Director’s Innovation Speaker Series: Lessons from My Journey as a Black Scientist, NIH-funded Investigator, DEI Leader, and Mental Health Advocate
JOSHUA GORDON: Hello, everyone. I am Dr. Joshua Gordon. I am the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and it is my pleasure to welcome you all here today to another in the series of speakers that we have for the Director’s Innovation Speaker Series at the National Institute of Mental Health.
It is my pleasure today to welcome Dr. Nii Addy, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Cellular and Molecular Physiology at Yale University. He is going to be talking to us in just a moment on “Lessons from My Journey as a Black Scientist, NIH-Funded Investigator, DEI Leader and Mental Health Advocate” and I think we are going to learn a little bit about each of those four roles and perhaps more as well along the way.
I will remind everyone of the housekeeping notes. If you happen to require technical assistance please use the Chat Box to speak to the event production staff. But if you would like to ask a question please enter it into the Q&A box; they can be entered at any point during the seminar. We will hold the questions until the end when we will engage in a dialogue together with Dr. Addy.
The webinar is being recorded and the recording will be made available as soon as we can process it and get it online -- it usually takes a couple of weeks -- at the www.nimh.nih.gov website. The additional letters are there on your screen.
With no further ado, I would like to introduce Dr. Addy. He is, as I mentioned, an Associate Professor at Yale University. He received his BS in biology from Duke and his PhD in neuroscience from Yale. He directs a very successful federally-funded research program that is let’s say NIMH adjacent; it is absolutely mental health-centric, to study the molecular and pharmacological substrates of substance use and mood disorders mostly -- maybe entirely -- in animal models.
But I think what is particularly unique about that scientific program is the motivation behind it. Dr. Addy has really tried to pay attention to, even in this basic research, the idea that he wants to try to be able to have that research serve as a foundation to improve the lives of those struggling with substance use disorders and mood disorders.
As I said, he has been very successful. He serves on a number of editorial boards. He has been a grant reviewer at NIH, actually in the study section that used to see my grants, NMB, and which I reviewed for from time to time as well. He also has a number of roles in the Yale Department of Psychiatry.
But before I get to those additional roles, which have a lot to do with his talk, I just want to mention one additional thing about the science. Not long ago, Dr. Addy, in the setting of the rise of vaping and flavor additives added to nicotine, decided, you know what, this is an issue that we really need to address and has now embarked on a robust series of basic science studies to try to understand what are the effects of adding flavors and other chemical compounds, including some of the additives used in vaping, on the neurobiological processes underlying tobacco addition. So a really fascinating way to combine basic science with real, true translational elements.
Another part of Dr. Addy’s career has been really to serve as a voice to encourage equity, diversity and inclusion. He serves as the inaugural director of the Scientists’ Diversity and Inclusion Center at the Yale School of Medicine. He is also the director of a faculty mentoring program and the Career Development Subcommittee of the Anti-Racism Task Force in the Yale Department of Psychiatry. He contributes in lots of other ways to that effort, but I won’t waste anymore time talking about it because you would rather him talk about it.
There is one other aspect of his career though that I do want to talk about besides the many awards he has received and the productivity of the science. He is a truly gifted scientific communicator, and he has developed and used those gifts in order to be able to communicate to a broad array of constituents, most recently through a podcast but in lots of other ways as well. And I know we are going to hear about that as well.
Perhaps that was a little bit long but well deserved. I would like to turn the microphone over to Dr. Addy.
One more housekeeping note. There is an ASL interpreter and should be pinned on the screen for you, so if you need that, it is available to you. You can also use the closed captioning if you prefer.
Dr. Addy, thanks.
NII ADDY: Thank you so much, Dr. Gordon. I definitely appreciate that warm welcome and introduction. I am grateful to be able to be here this afternoon sharing in this forum, especially knowing that a lot of my esteemed colleagues have shared in this series and many other people who have shared in this series over the year.
Before I jump into slides, I did just want to acknowledge Dr. Gordon’s leadership as well and say also how appreciative I am for the focus of the innovation seminar series this year really having a lens on thinking about health equity, also thinking about how our science can inform policy, and really also putting an emphasis on the importance of really diversifying our biomedical research workforce.
Those are all topics that are near and dear to my heart, as you will hear as we go through the talk, and I just wanted to acknowledge Dr. Gordon’s role in that and again say my thanks and appreciation for the emphasis on that.
I always like to start these types of talks just focusing on the people who have been involved in the work over the years, and I think one theme that you will hear from me as we go through today is the fact that this really is a team and community effort.
What I have done here is just show some of the people in my lab community who have been involved in this work over the years, a few different pictures of some of the lab members at different stages of my career, but also some pictures from some of our outreach and community events which Dr. Gordon alluded to, specifically, some of the town hall conversations that we have been able to have on college campuses and in different cities, thinking about topics at the intersection of mental health, faith, culture and social justice.
So again, I am grateful for the team that has been involved in this, and this really is a community effort and something that we are all working on together.
But of course, for the purposes of today’s talk, as you heard Dr. Gordon mention, I am going to be talking about lessons that I have learned from my journey as a black scientist, an NIH-funded investigator, a DEI leader and a mental health advocate. Even though I am starting with the words centering on my story, it is going to be much broader than that as well, so definitely incorporating stories of many members of our community that I have been involved with over the years, things I have heard from others and also from our allies and supporters.
To start out, I am showing a picture of me as a young scientist. Well, not really a young scientist, but this is indeed a picture of me and it is a picture that my father took. My father is a psychiatrist and actually a sleep medicine physician. He and my mom met in Ghana, West Africa in medical school, and my mom is a pediatrician. I mention that because that is definitely a key part of my story. And some of you who have heard me speak in other settings have heard me talk about that aspect of my story before.
