Making History Today To Be A Legacy for Tomorrow


A Birth Defects Insights Blog

by Elise M. Lewis, PhD, President of the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention

Recently I was interviewed by a local news network that was working on a Black History series celebrating living history. This was indeed a surprise and an honor, and I must extend my gratitude to Dr. Maia Green for recommending me for the momentous opportunity. Prior to this interview, if I were asked what Black History Month meant to me, I’d simply reply “it is a time to reflect on my culture and family traditions, remember the legacy of those who have left an indelible mark on this nation, and celebrate with pride the many contributions of African Americans in the areas of science, education, sports, politics, and social justice, to name a few.” That remains true, but today, I would proclaim that it’s high time that we celebrate the successes of others while we have the opportunity. Tomorrow is too late, and a month is not long enough.

In the days leading up to the interview, the thought bubbles were running rampant in my mind. “What questions will I be asked?”, “Do I need to prepare notes?,” “What should I wear?,” “What about my hair!!!?” Considering that I have been donning an athleisurely look throughout the pandemic, I did spend some quality time reacquainting myself with my closet and envisioning what impression I wanted to make. After I realized that the span of the interview would be condensed to a 2- to 4-minute highlight, I took a deep breath to move past the initial excitement and compartmentalized the moment (to the best of my ability) until the day of the filming. The purpose of this interview was to celebrate black women in science who should be remembered in the future. I approached it as an opportunity to tell my story to a broader audience and to deliver a message that would inspire hope for future generations of scientists. Although I didn’t write out a script (hard to do for an interview), I did jot down a few notes and key phrases so that my message would be clear and impactful. Fast forward to the day of the interview, lights, camera, mic check, and action.

Growing up in the south as a child of a tireless educator I was frequently reminded of my family history, our cultural diversity, and the importance of education and how it could shape my future. If my mother were here today to see how her strength, love, leadership, insightfulness, and drive for academic excellence would shape my womanhood and the scientist that I have become she would be speechless to say the least, but quickly remind me that I have many miles to go on my journey.

From conception, my life has been a unique journey, and my career as a scientist continues to evolve. I am making history, not just black history and not solely for myself, but for the multitude of underrepresented minorities who need a role model to empower and encourage them to pursue education and a career in STEM. Throughout my journey I have been labeled the ‘first’ and often ‘the only’ in many facets of my life. Early in my academics, I was one of few in advanced placement classes offered in high school and at the time I graduated from the University of Alabama I was one of two African American females who was bestowed the honor of a doctorate degree in biological sciences. As an aside, I was second only to my best friend whose last name came before mine in the alphabet. In my family, where educate is of utmost importance (as evidenced by the plaques we receive for academic achievements), I was the first to graduate with a doctorate degree and the third grandchild to graduate from college. In my career, I can count the number of African Americans who focus their scientific efforts on Reproductive, Developmental, and Juvenile Toxicology on my hands. And most notably, I am the first African American elected and to serve in the presidential line of our Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention and of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Association for Women in Science. While I could go on and on, I do not let labels such as ‘first’, ‘only’, and ‘one of few’ detour me from living a life full of purpose personally or professionally. The uniqueness in my daily walk allows me to use my resources, networks, and platforms to promote diversity, equity, and inclusiveness within my discipline and the broader STEM community, be a catalyst for change, empower the scientific leaders of tomorrow, and to pay my success forward through mentorship and sponsorship.

Research suggests that most underrepresented minorities attribute their absence or departure from STEM occupations to lack of access to quality education, lack of role models, uncertainty of success, discrimination in recruitment practices and promotions (whether conscious or unconscious), and lack of encouragement to pursue STEM from an early age. Such barriers, whether real or not, can be prohibitive, do not foster diversity or inclusion, and limits one’s ability to take steps toward realizing their full potential. I have met many underrepresented minority students/trainees with knowledge, gifts, and talents who are in need of an opportunity to help them flourish and to visualize a better future in STEM. Through mentorship, advocacy, and community service, I chose to be a guiding light and a voice of what is possible rather than a mere echo.

Mentors are invaluable assets who can equip, motivate, inform, inspire, and believe in us as we navigate a course to our destiny. The path I traveled to achieving my dreams was not necessarily a straight line. The detours I encountered, while momentary, helped me to develop the strength, character, and skills I needed to navigate successfully through my journey. But success is rarely achieved alone. I’ve certainly had many mentors, and I am forever grateful to the mentors of my past and my present who guided me, built my confidence, opened a door, and gave me the momentum necessary to move forward. They were, and many still are, true success partners who inspire me to reach beyond what I can see.

And cut! Now, queue up the snow storm. While I wasn’t able to share my entire life’s story during the interview, I did hone in on my field of research, what inspired me to enter the field of science, my greatest achievement to date, and the power and rewards of good mentorship. If I could rewind a single moment in the interview I would redo my answer to “Do you have any final words to say to young African American boys or girls who may be inspired by your story?” At the time I was not prepared for this question because I have miles to go before I complete my scientific journey. Now that I have had time to think more about the question my response is simply “The Best Is Yet To Come.”

Each of us has a story worth sharing about our personal pursuit of education and a career. Your passion for science could be the catalyst that ignites someone’s future in STEM. Are you ready to tell your story?

More about the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention (BDRP)

To understand and prevent birth defects and disorders of developmental and reproductive origin, BDRP promotes multi-disciplinary research and exchange of ideas; communicates information to health professionals, decision-makers, and the public; and provides education and training.

Scientists interested in or already involved in research related to topics mentioned in this blog are encouraged to join BDRP. BDRP is the premier source for cutting-edge research and authoritative information related to birth defects and developmentally mediated disorders. Our members include those specializing in cell and molecular biology, developmental biology and toxicology, reproduction and endocrinology, epidemiology, nutritional biochemistry, and genetics, as well as the clinical disciplines of prenatal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, neonatology, medical genetics, and teratogen risk counseling. In addition, BDRP publishes the scientific journal, Birth Defects Research. Learn more at Find BDRP on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.