Dr. Nathan Smith will soon be starting his new roles as Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion in Research and Research Education as well as Associate Professor of Neuroscience in the School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Rochester. Currently, Nathan is Director of Basic Neuroscience Research and a Principal Investigator in the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Research Institute as well as an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Pharmacology & Physiology at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He received his B.S. in Biology from Xavier University and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. When he graduated in 2013, Nathan was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester. Afterwards, Nathan conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Utah and Boston University, as well as at Children’s National Hospital. Nathan has received numerous honors and awards in his career including being named a 2021 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), receipt of the 2019 Neuroscience Alumni Award from the University of Rochester, and receipt of the 2018 Children’s National President’s Award for Innovation in Research. In our interview, Nathan shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:42)
When he’s not working in the lab, Nathan enjoys practicing martial arts. He is a black belt in Seidokan Karate, which includes traditional weaponry as well as kicking, punching, blocking, throwing, and joint-locking techniques. This has been a passion for Nathan since graduate school, and it helps him keep his life in balance.
The Scientific Side (4:37)
Nathan is a neuroscientist who studies a type of cell in the brain that helps the brain perform certain tasks like managing blood flow. These cells also help other cells in the brain, such as neurons, communicate with each other. Nathan focuses particularly on interactions between neurons and glial cells in healthy brains and in models of diseases like ADHD, Depression, and epilepsy.
A Dose of Motivation (8:13)
“Never let anyone define who you are, because if you do, they will have complete control over you.” – Nathan’s Grandmother
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:51)
Having seen firsthand the devastating impacts of viral heart disease and diabetes on members of his own family, Nathan decided in high school that he wanted to become a cardiologist. He wanted to dedicate his career to helping people and improving their quality of life. After learning about the inspiring story of neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and reading his book Gifted Hands, Nathan’s interests shifted to neuroscience. Throughout his training, Nathan received support and encouragement from his mother, his grandmother, and a variety of teachers and mentors. His mother in particular always encouraged him to explore his interests and go wherever opportunities were. As a result, Nathan participated in different programs and applied to graduate school at places all over the country. While training at the University of Rochester under the mentorship of Dr. Jonathan Mink, Nathan’s interests in neuroscience were further cemented, and he continues to be fascinated by the brain.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (23:20)
It is frustrating for Nathan when his grant applications aren’t funded or his papers are rejected by journals, but he tries to be optimistic and treat these experiences as learning opportunities. When Nathan applied for a career development grant award, he thought his application was great the first time he submitted it, but the reviewers rejected it without even discussing it. This was disappointing, but Nathan was not deterred. He revised and resubmitted his application, and the second time it was discussed and scored, but the score wasn’t high enough to receive funding. After his third attempt, Nathan was thrilled to learn that his application was funded. As a scientist, it is important to be persistent in the face of these kinds of challenges.
A Shining Success! (28:09)
Earning his PhD in 2013 was one of the most rewarding successes for Nathan. He discovered that he was the first African American to receive a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester, and it was really meaningful to him to be paving the way for others from underrepresented backgrounds. Nathan has enjoyed inspiring people with his story through his mentorship and outreach activities as well.
Book Recommendations (32:31)
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Most Treasured Travel (34:35)
A lot of Nathan’s recent travel experiences have been virtual due to the ongoing pandemic. There was one particularly memorable virtual meeting with a group of students in Wellsville, NY. The students were surprised to see that he was a scientist and a person of color. They asked great questions, and it was really rewarding to talk about his research, the brain, and how they could become scientists too. Afterwards, the students sent Nathan letters and drawings to thank him for visiting, and he was happy to see diversity represented in the scientists that they drew.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (37:06)
Working to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in science and broadening the image people have of scientists are really important for Nathan. Nathan enjoys being able to help people break the stereotypes they have about what scientists are like through visits with elementary, middle, and high school students. He also likes the reaction he gets when he tells people that he is also a martial artist. In his own lab, Nathan fosters a collaborative and supportive environment. He encourages his students to never be afraid to ask questions, and he makes sure his door is always open to help them however he can. To acknowledge the accomplishments of the lab, Nathan and his trainees go out to lunch to celebrate any victory, big or small.
Advice For Us All (43:40)
Don’t be afraid to self-advocate and to ask for what you need to be successful. Also, never let someone else define who you are. Remember, you will have up and down days, but you have to keep moving forward. Use those down days as teachable moments, and don’t give up. Finally, believe in yourself, and be willing to put in the hard work.
Nathan’s research focuses on neuroglia interactions. Specifically, his lab studies how neuromodulators mediate the unique interactions between neurons, astrocytes, and microglia in healthy brains and how disruptions in neuronal-glial crosstalk contribute to ADHD, epilepsy, and insulin resistance. His research program is supported by a National Institutes of Health NINDS K01 Faculty Career Development Award, a National Science Foundation Frontiers Award, the Department of Defense Army Research Award, and the Edward M. Connor Family Endowment for Innovation in Research Award.