Hearing that, you may assume that this was a path that I was just set on, being the son of two academically gifted and inclined individuals who definitely put time and effort into their work and into their studies, who, through a host of different God-ordained circumstances and opportunities, actually ended up in the US. Even though they were both physicians, things were not necessarily flowing monetarily early in our lives for me and my younger siblings, so I know they definitely sacrificed for us.
But even coming from that background and that pedigree, so to speak, this wasn’t something that I just naturally gravitated towards or was on this path to become a professor at an Ivy League institution. Again, for those of you who have heard me in other settings you know that the path was a little bit more winding in terms of my motivation.
Unfortunately for my parents, my mindset was that as long as I was doing better than somebody else at any particular point in time in academics I was completely fine with that. If that meant I got a C on an assignment and someone else got a D, then I was completely fine with that. If I got a D and someone else failed, I was completely fine with that. So, something that obviously didn’t sit well with my parents who had sacrificed so much for me and my siblings coming all the way to the States.
But for me the turning point really came when we moved to a new area. Between 7th and 8th grade we had a family move and we were in a new school system, a predominantly white school system. I still had kind of this laissez-faire, lackadaisical attitude and I basically failed my first science project. In doing so, I knew that nobody else in the class actually did worse than me, so that kind of blew my whole mindset out of the water.
The other piece of that was, since I was a new kid and I was also a new black kid, I didn’t want to be labeled as the dumb black kid in the class. So for me that actually was a key turning point in terms of my mindset and my motivation to shift and actually apply myself to my studies.
Fortunately, I was able to ride the shift in a lot of ways and going into high school was in a much better situation academically. But that doesn’t mean that things came naturally or that there was always support from those around me. I remember at some point having aspirations to go to Duke for college and talking to an administrator in the school system who basically was very doubtful about that and was saying things like, well, are you sure you want to aim for that. It’s a really hard school to get into. And mind you, at this point in time I was near the top of the class; academics were definitely a strong point.
So that led me to wonder is he saying this to other students. I don’t really hear him saying that to others. Or again, is he just saying this because I’m black? And that was actually a very key motivating factor for me to try and move forward and to move forward in those schools. I was very fortunate to actually get accepted to Duke, which I took.
I also was blessed to have a Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholarship at Duke University. This is a scholarship that was actually started in memory of Reginaldo Howard. He was the first African-American president of the Duke student body. Unfortunately, he passed away tragically in a car accident on the way home from school after one semester, so the scholarship was started in his legacy and his honor. And again, I was fortunate to be able to receive that scholarship and to be incorporated with a cohort of other students who also received that scholarship, and that was really a formative experience for me.
My time at Duke, of course, was also the place where I first got engaged with and exposed to research. I have put a few of the programs here. The first program that I participated in was actually in the summer after my freshman year, a Howard Hughes HHMI summer research program that I participated in. I actually followed up in 1998 after my sophomore year with another program, the National Science Foundation’s Mechanisms of Behavior Program.
And in the lab where I was doing that work I actually stayed on as an independent research student, and then as a senior research student as well. So it was a good opportunity for me to get engaged in research and to have some formative opportunities there.
But obviously, that isn’t something I did in isolation. I was working in other people’s laboratories, and so I had people who were really strong supporters and sponsors, the first of which was Dr. Anthony LaMantia who was at Duke at the time and later moved on to UNC and Georgetown.
My following summer I had the privilege of participating in the Mechanisms of Behavior Program which was directed by Dr. Warren Meck, who we unfortunately lost about a year ago, but I had the opportunity to be able to learn from him and to be engaged in his program and work there. And during that time I worked in a lab with Dr. Ed Levin where I actually stayed on to do my senior thesis work and also my independent study work. I also stayed there as a research technician for two years before applying to grad school.
Oftentimes when I talk about this aspect of my trajectory when I’m speaking to students, the next question I will usually ask is what do these three individuals have in common. Usually someone will raise their hand and very timidly say, they are all white men. And I will say, yes, that is in fact the case. Obviously, it’s clear from this slide but something that we don’t always like to talk about in terms of the realities in some shapes and forms.
Now I will at the same time acknowledge and come back to the concept and the importance of having people who look like you that can mentor and support you along the way. But, at the same time, I do also have to acknowledge the importance of those who don’t look like you who can also be supporters and allies, and that was definitely the case in my situation.
Speaking of Dr. Levin in particular, who is someone I still keep in touch with to this day, he actually sent me to a research conference as an undergrad and had me give an oral presentation. I was completely terrified and inexperienced speaking in front of all these other professors and grad students and postdocs, but that was also very informative in a lot of good ways and allowed me to gain exposure to the field and to network with other individuals. I mention that because that is definitely a key piece of my story as well.
Coming back to Dr. Gordon and NIMH, I also want to share a section of his statement on diversity from back in June 2019. This is a quote from the NIMH website. It is just a portion of the statement, but here Dr. Gordon said the following:
“Diversity is key to excellent science. It fosters innovation and discovery, improves the quality of research, and increases the likelihood that research outcomes will benefit all of us. I encourage scientific leaders across the biomedical enterprise to play a role in supporting all the bright and talented minds engaged in research.”
And so I appreciate this comment, and there are a lot of other key points that he makes here, again, tying diversity to excellence, which the research definitely backs up, and also talking about the importance of innovation and discovery. For me, these are key pieces that have been important in my trajectory and something that I will come back to as we go through the talk but just wanted to mention that to all of you and to highlight those comments that Dr. Gordon made in his statement.
So how does that tie into my path along this road to becoming a black scientist? On this slide I am just showing a lot of different opportunities and research awards that I have received over the years, primarily focusing on my training and not really focusing as much on things that have happened since I became a faculty member. But I show this for a few reasons. You may look at this initially and say, as I have done before, wow, that’s an impressive list of opportunities that I was able to become engaged in and a lot of awards that I was able to receive along the way as well. So that is one lens.
