From Nature Lover to Structural Biologist: A Scientist’s Journey

A gift of medical books from an unlikely source spurred Chrystal Starbird’s scientific career. She talks about what motivates her research on cell surface receptors and the obstacles she has faced as a Black woman in academia.

Asher Jones
Asher Jones
Feb 26, 2021

In second grade, Chrystal Starbird started a nature club at her school that ended up lasting years. “People who knew me in elementary school usually remember me as the person who was trying to get everybody to join the nature club and be just as fascinated by the things around us as I was,” says Starbird. Looking back, Starbird says she realizes that she’s always been a scientist. “But if you would have asked me earlier, I [would have said I] wanted to be a poet or a basketball player or a lawyer.”

Now a structural biology postdoc at Yale University, Starbird is a recipient of Cell Press’s and Cell Signaling Technology’s first Rising Black Scientists Award, an essay contest that invited young Black scientists to share their experiences as life sciences researchers. Winning the undergraduate award, Olufolakemi “Fola” Olusanya, a senior at Howard University, wrote an essay titled “Still we rise” about her passion for science and experience as a Black woman in STEM. Starbird’s essay, “Transforming myself and academia for good,” earned her the graduate/postdoctoral scholar award. The Scientist spoke with Starbird to learn more about her career and the inspiration for her essay.

The Scientist: Can you describe your path to becoming a scientist?

Chrystal Starbird: I would say it was in sixth grade that my interest in science really grew. There were a couple of things that precipitated that. I was just so fascinated by the things we were doing in science class that year. We really started doing hands-on experiments that were beyond the little kid types of things, like watching plants grow, looking at velocity and gravity and acceleration, and dropping things from the building. 

Chrystal Starbird

I loved the class, and I’d talk constantly. I had a science teacher who insisted that if I didn’t do the homework, I couldn’t talk in class. . . . It made me see that if I wanted to enjoy the science and the discussions that I enjoyed in class, I had to work. It connected science and work to me, that science is something that you work towards. And now I think back on that often. 

And the other thing is that—it’s going to sound crazy, but it’s absolutely true—one of my mom’s drug dealers when I was in sixth grade gave me a box of medical school books. I don’t know how he got them, but they were mostly neuroscience-based. And there were anatomy books too. These were anatomy books that didn’t just have drawings but actual pictures of organs and that sort of thing. I cannot tell you how much I combed through those books. I spent many days in the library. I would highlight words I didn’t understand and I would go and look them up when I got a chance to get to the library. I was so convinced that if I understood everything in these books, I could unlock the secrets of the human brain. . . . So I would say that sixth grade was really the year that I feel like I started migrating towards science. 

TS: What kind of questions are you trying to answer in your current research? 

CS: Right now, I work at a cancer biology institute. I work with receptors that are expressed on the surface [of cells] that are linked to numerous diseases, cancer being one of them. What is interesting to me about these receptors is that even though [similar receptors] might be expressed in the same type of tissue, only one of them in certain circumstances would be linked to disease. So from a structural perspective, even though they look similar, their shape is very similar, the organization is very similar, and their sequences very similar, they seem to have different functions. And that’s the question that is driving me at the moment.  

I’m looking at the atomic-level structure . . . and trying to determine what’s the source of these differences. Even though they bind to the same ligands and they’re expressed in the same tissues, why are they differentially involved in disease? For example, two receptors are expressed in cells that are in your eyes, but only one of them is linked to blindness. And there have been a lot of studies that have shown that it’s only one of them. So the question is, why would [there be] these two structures that are very, very similar, that are both expressed in the same tissue, but only one is linked to disease? I try to home in and understand what are the differences between these receptors that cause that type of phenotype. 

TS: That’s interesting. Are you working on this receptor that’s involved in blindness at the moment? 

CS: Most cell surface receptors, I think, are involved in multiple diseases. So it’s also involved in cancer, but even in cancer it’s the same story: One of them—there’s three receptors in this family—is heavily linked to cancer and to metastases and drug resistance, but the other two are not. So it’s the same kind of underlying question. 

TS: What inspired you to write your winning essay, “Transforming myself and academia for good”? 

