Feature - Come Together

Exploring the Possibilities

Grant Awardee partnership bears new and surprising fruit

Staying connected has proven challenging for many, these last few months. But in spite of it all, two Burroughs Wellcome Fund awardees - one outstanding scientist and one outstanding educator - have come together during COVID to show the power of a simple act of kindness.

Beverly Owens and Antenor (AJ) Hinton met during the Burroughs Wellcome Fund STEM Awardee Conference, after being selected for the Career Awards for Science and Mathematics Teachers (CASMT) and Postdoctoral Enrichment Program (PDEP), respectively. When Hinton’s lab ran short of essential protective gear for students, Beverly answered the call. Now they are working together on a summer e-learning program for schools throughout North Carolina, and plan to scale the model for schools nationwide.

AJ Hinton is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Iowa Department of Internal Medicine. Born and raised in North Carolina, Hinton attended high school in Asheville, and college at Winston Salem State - one of around 100 historically black colleges remaining in the United States. After gaining research experience at Duke and Wake Forest Universities, he attended graduate school and earned his PhD at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas.

An accomplished scientist, panelist, and keynote speaker, Dr Hinton continues his work in Integrative Molecular and Cell Biology, specializing in the mechanisms of energy balance in mitochondria - particularly in relation to stress, aging, and the development of Type II diabetes.

Beverly Owens is an eighth-grade science teacher at Kings Mountain Middle School, and lives in Shelby, near Charlotte NC. A passionate educator with a degree in Environmental Geoscience from Mississippi State, Owens has spent the last 15 years working in Cleveland County middle schools. In addition, she spent five years volunteering at the Schiele Museum of Natural History, Gastonia, and two years managing professional development programs for teachers at Discovery Place, Charlotte. Her passion for experiencing and communicating science have led her to numerous teaching awards, and to the position of Lead Science Communication Fellow on Titanic-discoverer Dr Robert Ballard’s 64-meter exploration-research ship, the Nautilus.

BWF STEM Awardee Conference

Owens met Hinton in the Fall of 2019, during an awardee event hosted by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Hinton was a panelist, talking about his path as an underrepresented minority in the STEM pipeline at the event. Owens was a participant as result of her active grant award status. Back in Cleveland County, her students needed support with the molecular biology component of her curriculum which was included in her supported project.

"So I just introduced myself," said Owens, and asked if he would be interested in doing a little video conference for my students.

Hinton agreed, and though they were unable to make it happen that year, they stayed in touch via email and Twitter. By early February, they were going back and forth to set up a new date for the class chat. But then COVID-19 hit - emptying her school, and threatening Hinton’s ongoing research at Iowa University.

Like most teachers, Owens had to pivot fast to providing online classes and resources for her students. Afterwards, she turned her attention to others in need during the crisis. 
Whe she heard that local healthcare workers were going without Personal Protection Equipment - or using improvised, sub-standard versions - she decided to do something about it.

"I became involved with it because my mom is a nurse," she explains. "She was telling us about how everybody has to wear a mask all day…and for multiple weeks at a time, because you really can't get a new one."

Then she read an article about a local university using 3D printers to make their own PPE, and realized she had a small fleet of MakerBot printers just gathering dust at her school. Typically used to print classroom aids like replica fossils, she pressed them into service for an entirely new purpose.

"I did research on some different types of files, and what might be needed," she explains. "Then I printed out a few different things and had my mom take them into the office…kind of prototype them for me."

After getting feedback on sizing and comfort, she began printing mask frames, face shields, and ear guards designed to minimize friction sores caused by wearing masks all day long - fabricating over 400 individual pieces of PPE over the following weeks and months.

Reconnecting Through the Pandemic

It was at this point that Owens reconnected with Hinton, after seeing him post about PPE on social media.

“I saw AJ put a picture of himself on Twitter…It was one of those like good-hygiene posts like: ‘wash your hands, wear a mask, wear a face shield - if you have one’…So I just reached out to him and said, does your lab, or anybody at the university need face shields? And he said they did, of course. They had 40 staff, and everybody wanted one, so I sent them 50."

Hinton was delighted and overwhelmed.

"It’s been great," he says. "Beverly provided 50 shields to our lab, and just provided 25 more. The first 50 were for the students we have right now, the next batch are for students coming in the Fall.  This made a big difference, Hinton says, to the level of confidence and activity in the lab."

"It’s very powerful what she did, because we do have limited resources for PPE at the University of Iowa, and we were really worried about interacting, and proper social distancing. But we have a little extra protection now, wearing not only a face mask, but also a face shield…This has provided us with a level of flexibility that we just didn’t have before."

Better yet, this simple act of kindness led to a rekindling of their professional relationship, and an entirely new conversation.

"This relationship has blossomed in so many other ways," says Hinton. "Now we’re collaborating on e-learning series that will reach the entire state of North Carolina this summer. We’re coordinating with Alfred Mays, Senior Program Officer at BWF, with Scot Doron, Grants Officer, Alamance Community College and a BWF awardee of a different program - and with other BWF Diversity in Science awardees to create a program for middle and high school students, so that they can explore science during the summer vacation. Every week, we’re doing something different. And we want to mimic this program around the country, to push these initiatives, quantitate them, and demonstrate the effectiveness of these programs."

“This is urgent and important work," continued Hinton. "I believe that for the next two or three years, there will be more e-learning and not so much face-to-face interaction. And because it’s students of color helping other students, I think it’s a little bit more authentic and we can reach more people. When we have true allies like Beverly, Scot, and other partners - who really care, and really get it - then we can do truly great things."

Hinton says his collaboration with Owens through BWF has been a powerful experience, and he looks forward to more of them.

“With every initiative that we push forward, we are changing the face of science, and the future of science. And I love that."

Applications are now open for the 2021 Career Awards for Science and Mathematics Teachers (CASMT) program. See bwfund.org for details.