But at the same time, oftentimes as this was happening I was still feeling like an imposter. Yes, I had great opportunities at different laboratories but I also received awards that I knew were open to all but were really trying to emphasize and diversify the research endeavor and the biomedical research workforce, which is a good goal.
But at some level I kept wondering, am I only receiving these awards because I am black. Some of them, of course, were focused on minorities like the American Psychological Association Minority Fellowship Program, which was key in my trajectory and my success, as was my time at Woods Hole. But again, it left me wondering, am I only receiving these because I am black or because I deserve it. So that was sort of an ongoing tension that was there throughout the process.
For me, one of the key shifts in my mindset was when I was able to successfully apply for and receive an F31 NRSA Award as a graduate student. In terms of my mindset and my understanding, I knew this was kind of a gold standard award, flagship award, for graduate students, and so at this point I felt like, okay, at least I was able to compete for something that was made available even though that was kind of the gold standard that general grad students were applying for. At the same time I also knew that all the awards I had received previously also facilitated and helped me be prepared to receive that award.
So again, it was both of those things working together, but for me it felt like, okay, I have been validated in this in some way, although I have to also acknowledge there could be still that voice creeping in of, well, did I only get this NRSA because I am black. I mention this just to be very forthright and honest about the tension that many of us feel oftentimes in these endeavors and to make sure this is something that we are all keenly aware of and are able to talk about in conversation.
I have also thought a lot about how do I begin to move beyond being an imposter, and in a sense, I will say that is never a complete process. There are ways that I have continued to move forward, but sometimes it’s a back-and-forth process and there are times when that feeling still arises.
One of the key pieces for me in terms of trying to move through that has been the importance of community. Here I show a picture of our Yale Minority Organization for Retention and Expansion which started in 2007. This is a faculty-led organization that actually was started as the result of many African-American women who were leaving the school of medicine around that time due to opportunities they had elsewhere or due to frustrations they were feeling on campus and a whole host of other reasons.
So a group of faculty decided it would be important to create an organization to really bring together people of these backgrounds and make sure we had a way to support each other in very practical and pragmatic ways. I should also mention that even though this organization was formed in 2007, there was a long history of groups getting together to really support each other, had gone back 30-plus years before this group was formed. Obviously, early on there were very small groups of minority faculty on campus; that has grown over the years.
One of the flagship things that we have in our organization is an annual welcome reception, and we have named this the James P. Comer and Curtis L. Patton MORE Welcome Reception in honor of two of the African-American faculty who started those gatherings many years ago, both of whom are included in this picture.
Obviously, when those gatherings stated they were very small, but they were very supportive and important for people’s sense of belonging and for their development. This has grown over the years. Now there are over 200 members of the community, students, trainees, reidents, fellows and members of the community who have gone through Yale in some shape or form, so definitely an important piece of community for us. Within the organization we also have monthly meetings and some important goals that we work on, on a regular basis.
I just wanted to mention those here to give everybody a sense of what this work has been about. First it is really, again, to focus on accelerating the appointment and retention of underrepresented minority faculty members and to enhance their professional development and their environment at Yale. We have done this through mentorship and promotion of existing underrepresented faculty.
We have also put an emphasis on recruiting additional underrepresented faculty, and we have also been very strategic about being in partnership with various offices at the School of Medicine at the university and at Yale New Haven Hospital. We meet with the dean on a quarterly basis and with many other of the affinity and support groups on campus.
I am only highlighting some of the things we have been doing here, but obviously, again, this is a team effort. We have an executive committee that is focused on this work and it has just been a wonderful community to be involved in and to have that sense of making an impact for all of us together as a community.
In addition to the MORE organization there are several other people who have played roles in my support over the years at Yale and elsewhere. This slide is a slide I have shown before when I gave a black and neuro talk, but it is always one that’s a little bit sentimental for me because I have a lot of deep relationships with the individuals who are pictured here, some of whom have actually passed on.
One of the things that really hits me in this picture is the ethnic diversity of the group, but also the diversity of the walks of life of the people pictured. There are former college provosts pictured here, there are pastors pictured here, there are university presidents pictured here, directors of programs, mentors in my department here, DEI leaders, college friends, people who have stepped into different roles at different times in my life, former mentors within specific laboratories. For me this really speaks to just a wide breadth of people in different communities who have been important in my journey along the way.
One of the things I heard years back was just the importance of having different mentors for different aspects of our lives, and I know that these individuals played a key role in my life in lots of different ways and, again, have facilitated that process of wondering am I an imposter, do I belong here, am I only here because I’m black, and so have really given me encouragement to move forward, and partnered and collaborated with me in a lot of ways as well.
Along that path, these are some of the components that have started to contribute to my ability to be able to serve as a DEI leader in a lot of ways. As a leader, some of the things I have been trying to think about are how do I actually represent our community as well, and how do I support our community. So what I want to do is just share some paraphrased comments and insights that I have heard and had conversations within the community over the last few years. Some of these will sound familiar to many of you. Some of you may be caught by surprise. But again, I want us just to kind of take these in for what they are and really think about what we can learn from what people are sharing in these comments.
The first one is a comment I have heard frequently from students, particularly students that come to Yale but other places as well. They say, “I don’t see people that look like me here and I’m not sure if this is a place where I can succeed.” Another comment, “I don’t see many underrepresented faculty in leadership positions.” Third, “This is a place where women and minorities don’t thrive.” I have heard people say this about Yale but about other academic institutions as well.
Obviously, all these comments are very sobering and very honest, and so as a leader I think it’s important to have these comments with me and to be thinking about them as I engage with my colleagues about ways to make sure that we can actually address these things.
On the flip side, I have also heard positive comments that have been encouragements along the way as well. One I have heard is, “I am grateful to be able to build community with other URM trainees and faculty.” Another comment, “I’m fortunate and thankful to have a few faculty on campus who look like me who can provide me with mentorship.” Another comment, “I had strong allies and sponsors who supported my recruitment to the faculty.”
