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PLU’s Lathiena Nervo discusses her work and being named one of the “1,000 inspiring Black scientists in America”

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professor of biology Dr. Lathiena Nervo

Image: professor of biology Dr. Lathiena Nervo

February 2, 2021
By Zach Powers
Marketing & Communications

Pacific Lutheran University Assistant Professor of Biology Lathiena Nervo was recently named one of Cell Mentor’s “1,000 inspiring Black scientists in America.” A developmental biologist in her second year at PLU, Nervo is equally passionate about teaching, biological research, and increasing diverse representation in science. She recently spoke with PLU News about her recent honor, her motivations as an educator and scientist, and her experience thus far at PLU.

Congratulations on being included on Cell Mentor’s list of “1,000 inspiring Black scientists in America.” What did that mean to you?
It meant a lot. I was really surprised to end up on that list. There’s some pretty impressive people on that list that are doing amazing work in their respective fields, so I was incredibly honored and really humbled to be on it.  It was also really nice to see people on that list that I know and that I’ve met, either at conferences or I actually went to grad school with, or who are in my little niche of developmental biology. Being a Black woman in science, and being a hyper minority in that sense, sometimes you tend to feel very isolated and alone. But this list made me think of all the different individuals across the country and made me feel like we are a tight-knit community.

How has being such a “hyper minority” in your field impacted your experience as a student, graduate student and now as a university faculty member?
It has had a major impact and still continues to have one. You are pretty much constantly fighting against stereotype threat and wanting to be valued for what you do and not necessarily what you look like. It definitely has impacted the focus on my work in a way, because I was raised with a certain set of values —I like to bring those to my work as well.

What are you most interested in as a biologist?
I am a developmental biologist. The thing I love about developmental biology is that you’re a jack of all trades. It’s a mix of molecular, genetics, cell biologies, anatomy and physiology. It’s all these different biology disciplines merged into one. A few decades ago it would have been called embryology.

I’m really interested in cell interactions and how cells actually communicate with each other while an embryo is developing. And so, how do they communicate with each other to create tissues? We have all these different tissues within our bodies that could be grouped into four categories. You have muscle, nerve, connective tissue, and epithelial tissue. I’m really interested in how the embryo decides to make all those different tissues.

At what point in your journey as a student did you realize that biology was something special for you?
I think it was my senior year of high school. That was the first year my high school actually had AP Biology. I had an amazing teacher who taught the class, essentially, like a college course. She gave us a lot of freedom, she let us guide how we could learn, what was best for us. Also let us guide what we covered, which was fantastic. That class is what really opened my eyes to majoring in biology.

College was always important to my parents. Neither of them went to college and it was always clear growing up that the expectation was that we were going to go to college. But during high school, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to go to college for and what my passion was for, until that AP Biology class.

What made you decide on research and teaching, as opposed to medical school or the many other careers a biology student can pursue?
It’s a roundabout story, but essentially I thought I wanted to go to medical school. I wanted to be a pediatrician, and that was to be my focus. But then I had a research experience as an undergraduate that really opened my eyes to what experimentation is, how to think about big questions, and how to figure out what experiments will help get you closer to the answers to those questions.

Then, after finishing my undergrad, I started teaching high school biology and I realized how much I loved to teach. I taught at a Catholic school with a very small minority population. I didn’t realize going into it how much my presence would mean to those students.

How did teaching in that high school shape how you teach now?
Well, soon after I started there I had a lot of the underrepresented minority students in my classroom after school and during lunch. Just wanting to talk about their experiences in life. For many of them, I was their first Black teacher that they’ve ever had, and I taught 10th graders. That experience really opened my eyes to what I—as a Black woman in science and as an educator—represent. That was the moment where I started thinking that I really love science and I wanted to do experimentation, but I also wanted to focus on mentorship. I wanted to be a mentor, I wanted to increase underrepresented minority participation in science, and get those students loving science. And that was the spark that started that. I then worked for a couple of years for a NASA-funded program, where that was actually their focus—to increase the underrepresented group’s participation in science.

I realized that I wanted to teach and conduct research at a primarily undergraduate institution. So I went into grad school with that goal in mind. I was a non-traditional student, going back several years after completing my bachelor’s degree. I received grants through my graduate school department and the US Department of Education. I participated in a postdoctoral fellowship that’s specific for teaching scientists to be better educators. When I finished my PhD, I went into that fellowship program. And now I’m excited to be here at PLU, focused on these three core elements of teaching, increasing representation in my field, and conducting research.

Coming to PLU from the East Coast is a big switch. What made you pick PLU?
One of the things that really struck me when I researched the biology department and interviewed here was the curriculum. It’s essentially the curriculum I wish I had as an undergraduate, where students are really able to create their own focus. The way the program is organized gives students a lot of freedom to choose what direction they want to go. If they have more interest in the really small things, like molecular work, or virology, or microbiology, they can take classes on that. If they want to go bigger with the systems, in terms of ecology and organisms, they can do that too, and everything in between. I found it really amazing that students were able to create their own focus in that way.

I also had a really good experience talking with students. I had lunch with three students during my interview here, and all of them were double majoring. At my undergrad institution that’s not a thing that was really possible for biology majors because the curriculum was so rigid.  The fact that PLU students were still able to pursue their interests outside of biology, and get a degree and take classes they wanted outside of that, was incredibly impressive to me. I just thought, “they’re doing something right here,” in a pedagogical sense. And that was one of the things that I found really exciting about coming to PLU.

Were there any other aspects of the job that drew you to PLU?
The individual faculty members that I talked with during my phone interview, and then my in-person interview, seemed so supportive. I was really looking for that in the next stage of my career. I really wanted a department that was collegial, that didn’t just talk about being supportive, actually was supportive and was willing to step in and help in any way they could.

I was also really impressed with the multiple mentorship programs we have for first-year and early-career faculty members. That’s not something most institutions have, not even some of the other big name liberal arts schools that I was interviewed at. And those have been really helpful in my first few semesters here.

What’s been your first impression of the PLU students you’ve had in class?
I think PLU students are really well-rounded and they’re really thinking about their position in their communities and in the world. A lot of them have really amazing goals, beyond just, “Oh, I want to be a biologist.” They’re thinking about their impact in their communities and in the larger sense, which is incredible.

I would also say they’re really interested in learning. It’s not just about end goals for them. I dealt with students at other institutions where some classes are just boxes they need to check off, just to earn their bachelor’s degree. I don’t get that same sense at all from PLU students. They’re really focused on learning and really show their interest in the subject. I’m really impressed by that.