sparse results, she realized that research on the mammalian clitoris had barely begun, which upset her. She decided to use the framework she had already developed for studying ion channels in the context of epilepsy and instead apply them to understand this curiously unexplored structure. This idea led her to design experiments studying ion channels in mammalian clitoral tissues and studying the sexual behavior of female ion channel mutant mice. Now, her work has elucidated key features that highlight its unique properties and has even been featured in high-profile documentaries such as The Dilemma of Desire.
Starting a lab in a new research area wasn’t easy, and Stacey began having a lot of doubts about how to approach it and how others would respond to it. What really drove her was the hope that it would help generate enough interest in the field so that persons with clitorises could understand their bodies and how they could experience sexual pleasure. Stacey’s work has since developed into a powerful form of activism in support for gender equality through education. “We’re educating the public that the clitoris is actually a way more detailed structure that deserves to be placed in our textbooks in a way that is comparable to the penis, because it’s equally important.” In addition, Stacey’s work is helping elucidate female sexual dysfunction, such as sexual arousal disorders and painful intercourse, and she aims for biological understanding of the clitoris to pave the way towards treating female sexual dysfunction like the male counterpart. “Oftentimes, when women have sexual dysfunction, it’s thought of as a mental illness, like you weren’t that sexually into the experience, where it could actually just be an anatomical issue,” Stacey explains.
“We’re educating the public that the clitoris is actually a way more detailed structure that deserves to be placed in our textbooks in a way that is comparable to the penis, because it’s equally important.”
Stacey’s research doesn’t take away from her other main focus – mentoring undergraduates. “The science matters. If anything, we’re living in a world now where science really matters. But sometimes we lose the people – these people have stories and they’ve made sacrifices to be able to allow you to read the work that they put so much into.” Reflecting on her own experiences as a mentee, Stacey explains that her goal is to form lifelong friendships with her students, who are very close with Stacey, often spending time at her home and exploring the area together. “That is my life,” Stacey beams. “These primarily women, undergraduate students, they become like my babies.” Stacey’s relationships with her students often bring her to tears at graduation, as she reflects on how proud they make her. “Every time one enters into a graduate program, I’m so proud because it’s like an extension of myself that I’ve been able to plant.”
Stacey’s aptitude for mentoring and teaching came as a surprise to her, as she considers herself an introvert. She laughs, “but when I’m in front of the classroom, I feel like I’m in this flow and like I come alive when I’m delivering the content. Stacey loves her career and wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Her vibrant research and joy overflows into her mentorship and teaching of undergrads — the only alternative career path she’d consider is just as colorful: designing clothes for drag queens.
Stacey Dutton, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at Agnes Scott College. Faculty profile
by Ishani Ganguly