Obviously, what I’m showing you here is not an academic study but really just giving you a sense of the types of comments that people make which I think are really reflective of their experiences and how they are experiencing life in these various institutions which we are all involved in. So it’s something I always keep in mind especially in the work that I’m doing both within the lab and outside of the lab.
The other thing I want to talk about is just how I have responded to some of those comments over time in terms of the actions that I have taken. Here I am basically just going to highlight some of the roles I have been able to play and am still playing in many ways today. One of those is as a facilitator and speaker for what was known as the Yale Minority Science Research Network and which has now changed to a group called a collective. This is basically a group of graduate students and postdocs who meet on a monthly basis to support each other and sponsor each other and bring in different faculty to speak about their experiences.
I have also been fortunate to participate in the Neuroscience Scholars Program through the Society for Neuroscience, which again is focused on underrepresented minorities and pairing grad students and postdocs with mentors in the field.
I have served as a diversity recruitment coordinator for our Yale Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program. As Dr. Gordon mentioned, I am also the Director of Scientist Diversity and Inclusion at the Yale School of Medicine, now focused on underrepresented basic science faculty and physician scientists.
I have been involved in various DEI committees and initiatives in the scientific societies that I am involved with, and just to name two, one being the International Behavior and Neuroscience Society, the second being the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
I have done a lot of work just informally mentoring URM and undergrads, grad students, postdocs, fellows and faculty both on campus and nationally.
I was involved in some of the early work with our Belonging at Yale initiative at Yale, which was a working group at that time but has turned into a full-blown initiative, and for anyone who wants to see the ongoing work of that group you can go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been an invited DEI speaker at several different venues. I facilitate and coordinate mentor pairing for others as well. Even though I have done some informal mentoring, sometimes just due to time commitments I am not able to take those students on but I am able to pair them with others, who honestly are also not always able to take them on but sometimes and oftentimes make exceptions even though they are also pulled in many different directions.
I currently serve as the Co-Chair of the Faculty Development Subcommittee of the Antiracism Task Force within the Department of Psychiatry, as Dr. Gordon mentioned. I am the Associate Director for Diversity for the NIMH-funded Basic Science Research Training Program which focuses on postdocs. I am a Co-Director for the MORE Faculty Mentoring Program, and I am an ongoing mentor and advisor for our Post-Baccalaureate Research Program that is run by Dr. Michelle Nurone and Dr. Anton Bennett.
As you can see, there is a lot on this slide, and I do this not as a way to bring attention to all the things I have been doing per se, but just to make the point that this is all outside of my science. None of this has to do with kind of the daily job description, so to speak, of actually running a scientific lab, but I hope it also gives people a sense of the amount of work that many of us often do outside the lab.
The other thing I will say is that this is not something that is unique to me. This is something that is very common for many of us in these roles, and I know that people have written about this as well.
The other thing that I think is really important to consider is, is there actual support given to me and other individuals to make sure that we can do this work. My close colleague, Dr. Iona Jordan, and others have written about this particularly around women and women from minority backgrounds in terms of the work they do in terms of leadership and not always with the support that they need.
Again, I mention this to say this is something that has been a passion for me, but it is also important I think for us as a community to acknowledge the amount of work that goes into this and to make sure that there is support for that as well.
I also want to share a few comments and insights that I have received from the community and some of those roles I just mentioned. Specifically within the mentoring program, one of the things I heard a lot from some of our participants even before they participated is that there was a perceived lack -- they felt like they had a lack of access to leaders. I use the word “perceived” here. Sometimes it’s perceived and sometimes it is real. Sometimes it’s based on scheduling and sometimes it is just because of the way that we have our structure set up.
So one of the things we have done within our mentoring program was really to break down those barriers and open up opportunities for conversation. In a humorous way I have actually heard leaders say that when they stepped into a leadership position they felt like their phone stopped ringing because people felt like they weren’t accessible anymore, so it has been important for us to be able to facilitate that process.
We have also focused on the promotion process and helping people navigate the system. And we have, again, put a lot of emphasis and acknowledgement about the minority tax, even as I mentioned in the previous slide, so all the committees, the mentoring, the DEI efforts and more that many of our underrepresented minority faculty, scientists and physicians get tasked to do without always taking into consideration the time and effort and tax that can take in terms of taking away from other opportunities and endeavors.
And that is not to say that the minority work that we’re doing is not important, but we have to be realistic about how much time we have to spend in different situations and, unfortunately and very realistically, also having to deal with biases, microaggressions, racism and systemic barriers. Obviously, there has been a lot of conversation over the last few years to try and tackle this but we need to continue to make sure that we move these things forward in a very practical way.
I also just want to mention briefly some of the goals that I have had, again, in working with the community as the Director of Scientist Diversity and Inclusion, a position that I started in June of 2021 this year. One has been just creating and facilitating a culture of inclusion and belonging, and again, this goes back to much of what I mentioned before about my own experience and the importance of having a community which could support me along the way and, again, having a community of allies and supporters but also people who like me.
We are also going to be focusing primarily and specifically on providing resources and support for mentorship and professional development, but again, making sure that is done in the context of people feeling like they belong. And thirdly, providing resources, support and opportunities for leadership development.
As I shift gears I am going to talk a little bit about the NIH-funded investigator component of who I am, but I want to make sure I put this in the context of both my journey as a black scientist and as a DEI leader. I am not going to go into a lot of specifics about the research but will give a little bit of a high-level overview.
Basically, as Dr. Gordon mentioned, we do quite a bit of work that focuses on both substance use, substance use disorders and mood disorders. At a very basic level, what my lab is interested in is understanding the neurobiological basis of complex behavior, again, within the context of both substance use disorders and mood disorders, and we do think quite a bit about the comorbidity between those two as well. As I’m sure many of the people in the audience are familiar with, those struggling with substance use or substance us disorders have a higher prevalence of mood disorders and vice versa, and so we are trying to understand if there is a common underlying neurobiology that facilitates both processes.
