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Bianca Brown

College: York College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2017

Be It Barnacle or Fruit Fly, the Microbiome Is in Focus

Imagine barnacles on a jetty, some exposed to air, some under water and some partly submerged. They look pretty much the same, but are all their microbiomes - the microbes that live within each of them - the same, or do they vary with water level, exposure to sunlight, contact with bird droppings and other factors?

That's one question that Bianca Brown, a graduate of York College in 2015 and now a doctoral student at Brown University, intends to answer with a 2017 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship worth $138,000. "I study how host-microbiome relationships change in different environments," she explains.

The human microbiome has been much in the news and on the web ("How to Build a Better Microbiome for Vibrant Health," one merchant offers), prompting Brown to ask, "Is it just hype? The microbiome is something we've always had. Research like mine, where we try to figure out its true role, can bring clarity."

Besides barnacles, she works with fruit flies, which zip through a generation in three weeks, and heads to Kenya this summer to study rodents in the wild. "The microbiome offers essential functions. For example, herbivores use gut microbes to aid in the breakdown of plant material. We're trying to figure out other functional roles that microbiomes play using species in their natural habitat," she says.

Brown says she grew up near the beach on the island of Jamaica, "so I was always interested in the environment, although I didn't realize there was an aspect that you could study in the lab."

When she came to New York City at 18, she initially chose York because of its pharmacy program, but then she met assistant biology professor Elizabeth Alter. "She showed me this different world, where you could study things you never knew existed. She placed me on a practical trajectory and it opened doors."

Brown started by helping Alter study tissue samples of fish from the Congo River. "This opened my eyes to how the natural environment influences the evolution of species and how it shapes their general morphology and behavior," she says.

She also connected with CUNY's Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a National Science Foundation-funded program that supports undergraduate research.

As an undergraduate she spent two summers in Brazil conducting research into conservation efforts and biodiversity in the dwindling Atlantic Forest. She also studied how butterflies in Gabon diversify between continuous forest and savanna. "We surveyed the different species that inhabited both."

Travel, she says, "opened my eyes as to what science can accomplish and how it can affect people's lives. It also allows me to interact with different types of people and to be more patient with different cultures."