CS: One thing that I’ve seen in interacting with a lot of postdocs and graduate students behind the scenes and in digital communities is that a lot of them feel like they’re alone and the things that they have endured, they endured alone and nobody experienced these things. I think it’s because to a certain extent when we as scientists reach the end of our career, we’re often less willing to share our stories. . . . What motivated me was the opportunity to tell my story and the hope that even if our circumstances aren’t exactly the same, somebody will see themselves in me, and, more importantly, they’ll hear that even though difficult things happen, you absolutely can succeed at the things you set your mind to do.

What motivated me was the opportunity to tell my story and the hope that even if our circumstances aren’t exactly the same, somebody will see themselves in me.

What I tell a lot of people is that it won’t be easy. I won’t lie to them. It won’t always be fair, but without a single doubt you can [succeed]. So that’s what motivated telling my story, and I really wanted to make it as personal as possible even though that was a little bit difficult. I wanted to lay some things bare and let people know that there are other people who really struggle, but we are succeeding in science, and you can succeed in science and that passion and love for science can carry you through. The story opens telling people about one of the hardest days of my young life. And without a doubt, science was comforting to me on that day. I felt the need to share that story to remind people that even if you may experience things that make it difficult, don’t forget that you love the science and that’s what brought you there. 

Excerpt from “Transforming myself and academia for good”

The day I turned my mother in to the police, I found myself sitting at a nearby pond for a couple of hours. As I weighed the pros and cons of revealing the terrible situation at home, I found solace in searching for frog eggs and trying to evaluate the stages of growth of tadpoles swimming in the pond. Which ones would be leaping soon, escaping their environment and learning about an entire new world above the surface? Was I also, I wondered, a tadpole that had an entirely different world awaiting me? 

Science had always been so much more than a school subject to me. It was a way to approach the world. There was so much in my world growing up that made little sense. Why did other people have food when we had none? Why did my mom become angry when she did drugs? Why did other kids have more of everything: love, support, and stability? In science, however, the answers were always there, you just had to find them.

TS: In the essay you talk about some of the obstacles you faced in your career. How did those experiences shape the changes you’d like to see in academia?

CS: Some of the changes I’d like to see are for people to think about who they’re bringing in to graduate school or a postdoc more holistically and to really try to see the person. I think that’s not too difficult if you have a conversation with somebody like me. Even though my undergraduate GPA wasn’t that great, you could see that I was bright and excited and had lots of research experience. And my graduate GPA was much different because I matured and learned to prioritize and that sort of thing, but I was the same person the whole time. But the treatment that I received from academia was not equivalent at different parts of my life.

If you really want science to be accessible, you can’t just have, for example, low-income students come and not support them the entire way. That includes things like recognizing that they cannot float funds for conferences.

Then there’s more concrete things, like when there’s people who are struggling financially in academia, [providing] more resources for these people. I mentioned in the essay that I had outside funding, I had an NSF grant and other funds at graduate school to attend conferences, but I only attended one because of financial difficulties and because academia tends to take their time giving people refunds, which is a real barrier for people who are from lower income backgrounds. I don’t think they realize that enough or acknowledge it enough. 

From time to time, people will say, ‘You really should have attended more conferences,’ or, ‘You’re not showing your work,’ but that wasn’t really a choice that I could make. Because I literally could not afford to wait three months to get $1,500 back from a conference. . . . If you really want science to be accessible, you can’t just have, for example, low-income students come and not support them the entire way. That includes things like recognizing that they cannot float funds for conferences. 

It also has to do with some of the racial barriers. What I have observed is that schools are doing a really great job of recruiting—at this point—graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. But it’s hit or miss as to whether or not they actually support them once they get there. . . . The support systems are just not there. A lot of [graduate students] complain, for example, about really poor mental health offerings in graduate schools and, importantly, zero, in most places, mental health experts of color. . . . So instead of schools saying again and again that they’re working on making things accessible and they’re forming committees, I feel like the solutions are out there, and if they listen to people like me, they’ve been given lots of solutions, but they’re slow to take them on. 

TS: So you’re talking about systemic racism in academia?

CS: Yeah, absolutely. To be honest, I think I’ve always been—and most people are, this is not unique to me—academically gifted. When I was in graduate school, I really did lead my classes once I was able to filter out the things in my life and better focus. But still, and I express this in the essay, I was constantly questioned and talked over and that sort of thing. But it is systemic because people just assume that you’re going to have difficulties. And here’s an example of how it is really systemic: When I joined my graduate student program, there was a program that was for minority students that I went into, and I enjoyed it because it was a great way to build community. But one thing that bothered me is they required tutoring. They required that I went to tutoring sessions before they even met me. They assumed that every student in this program would have some sort of academic deficiency. It was wrong. It was wrong for them to assume that. So the systemic problem really is, I think, based on assumptions. Actions and policies are also based on those assumptions and they end up being harmful in the end. 