Within the lab we are focused primarily on motivated behaviors and thinking about motivated behaviors that are associated with mental health challenges. Our goals here are threefold. One is to actually identify the mechanisms that mediate these behaviors in the first place, and we are hopeful that by doing that it might give us some understanding of the processes that actually contribute to the cause or the etiology of the mental health challenges and disorders in the first place. And then to think about ways to identify potential novel and effective therapeutic targets based on those neurobiological processes that we identify.
Again, just a broad overview. We focused on positively motivated behavior in the context of rewards, so both reward-taking and reward seeking behavior in the context of substance use as well, and we also focused on negatively motivated behavior in the context of mood disorders, so thinking about response to stress, anxiety, anhedonia, avoidance and amotivation.
Even with this focus, I should also mention that even though I am a basic neuroscientist I also think about the many different ways and different aspects that also contribute to this that are outside of the biology itself per se, so thinking about the psychological components, thinking about spiritual components and definitely thinking about race, racism and social injustice as well.
As Dr. Gordon mentioned, we also have an arm of research that is looking at the biological bases of tobacco product use and nicotine addiction. This is part of the larger Tobacco Center for Regulatory Science at the Yale School of Medicine, so I have been privileged to be able to engage with a whole host of different investigators in that realm. As a testament to the center, we have been able to take things across the board and we have people like me looking at preclinical work, we also have people who are looking at the level of individuals and looking within school systems with psychology, also doing focus groups.
We also have people doing clinical lab studies and we have people looking at health economics as well. It is really something that cuts across the board and very much fits into this idea of having our science influence policy. These are projects that are funded both by the FDA and by NIDA.
For our lab, we are looking specifically at how tobacco product flavors influence nicotine reward and nicotine-taking behavior. Again, with all the many flavors that are on the market at this point, we are trying to see whether those flavors influence nicotine’s rewarding effects in the brain or whether they modulate nicotine’s effects in the oral cavity or both. So far, our evidence suggests that it is in fact both.
Just to give you a very brief idea of what we do, we actually use intraoral delivery of flavors in male and female rats, and then we integrate that using those flavors to look at very different matrices and different types of behaviors. We look at dopamine release in the brain using neurochemistry as a mediator of reward-taking or reward-seeking behavior. We also see how that affects behavior for nicotine reinforcement itself that is mediated by the brain through intravenous nicotine self-administration.
We also look at choice behavior, so, how do those flavors influence whether the animals choose a specific flavor versus a non-flavor or whether they choose nicotine or not, again getting at some of the effects in the oral cavity. And we use a paradigm known as taste reactivity to actually look at the oral cavity effects, and this allows the animals to tell us whether they view this flavor or the nicotine as rewarding or aversive or a mixture of the two.
Again, there are a lot of different components here that we look at in the lab, and I think sometimes, as we talk about the science, the tendency can be to say, oh wow, he has so many different research projects that he is doing and different ideas and so it just makes sense that naturally he would be a well-funded investigator. But I would say that is definitely not the entire story.
So, to put things bluntly, I would say my story is a story of, quote, unquote, “success” that is happening amidst ongoing systemic challenges. Why do I say it that way? I think one question to ask is what contributed to my “success” story.
Again, this goes back to community and support. One of the key pieces for me was interacting with program officers who were not just program officers but also mentors, advocates and allies. Program officers I had been in touch with as a postdoc also stayed in touch with me when I was a young assistant professor and provided guidance in terms of what types of projects I might think about, who I should talk to. Nancy Pilot was one of my initial program officers who was definitely a strong advocate in this sense, and not just providing guidance and advice but also facilitating specific things as well.
So, one of the ways that I really learned the craft of grant-writing was through participation in the Early Career Reviewer Program which Nancy Pilot was a big proponent of and making sure that was something that I had access to.
In addition to that, I also had conversations with Dr. Richard Nakamura who was the Director of the Center for Science Review at the time, again, talking about my grant-writing, talking about opportunities for me as an underrepresented scientist, and again, this was something where he took time to invest in me as a young scientist.
There were also networking opportunities that came up for me by just simply being in the room. Even as an early career reviewer, even though I didn’t review that many grants, just by the fact that I was sitting next to somebody in the study section meeting I was able to have that person start a conversation with me. So it didn’t even take my own initiative, but just those conversations actually led to some mutual scientific interests and then I had the opportunity to go and speak at those institutions because those individuals invited me. So much so that even as I was looking at jobs later on down the road as some things were shifting, some of those initial contacts became places where I actually interviewed. So again, a great opportunity just because I was in the room.
Of course, one major topic which we definitely cannot ignore is the research topic. For me even as a black scientist, the fact that I am doing basic science definitely played a role as well. It has been well demonstrated that there’s a significant gap in success between black PIs and others, and it also known that a major contributing factor to that funding gap is the topic.
And oftentimes -- and hopefully things are changing and that is something we will continue to talk about -- some of the health disparities work and some of the other types of work that many underrepresented faculty are engaged in have much lower rates of success in terms of funding. So definitely, me being a basic scientist played a huge role as well and that is something that we still need to address.
I actually wanted to mention in reference to Dr. Gordon’s presentation earlier -- I should say NIMH -- the day that he presented at the ACNP earlier this week about work within NIMH that seems to be closing the funding gap, so that is an extended conversation that I’m looking forward to having just to talk about some of those factors that have contributed to that. I am definitely appreciative of that change.
But, at the same time, I think we also have remaining questions that still need to be asked. One of those is, is it sustainable. I think for many of us -- and this actually came up in the session that I was leading yesterday -- there has been a lot of conversation but we are hoping the conversation will continue and not just evaporate once this moment, quote, unquote, “passes.”
