University of California, Los Angeles
Robert Taylor’s life in science began at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento when a “pretty young lady” invited him to join her in an Introduction to Chemistry class.
Not only the lady but also the science interested him. He was only 15 when a streak of gray hair showed up on his head, and after his mother told him it was inherited from his Native American great-great-grandmother, he thought he might like to study genetics. A good student, he had always figured he could study whatever he wanted.
Just what that was, however, didn’t become apparent until the community college chemistry class. “I really enjoyed it,” Robert says. “During that course, the light came on for me: Science is what I’m supposed to be doing.” He transferred to UC Davis as a biochemistry major, and two years later, he was at UCLA as a first-year student in ACCESS, a program that allows students to explore a number of alternatives in science before settling on an area of study.
For Robert, the decision came quickly. Professor Oliver Hankinson was just setting up an interdepartmental doctoral program in molecular toxicology, and Robert was the only ACCESS student that year to choose a rotation there. He found toxicology “very intriguing,” he was learning an array of different scientific techniques, and he enjoyed is interactions with Professor Hankinson. e had found his academic home.
Today, Robert is completing his dissertation on the mechanism by which certain environmental pollutants exert toxic effects in the body, among them cancer. Dioxin, for example, is a potent chemical that poisons people who burn trash that includes plastic or who eat too much contaminated fish and meat. The body possesses a number of genes encoding proteins that bind dioxin or other toxic chemicals; Robert studies the genes encoding cytochrome P450 enzymes. In the best scenario, the genes would modify the toxic chemical or compound “so we can excrete it and get rid of it,” Robert explains. Instead, with P450, “metabolism actually makes the parent compound into something much worse than it was when it entered the body.”
Robert’s goal is to describe the mechanism rather than to find practical applications for that knowledge. However, one of the P450 genes he’s working with is found only in cancerous tumors, making it of particular interest. Dr. Hankinson says that once the mechanism is understood, scientists might be able “to identify people who are more or less susceptible to these chemicals so they could be forewarned of their risk” and to find drugs or nutrients “that could ameliorate their risk.” For example, scientists know that eating broccoli helps the body get rid of some toxic chemicals.
While Robert works on his dissertation, supported in part by a Hortense Fishbaugh Memorial Scholarship, he has begun looking for a postdoctoral fellowship in industry or a government agency, with the long-range goal of becoming a board-certified toxicologist. Although he enjoyed his stint as a teaching assistant, his first love is research: “Working with the challenges you face every day—setting out your experimental goals and hypotheses and working them out—that’s what I enjoy. It’s one of those things that gets you up to go to work.”
Professor Hankinson describes Robert as “a very, very promising scientist” who is also an important contributor to the successful operation of his laboratory. In addition, Robert has been a student leader in the molecular toxicology program, organizing seminars and speeches and attending faculty meetings where “he’s a very effective conduit between faculty and students,” Professor Hankinson says.
Recently, Robert helped to found STEMPLEDGE (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics: Providing Leadership and Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education). After attending a National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop where he met underrepresented researchers in postdoctoral careers, he was inspired. “I returned to UCLA determined to help other minority students through the process, as well.” STEM-PLEDGE is a graduate student group that sponsors guest speakers and provides peer counseling, but the support system may be its most important element.
Robert knows firsthand how important support can be, having gone through community college, UC Davis, and the first year in ACCESS side by side with his cousin, Charles Dobard. “The mantra is that it’s very difficult for transfer students to get adjusted and do well,” Robert says. That was not true for him, and having his cousin for a teammate was a key factor, along with the excellent preparation he received at each step in his education.
Besides their knowledge of science, Robert and Charles acquired at Cosumnes River College the skills required to succeed in a research university, Robert says. At UC Davis, “Charles and I sat right in the front of every lecture, and we weren’t embarrassed to ask questions,” Robert says. “We asked a ton of questions. I knew we only had two yearsto finish up, We didn’t have much time to waste.” Charles and Robert continued as a team in UCLA’s ACCESS program; Charles studied molecular pharmacology and completed his PhD in December.
As for the “pretty young lady” who turned him on to science, she also turned up at UCLA, an undergraduate in neuroscience when Robert arrived as a graduate student. They began to date, and Shonte is now his wife, and mother of three children, Uriel, Naomi, and Adam. Shonte teaches high school temporarily while she applies for medical school.
And there’s one more expression of teamwork in Robert’s life: He and his teammates have won UCLA’s intramural Flag Football championship three times—and they made up the only co-ed team to win an all men’s league. Their name: Toxic Substances.
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