This is the continuation of A black history month interview with Dr. Namandje Bumpus. Dr. Namandje Bumpus (pronounced Na-Mon-Jay) is currently an associate professor of Pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University.
Anwar Dunbar: Did you always have the leadership skills necessary to run a lab or did you have to learn them? Was it a work in progress?
Namandje Bumpus: Yes, you always build on it and it’s still a work in progress. I think you don’t necessarily get trained for it in graduate school or as a postdoc, but I tried to participate in things that were extracurricular; the Association for Minority Scientists at Michigan, and in my postdoc I was a part of our postdoctoral association, so I tried to pick up leadership skills by being involved in those other groups; but even still you’re not prepared to run your own lab. You really learn it as you go; you try things to see how they work. You talk to senior colleagues to get their advice and potentially go back and try something else. You take mentorship or leadership classes which I’ve done too, but I think it’s always a work in progress.
AD: We’re almost done. For the lay person, what are Cytochrome P450s and why are they important?
NB: They are proteins expressed in our bodies in all tissues, but mostly in the liver. What they largely help us to do is clear foreign compounds from our bodies. So for instance, if you are taking a drug therapeutically, you take it orally and you swallow it, one of the first places it’s going to go is into your liver. Your liver doesn’t want it to hang around and be inside of your cells forever, so we have these proteins that will change (biotransform) these drugs structurally to make them something that can be removed from your cells and removed from your liver. Thus, P450s are proteins that help us to clear foreign compounds and molecules. Drugs are obviously a large percentage of the foreign compounds that we’re exposed to, so we call them drug metabolizing enzymes.
AD: All of us went different routes after leaving Michigan. Some landed in the private sector in big pharma or the chemical industry. Others like myself, went into the public sector on the regulatory side, and I think I’m one of the only ones from our department to do that. A large chunk of our graduates went into academia which requires a ton of skills: leadership skills, entrepreneurial skills, and teaching skills. It’s also a very competitive environment and I very much admire my peers, such as yourself, who went that route. What made you decide to go into academia as opposed to the private sector or some other track?
NB: I think academia is the only thing that really fits my personality. I really like interacting with and training students. I like having a really close relationship with them where they come and work in my lab for several years while they work on earning a Ph.D. I get to see them grow. It’s similar with postdoctoral fellows. They come to the lab for a couple of years and I help them try to get to the next stage in their career.
I really love the educational aspect of the training. Additionally, I really like the broader training environment. In addition to my associate professorship, I’m also associate dean in the area of education where I get to spend a lot of time with graduate students who aren’t in my lab. I work more broadly with other graduate students helping them decide which lab they should choose for their thesis, and what they want to do next with their career. I further help them identify training opportunities for careers that they might want outside of academia. I really enjoy education training so this is the place for me.
Also, I like that scientifically, if I can dream it I can do it. If we have something that I really want to test in my lab, we can find a way to do it and test it out. I like the autonomy and the ability to be that creative with our science as well, so I think it’s a really good fit for my personality and goals.
AD: Now lastly, what advice would you give to young African American girls or those who are curious about science, but not sure that they can do it, or parents who are reading this and want to expose their kids to science?
NB: I think first knowing that if it’s something you really want to do, then you can do it. I think what’s most important about being a scientist is the passion for it and the interest. It’s not about everyone thinking that you’re brilliant. It’s about being interested and being a curious person and organically interested in science. I think it depends on which stage you’re at. If you’re in elementary school, starting off like me getting chemistry sets and microscopes is a good start – getting kids the type of gifts that will stimulate their interest and curiosity in science. Make them see that they do have the ability to do experiments and explore things on their own, and I really think that can get them even more excited about it. Microscopes, chemistry sets, and telescopes, those are things you start with from five years old.
Often times there are summer camps. At Johns Hopkins we have summer programs for people, middle school students and high school students. At many different stages you can contact local universities and museums to see if they have summer camps for science that kids can go to and that can be helpful. A lot of schools including ours have high school programs. In ours you can spend the whole summer working on a project and I think that’s a great way to see if you like scientific research and really get excited about doing research; so I think there are a lot of opportunities. You just have look out for them. The best place to start is contacting local universities and museums. Most universities will have a community engagement program you can contact for opportunities.
AD: The last question, Namandje, involves something personal you shared with me. The science community recently suffered a great loss, someone who was a mentor to you. Would you like to say a few words in memory of this individual? From what I gather, this person was also a female African American scientist.
NB: Sure. Her name was Dr. Marion Sewer. She was a full professor at the University of California-San Diego, and a Pharmacologist as well. She worked on endocrinology and really did a lot to understand the endocrine system and how it impacts lipid metabolism.
She was just a very highly regarded scientist and she was also someone who cared a lot about outreach. She ran a lot of programs that were focused on diversity and giving opportunities for people in high school through undergraduate school, and really spent time with postdocs to make sure there were really opportunities for people of different backgrounds, including African Americans, particularly for African Americans to have exposure to science. She was someone who was a really great colleague, a really great scientist and someone who also, in a rare way, really cared about people, service, equity and inclusion in science. She really inspired me and helped me to get my first National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant by reviewing it for me several times. She was more senior and experienced, and I think a lot of us have that same story where she helped us get started because she was so generous with her time, so it was definitely a really big loss.
AD: Well thank you for this interview opportunity, Namandje, and your willingness to discuss your life and career. A lot of people will benefit from this.
NB: Thank you, Anwar.