Since I mentioned the ECR program and many of my colleagues have asked about and have had concerns or questions about it, whether there is actual equitable access to the Early Career Reviewer Program. For me that was a really formative process and I have always encouraged junior faculty to participate in that. But part of my question and the question that others have had is whether that access is equitable and whether there is support and opportunity for people to engage in it, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.
And there is the question to know whether we are actually in fact closing the gap related to research topic and whether that is moving forward.
In the last bit of my talk before we move to questions I also want to talk a little bit about finding my passion within these different initiatives even as I was developing as a black scientist, as a DEI leader and in my actual research in the lab, but also around this aspect of mental health advocacy.
As I mentioned early on, my father first came to the States through a series of different circumstances and was able to do a residency in psychiatry at Duke University. Back in 2013 I was actually able to participate in a Veritas Forum with the person who was his first advisor when he came to the States, Dr. Dan Blazer. This is someone I had actually heard about over 30 years and never met in person and so it was really full circle to be able to be engaged in that conversation with him. But for me this was also a critical moment because it now represented the integration of my faith background and my science and my interest in communicating to greater audiences.
Basically, at that time we had a conversation that was titled “Making Sense of Mental Health: An exploration of the physical and spiritual sides of addiction and depression.” This was in partnership with and sponsored by a group known as the Veritas Forum which tries to integrate these conversations about faith, backgrounds and vocation.
I also had the opportunity to engage with the public in other ways as well. My wife used to organize a STEM Coffee Hour, and one of the topics we talked about in one of those coffee hours was the addicted brain. I was able to show what we know about the neuroscience with the general public, but the really encouraging part for me was that really was a conversation.
In this specific setting we had a whole bunch of individuals from a recovery program who were living together who actually came to this same coffee hour, and so I mention that because this really ended up being an extended conversation between myself and them. It wasn’t something where I was there just disseminating didactic information, but I was able to at least share what we understand about the brain and they were able to share about their experiences as well. They were able to share about their experiences in recovery, some of their experiences with medication-assisted treatment and just the ups and downs of that as well.
So I would say that was really important because both of us came out of that session having learned something and having a deeper appreciation for some of the processes that are involved in substance use and substance use disorders, but also having an appreciation for what others had gone through or what others were researching.
Even in the midst of this, though, if I am completely honest, I would say that it hasn’t always been an easy balance to strike. And balance can sometimes be even a little bit of a misnomer because it’s ebb and flow as things go. But there has always been a tension between balancing the research and Yale expectations, thinking about promotion, thinking about outreach, thinking about all these DEI efforts.
But I would say that has actually shifted over time. As I have gotten more engaged in the work, to be completely honest, that has also turned into recruitment offers. So again, this actually ties all the way back to my first comments about imposter syndrome. Having those recruitment offers at that point actually started to show me and help me think outside of the Yale circle per se and to realize these were things that were really important to the community, and so it helped me shift my mindset to be able to be focused on those things as well.
But in order to do that of course I have had to shift my lab structure in some ways. Day 1 when I started lab, I was in the lab doing experiments, sometimes on weekends, sometimes between the holidays. Those days have evaporated and disappeared even though I definitely enjoy it. But just from a realistic standpoint I have had to make sure that I now have a structure where I am able to continue to mentor in the lab but also be involved in some of these other components as well, and so it is definitely a team approach there. And again, I have stepped into more scientific leadership roles and public outreach as well.
So it is an ongoing challenge and balancing act, but I’m grateful that I have been able to engage in these different opportunities and to have impact in a lot of different spheres.
To wrap up, of course, one of the things that Dr. Gordon mentioned is just being able to have some conversations that are much broader than just what we are doing within the lab. Back in 2018 we were actually able to have a town hall conversation with Lecrae, who is a Grammy award-winning recording artist and a New York Times best selling author, who had talked about his mental health journey and his faith journey quite a bit over the years and in his music. So that was a really encouraging opportunity and engagement that we had.
Many people who came to that said they had never seen anything like that on a college campus before. We had undergrads there, we had people from all different types of professional schools, we had administration, we had the chaplain’s office partnering with us. And so for me, that was really gratifying to see and to see that there was such a hunger for those types of conversations, and again, it reminded me of the importance of also bringing our knowledge and science into public spheres and even into our college campus general settings.
We were able to follow that up with a single event in New York City in 2019 called God, Mental Health and Wellness in New York City. Again, same type of thing where we brought in people from different spheres to talk about their mental health journeys or their advocacy work. And we have been able to have other events since then even during the pandemic, again partnering with people in the community, people in faith communities, entertainment communities, sports communities and pastoral folks as well to really engage in these important conversations to make sure that we are involved with them as well.
The last slide that Dr. Gordon mentioned as well is the Addy Hour Podcast which I started in February, and this has been a great opportunity to be able to engage in these conversations and to scale up in a sense. One of the themes that has come up every time we have done these town hill meetings is people have said things like, I’ve been waiting for this my entire time here, this is the most transformative event I have been on since I’ve been on campus, this is a conversation I have been waiting to have for 20 years.
And so we have tried to think about ways to really make that conversation have an even wider audience. I am grateful to have been able to partner with so many different individuals from different walks of life. Again, this is something where we have been able to have faith leaders contribute, entertainers, race experts, authors, people in different spheres.
I just highlighted a few of them here, I can’t fit all of them on the slide, but we were able to have topics where we talked about things like disparities and stigma among youth with Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble and also with Doug Middleton who is an NFL ball player who started a mental health advocacy organization. We also talked about the science of trauma and resilience with Bianca Jones Marlin and Kerry Ressler, and that was a really fun episode as they both talked about their journeys into science and we learned some parallels about their journeys as well.