TS: I saw that you founded communities for women and Black scientists at Vanderbilt and Yale. What was your motivation to start these initiatives?

CS: When I was a Vanderbilt, we had a discussion on implicit and explicit bias with about seventy people in the room and what I heard again and again from women was that they felt they didn’t have a community, they felt that they weren’t listened to or heard. My response was, ‘We can build a community now, let’s just start meeting together and make this group.’ And the same thing spurred my desire to form the Yale Black Postdoctoral Association with two other amazing women who are also scientists. 

We shouldn’t have to separate our identities to prove ourselves in academic spaces.

This year I’ve seen more and more people in our community talking about feeling isolated within the academic community and sort of being outliers or outsiders. I felt like if people have a home community, then it actually makes them better able to participate in the broader community. And I’ve seen evidence of that: people who feel like they’re validated by their smaller community groups will then go out and go to more conferences, present their research more, speak up more at meetings. With the Yale Black Postdoctoral Association, our primary goal is just to build that community and to fill in some of those gaps that exist. 

We’re also hosting seminars that are relevant to some of the struggles that we go through. We had one [with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion] on code switching, the idea that whoever somebody is in their authentic self, maybe the language that they’ve learned or the mannerisms that they do, in certain environments they switch and change those. . . . When we go to work, we try really hard to sound like those around us because we feel that we’ll be judged. It’s also to do with things like hair, for Black women in particular. You might have cornrows or something, and there’s nothing wrong with that hairstyle, but you feel like you can’t show up at work in that hairstyle. . . . I think 180 people attended, and a lot of people weren’t really aware that this is what people go through. And a lot of people expressed feeling like it was a burden.  

We also had one on being your unapologetic self in science. We had Raven the Science Maven come and talk about being able to embrace who you are and be a scientist. So she does amazing rap videos, and she’s just a huge inspiration for this idea that we shouldn’t have to separate our identities to prove ourselves in academic spaces. It’s okay for me to listen to rap music or rock music or whatever I listen to and also be a very serious and very successful scientist.

TS: Are there any changes that you’ve seen over the last year or so that make you hopeful that academia is becoming more inclusive?

CS: I’ve seen more awareness than I’ve ever seen before. And I hope that that has an impact. I haven’t seen as much action as I would like. Some things, like the Cell Rising Black Scientists Award, I think is amazing, not because I won it—I was telling everybody to apply—but because it was just an opportunity for people to tell their stories and to be supported financially in doing so, and I love things like this that uplift members of my community. . . . So I’m cautiously hopeful . . . that people continue to respond and understand the challenges that occur and continue to be receptive to hearing more, and I hope all of our communities work together to make science more accessible. 

TS: What’s next for your career? 

CS: I definitely want to pursue an academic career. It’s what I’ve personally wanted for a long time, it’s what I think I’m suited for. But also there’s a small part of me that feels strongly that I must succeed in that pursuit. My thought is that people coming up in the pipeline need role models, and I hope to be one of them. I’m still planning to stay at my postdoc for another year, but hopefully I’ll soon be able to indicate where I’m going as a faculty. 

TS: Do you think you’ll continue to work on the same questions?

CS: I will continue to work on the same receptors that I work on now. But as a structural biologist, one of the things I love is that it’s a very collaborative science. Because there may be somebody who’s studying bacterial pathogenesis, for example, and there’s a protein in question where they want to determine the structure so they can design therapeutics. So that’s the kind of thing where somebody can collaborate with structural biologists. It’s hard to say exactly what I’ll be studying in the future, and I’ve already got some collaborations that are outside of what I’m currently studying, but for now it’ll definitely be my primary focus because I think I’ve found some really exciting things about these receptors that I study and I look forward to continuing that avenue of inquiry.

Editor’s note: The interview was edited for brevity.

Clarification (February 26): This story was updated from its original version to note that the seminar on code switching was coordinated by both the Yale Black Postdoctoral Association and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Yale University.

Correction (March 1): An earlier version of this article stated that the Rising Black Scientists Award was run by Cell Press, when in fact it was a joint effort by Cell Press and Cell Signaling Technology. The Scientist regrets the error.