The fascinating world of biophysics: Whitney Stevens-Sostre hosts #BlackInBiophysics Week!

Real Scientists
7 min readMay 9, 2021

Welcome to #BlackinBiophysics Week! This week will recognize and celebrate Black scientists in Biophysics, and founder Whitney Stevens-Sostre, a doctoral researcher in Neuroscience at UW Madison, will be taking over Real Scientists this week! We caught up with Whitney to find out more about her life and work so far, and how #BlackInBiophysics got started:

Welcome to Real Scientists! Can you tell us how you got into biophysics?
I started working in biophysics somewhat serendipitously. As an undergraduate student I majored in Biology at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. I loved learning about how biological systems work and I was really interested in neuroscience. Unfortunately, there were no courses that focused on the nervous system and I felt I needed to learn more prior to applying for graduate school. To this end, I applied and was admitted into the University of Chicago’s Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), where I took my first Cellular Neurobiology graduate course. I became fascinated by how neurons communicate using electrical and chemical signals generated by ion channels. I learned how electrophysiology, the study of the electrical properties of excitable cells like neurons or cardiomyocytes, allows us to understand how ion channels work and what their roles are in their respective biological systems. From there, I knew I wanted to learn how to do electrophysiology and use this tool to do ion channel research. After being admitted into the Neuroscience Training Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I rotated in different labs. I chose to work in Dr. Gail Robertson’s lab, where I found a really cool and challenging project focused on studying structure-function relationships of voltage-gated potassium ion channels. I later learned that I took on a project in biophysics, which is a field that applies theories and methods of physics to understand how biological systems work. I say all this to point out to prospective graduate students that you don’t have to know exactly what your master’s or PhD thesis will be, even after being admitted to graduate school. Rather than staying in their comfort zone, I believe students should give themselves the chance to explore different fields in STEM until they find their passion. You never know what will spark your curiosity!

What does your current work involve?
My thesis work in graduate school is focused on studying the KCNH family of voltage-gated potassium ion channels. Different ion channel members of the KCNH family are essential regulators of neuronal and cardiac excitability. The dysfunction of KCNH channels is associated with several life-altering conditions, including epilepsy, cancer, and cardiac arrhythmias, which highlights the importance of studying these molecular machines to develop targeted therapeutics. To achieve this, I investigate the structure-function relationships of these ion channels to understand how they contribute to important biological processes under normal/healthy conditions, and how diseases arise when their function goes awry.

More specifically, I use the available structural information of KCNH ion channels to generate hypotheses about how the ion channel works. Then, I make residue substitutions and/or domain deletions or insertions using molecular biology to determine the role of different subdomains in the proper functioning of the channel. Finally, I express these channels in Xenopus frog eggs (which are large single cells) and assay their function using patch clamp, which is one of the most common electrophysiological techniques to study ion channel currents and assess their function. I acquire real-time information of how making changes in the ion channel structure also leads to functional changes, and then interpret my data to understand why this happens. It is a really fun and iterative process and I have learned a lot about how these skills can be used to understand different diseases that are associated with ion channel dysfunction.

What do you get up to when you’re not in the lab or clinic?
I really enjoy organizing and working in STEM outreach activities. Seeing students get excited about science makes me happy. I believe that lighting sparks of curiosity in the next generation of scientists is part of my responsibility as an Afro-Latina scientist. Outreach always reminds me of what I came to graduate school for: which is to do awesome science and advocate for underrepresented minorities in STEM.

What I do for fun outside the lab depends on the weather. When it’s cold or cloudy (which is usually the case in Wisconsin), I really enjoy watching anime, playing video games, and watching movies. I’m a big foodie, so I also love going to restaurants (or more recently, ordering from restaurants) and trying different types of food. I am originally from Puerto Rico, so when it’s (finally) warm, I love to do activities by or on the water. Anything from swimming, to kayaking, to playing beach volleyball. I miss being close to the ocean, so being close to the water feels like I’m closer to home. But my favorite thing to do in the world is to travel!

What advice do you have for current and prospective scientists looking to build communities online?
The COVID pandemic has made it difficult for people to connect and share resources, whether they be professional opportunities or activities to improve our mental and physical wellness. I would advise current and prospective students to not be shy! Use your voice on social media to find peers whose goals, values and/or hobbies align with yours. Be your authentic selves and engage with the people you admire. There is a person behind every screen who is likely searching for the same sense of community, even if it is virtual. This was how Black In Biophysics started: with one Tweet. You never know who will respond to the call! And the best part is that you will surely meet members of your online community in person sometime soon. I would also advise students to not be afraid to use their institutions’ networks to organize virtual events, like a Gather Town social or a virtual book club, to connect with fellow students and faculty. Networking is an important part of our professional development and we are lucky that many researchers and institutions understand the importance of engaging with students virtually during these hard times. If you reach out to people, get to know them, and let them get to know you, you will gain a community of friends, peers and colleagues that will support you throughout your career.

What does the future of biophysics look like to you?
The future of biophysics looks diverse! I really want the field to become more equitable so it can be more representative of the people that make up our society. In the near future there will be more racially and ethnically diverse panels, more awards and recognitions made to Black biophysicists, and more support for the unique challenges that Black scientists face. The future is safe for Black biophysicists. Black students, faculty, and scientists will be able to focus on their work and families and not actively carry the “weight” of being Black in this society, where our dark skin color somehow means that we are a threat or that we are not worthy. In the future, Black biophysicists will come together, share their unique experiences, and collaborate to make significant contributions to the field. Whether they be Hispanic, Latinx, LGBTQ+, or disabled, all will be welcome, recognized, and valued.

What do you want to accomplish during #BlackInBiophysics Week?
I would love for our community of Black biophysicists to meet and get to know each other! I founded Black In Biophysics because I realized that I only knew a handful of Black biophysicists. I really want for our community to come together and work towards the same goal. We all wish to highlight Black excellence, so we can uplift each other and make different opportunities accessible. But to achieve that we must first organize, and I hope #BlackInBiophysics Week fosters new connections to accomplish this. I am also excited for our #BIBPSNextGen event, where we will have a panel of Black biophysicists performing awesome science demonstrations and having discussions with high school students. Our goal is to help Black and other underrepresented minority students feel represented and to inspire them to pursue careers in STEM. I also wish for non-Black scientists and allies to see #BlackInBiophysics Week and think: “How had I not heard of ‘X’ before? They are awesome!” I believe that one of the main reasons why excellent Black biophysicists do not receive a particular award or recognition for their contributions to the field is because they weren’t even nominated for them. The best way for our work to be recognized as it deserves is for Black and non-Black allies to come together and recognize that there is a lack of diversity in our field and take the necessary actions to change it. I am hoping that #BlackInBiophysics Week will spark new scientific collaborations, as well as important conversations about race and ethnicity and the importance of representation in biophysics and other STEM fields.

Whitney Stevens-Sostre, welcome to Real Scientists! Everyone, welcome to #BlackInBiophysics Week!

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Real Scientists

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