We talked about things like race, religion, politics and mental health, so, all the topics that you are not supposed to talk about with your family and friends. We put those front and center and had some really generative conversations around that as well. Eddie Glaude, Jr. And A.D. Thomason joined us for that.
And we also talked about topics that are important to our community, so thinking about things like postpartum depression and how that affects those in black communities, African-American mothers in particular. We had the comedienne Angelina Spicer with the CEO of the March of Dimes, Stacey D. Steward, just to talk about some of the work they have been doing together.
You will see my dad moves back into the story. I mentioned he was a sleep physician and so we did an episode on sleep, emotional wellness and mental health.
And I have also been able to partner with mental health advocates like Sean Astin, whose name is slightly familiar to many of you from the Goonies and also from Lord of the Rings, but he is also the son of Patty Duke who was very open about her struggles with and her navigation of mental health over the years, and so he talked about some of that as well.
Again, it has been full circle for me to be able to engage in this work in several different ways, and all these things I think have been things that I have been able to do because, again, of the role of community, and that’s something I have been able to do on my own. There are teams in place to support each aspect of these. And for me personally it has just been an encouraging journey to be on and something that I hope we can continue to move forward.
Just to pose a question. I think the support component is critical, so, ways we think about that from an academic institution standpoint and even ways that we think about it from an institution standpoint at NIH in terms of the types of things that are funded and what we put emphasis on.
In the interest of time I will stop there and open it up to any questions that people have.
JOSHUA GORDON: Thank you very much. That was really wonderful, and I think you would hear thunderous applause if we were in person, although I will point out that attendance here is quite impressive and probably even more so because we were able to open it up online.
There is an equally impressive array, not only in terms of the number of questions but also the quality of the questions. I think some of them, if they are overlapping, I will try to combine. There are a number of questions that have to do with the minority tax. That one slide with all those different things that you are engaged in really I think brought that home to people.
The first one is: Can you please talk about or discuss the minority tax? Another person: It’s almost as if you go from being rejected to the “it” person, and that creates another stress. How do you pick and choose which service opportunities you would like to commit to, and how do you prioritize those commitments?
There are others, too, but you get the flavor. People want to hear more about how you navigate that minority tax. You are clearly committed to service that’s in the service of equity, diversity and inclusiveness. But tell us about that.
NII ADDY: Those are really great comments and really key observations. That second one resonates in particular, going from feeling rejected to being the “it” person, and that can happen very quickly.
Just to be completely honest, that can be very disorienting at first. For me, part of it was also shifting my focus and not focusing so much on how people viewed me but about the importance of the work itself. Once I got engaged in the community and saw how much it meant to people, that actually became my focus. But it also changed my conversations with my colleagues and my leaders because I stopped trying to prove myself in my conversations and just started to say this is what I am about. And then people started to mentor me on that as well.
At the same time, it is a tax -- and tax is a word that we use; it’s not always the best word because it implies that the work we’re doing is burdensome. It can be burdensome but it also very generative. But I think part of it has to be reality.
When I did a summer program early on people told me, don’t join all the committees when you get to your first faculty position because you won’t be around long enough to actually make change. And so now that I am committed to those things, part of it has been negotiating and having conversations about what support can I have to actually make these programs run. Do I have administrative support? Do I have podcast support? Do I have support in the DEI work? And those are back-and-forth conversations.
So I would say, in many ways, things have been opportunistic because that has been the focus. Early on I felt grateful for that but also felt a little bit frustrated, like why now. This is not new. We’ve been talking about this for years. But there is also room to take advantage of that and to try and move things forward.
So there is no clear answer. I would say that where you spend time moves on a month-to-month basis. Even as I have gotten into new roles I had to put extra time there which is a little less time elsewhere, and just kind of continue to make things work as I’m building the support.
JOSHUA GORDON: This is a related question to what you were talking about. Which one of the things you have done through your career path has helped the most with the imposter syndrome? Was it getting recognized or was it something that you did for yourself? How did you do that?
NII ADDY: I would say the first was getting recognized when I got the predoctoral fellowship, or the fellowship as a grad student. The second would be breaking out of the academic mold and just being more involved in the community I think has been a huge part. And just talking to people one-on-one and hearing their feedback about what actually helped them.
I would say a third has been just engaging with people with very public platforms. You have also reminded me that they need to know more about this and they put value on it. It’s almost like a wake-up call, like, oh, this is actually important for people, which is sad to say but sometimes I think in some instutitions we get so stuck in what we’re doing that we forget to remind ourselves and remind each other that what we are doing has impact. So all those things have helped me move out of the imposter syndrome but it still comes back at times, to be honest.
JOSHUA GORDON: Of course, first and foremost, you are a scientist, a black scientist, and so this question pertains to that. What additional supports have you advocated for at your university to support your NIH-funded research, particularly as a black scientist? Did you learn any lessons from that advocacy that you might want to share with others?
NII ADDY: I would say I have to acknowledge those who helped me in that, so, Dr. Ezra Griffith, who is a black psychiatrist here in the department at Yale, a forensic psychiatrist who is emeritus now, actually met with me and many other individuals to make sure that we had the support we needed.
So early on with the start-up package, my tendency was to hold onto that, and he and others were able to help push me to invest it, but not only to invest it but to say okay, if I invest it in this way, yes, I am going to be able to recruit more people but I am going to run out of money at this point. So, what is going to happen if that happens? So then I was able to have people in the department support me and put additional money into that investment as well.
And that, again, I think is reflective of the department to actually step up and not just say, oh, we are here to support you and we want you to do this, but to actually put backing behind that.
I would say that has continued in other ways, and I also was able to partner with others. So the Center grant, that was something my mentor, Rita Patrillo, mentioned as well, to get plugged into other ongoing projects where there are more senior people. Those things got funded easier, which was actually frustrating. My trainees were like, oh, but we didn’t even write that part as well and it got funded, and this thing we put so much time into didn’t get funded. Eventually the other pieces did too, but really partnering with an established investigator is also key.
