Photo: Jason Varney Photography
When Avery August was a college student, he thought his love of science meant he could pursue only one career: medicine. He was still relatively new to the United States, having moved as a teenager to Los Angeles from the Central American country of Belize. And he was finding his own way through the educational system, first attending community college for two years and then transferring to California State University, where he began taking premedical classes.
But August came to realize that he "wasn't interested in being a physician," he says. "I was interested in how diseases come about and what were the underlying causes of those diseases." He dropped his premed major and "foundered a little," until his organic chemistry professor confronted him. "He asked me, what do I want to do with my life." When August drew a blank, the professor suggested he try lab research.
With aid from a school program that helped minority students pay for tuition, August spent his senior year of college working at a chemistry lab where he studied the synthesis of fatty acids. "That got me really excited about research," he says. "It was then I realized that I could be a professional scientist."
Today August is an associate professor of immunology in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at Pennsylvania State University. His lab work focuses on the intracellular response of T cells to viruses and bacteria. Specifically, he is studying the tyrosine kinase, Itk. Mice without Itk have defects in T-cell response and development, and August hopes to eventually use an understanding of Itk to find ways to modulate the immune response in cases where the body's reaction is either too weak or too strong. Although his work is considered basic science, he has collaborated with pharmaceutical companies who are interested in using his results to develop gene therapies.
Back when August was studying immunology in graduate school at the Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University, he says there was little diversity among professional scientists. "When I was in graduate school there were very, very few minorities. Often I would go to scientific meetings and I was the only one."
Things are better now, he says, but more progress is needed. There are more people of Indian and Japanese descent, and August is encouraged by the progress of women in the sciences. "We have more female graduate students than male," he says. "But still, women have a hard time moving up to the highest positions." Of most concern to August is the lack of Hispanics and African Americans in the professional sciences.
He says diversity is important from both a scientific and a cultural perspective. "Scientifically, we all bring different ways of looking at problems based on our backgrounds and life experiences," he says. "We bring those things to our work on science. We bring our diversity of thought." In addition, and more importantly, he says, the field must be diverse in order for scientists to have credibility within the minority community. "If we are going to say AIDS is not caused by the government, we have to have credible people saying that."
August makes an effort to mentor young students and has actively recruited a diverse group of people to work in his lab. "I try to make a special effort to reach out and encourage students to come into the lab to be exposed to science," he says. "We have to get out there and make people more aware that this is a viable career," much like his organic chemistry professor did for him when he was in college. "It took someone reaching out to me." And now it is his turn.