JOSHUA GORDON: This is an intersting one. You have done a lot in the D&I space. This question says: I would appreciate Dr. Addy’s advice on how to tailor D&I work on our resumés. As he stated, it is outside many of our job descriptions, but it seems like there are leadership and community-building exercises and I think there is a way to present them in such a way that it makes someone a stronger candidate.
NII ADDY: That is a great question. Two things I would say there and only one of them may be in your control. One is to include them in the most creative way you can. For me, a lot of that has involved talks that I have given, and so I have incorporated those talks into my list of talks that I have given regionally and nationally. I think that is valid and has a lot of weight.
I have also just included them in terms of ongoing activities. Basically, any way or place or space I can incorporate them into the CV I think is important. Here at Yale and other places we have also had conversations and making sure that actually gets weighed in the review process.
I won’t say that we were the ones to initiate that. We had some people on the university committee who actually did their homework and looked at other places that have done that, but we are actually having those conversations both within our department and at the school of medicine to try and make sure that weight is given to that. So that’s a larger conversation and something that can be institutionally integrated but not done easily. That takes the leadership being onboard, but I would say to continue to push for that as well.
JOSHUA GORDON: This next question is following something you just said a few moments ago. Did you take the advice that you should wait until you are tenured or close to tenure to participate in these URM roles?
NII ADDY: Yes and no. I took some of it in the sense that -- the process is longer if you are at Yale, at least in the school of medicine. When you go from assistant to associate that is a pre-tenure decision, but once I did that assistant to associate professor promotion, that is when I started to get more involved in the Veritas Forum and that’s when I started to do some more of these roles.
But I would say they were kind of emerging over time. What I did is I just tried to pace it a little bit. Even when I did the early career reviewer program, one thing that I asked Nancy Pilot about was should I continue to go back. And so I would email the scientific review officer every year and say can I come back and participate. So once a year or once every two years I would continue to do that, and I did the same thing with some of the DEI efforts. It was important to me but I just had to make sure that I kind of spaced things out.
I will say that the generation coming up seems to be better at handling those things than I think I was and are jumping into this work earlier. I still think that is important and a wise investment, but you do have to be careful.
JOSHUA GORDON: Speaking of care, this next question has to do with risk. Innovation often involves a certain tolerance for risk. Can you share with us your thinking around risk calculation and what resources might have allowed you to take some of those risks?
NII ADDY: That is a great question. I am trying not to be too scientific about it and just share my experience. I would say for me the passion became so deep that I just had to do it, and that outweighed the risk equation. So it became worthwhile in that sense.
But, at the same time, I also realized there was a sense of privilege there. Once we had outgrown some of our space here at Yale and I started to look at other positions and saw how much interest there was, then it actually felt much less risky. To be completely frank, I can basically say this is what I am going to be about doing and if it doesn’t work here then there is somewhere else that it is going to work.
So, in a sense, you can argue that wasn’t very risky, but it did give me some boldness to step into that. I will say that that attitude, though, did lead to receptivity as well. That in itself can also be a risk because that is not always there, but just the way that I framed that and the support I have from community did also influence how leadership responded to me.
JOSHUA GORDON: That’s wonderful. I think we often think, as scientists, about risk a little bit too much, and we think that taking risk will actually -- and risk is just that, and I think you highlighted it. Taking risks in science is valued and valuable and it’s wonderful to hear -- and you took risks scientifically as well, I know, but you took a risk in this way and I am glad to hear that it was rewarded. That is wonderful.
This question actually two different people asked very similarly and it’s really something that I actually want to ask you, too. Not that it is your responsibility to come up with them, but you might have some thoughts.
What types of programs and initiatives do you think could be created at NIH -- and I will throw in at the NIMH -- to provide this support that has enabled you to do these things, to others who maybe have had more challenges getting that support?
NII ADDY: Just off the top of my head I would think if there was any type of RFA that highlights something that is very integrative and non-traditional in a sense. Even as I have sometimes been looking at different positions, one of the challenges is that the way I have crafted my day-to-day activities doesn’t really fit neatly into any specific mold, so even here at Yale we have done a lot of things to maneuver that, but because it is so non-traditional it takes more work to adjust.
So, if people are trying to be about this work and are trying to get funding for it and there is no RFA that quites fits that, people are going to be at a loss. So if there’s a creative way to create something or some type of program that has the flexibility to allow people to be engaged in different types of communities and intersecting investments, I think that will go a long way. Also, if there is guidance and structure about what that could look like.
Again, with the minority tax I think it is too easy for us to fund things that just focus on the science or the clinical component or the community outcome without thinking about the support that needs to be in place. So in the same way that diversity supplements have done that to say, okay, we need to diversify the workforce and we’re going to provide the funds to enable that to occur, if there are ways to also provide funds to enable that greater support structure to be there, that would go a long way.
JOSHUA GORDON: Thanks. One question I want to reach out and answer. Where and when will the recording of the Zoom meeting be posted? This recording will be posted on the NIMH website and you should be able to find it by searching on that website. I did post the url earlier but it should be pretty easy to find.
I usually sum things up by trying to tell you how happy we are to have you, but instead I am going to read word-for-word what someone put in the question box because I think it is much more eloquent than anything I could come up with.
“No question. Somebody already asked what I was going to ask. However, I want the record to reflect Dr. Addy is a tremendous inspiration. He was very grateful, motivational, articulate, knowledgeable, had a great tone and told a story in a very positive way that challenges others to assist others. This was fantastic. Thanks.”
Thanks from me for joining us today and for being our speaker. There are tons of other questions and I’m sorry we did not have time to get to them. Really wonderful and inspiring. Thanks.
NII ADDY: Thank you so much, and thank you to whoever mentioned that. That was very inspiring to hear as well. I’m glad that it was encouraging to you all.