Kenneth D. Gibbs, Jr., PhD: (M13)

Graduated with his PhD in immunology May 2010 from Stanford University, where his research focused on the mechanisms that regulate blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells in normal blood development and leukemia. He has continued his research as a postdoctoral fellow in Garry Nolan’s research group. Currently Dr. Gibbs will be working with the National Science Foundation in the Directorate of Education and Human Resources where he will contribute scientific expertise and analysis to federal policy making. Dr. Gibbs received his B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from UMBC in 2005.

My parents are exceptional people and I count myself blessed to be their child. They were both the first people in their families to graduate from college and impressed on me from an early age the importance of education. I remember talking about going to college even at the age of 4!

They were both very involved in my education growing up. My dad would have my sister, Claudia, and me do math problems on Saturday mornings when we were younger (thankfully after cartoons were finished!). My mom served as PTA president and has always been my biggest cheerleader. They both made sure that I had a strong self-esteem, knowing that if I believed in myself I could achieve anything, no matter what obstacle I faced. Their only expectation of me growing up regarding school was “do your best.” Even if I wasn’t the best, they would be happy as long as I gave it my best effort.

I also have two wonderful older sisters who have supported me every step of the way. Claudia is two years older than me and she set a really good and highly visible example of what academic success looked like (she graduated top-10 in high school and received a full scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill). She and my other older sister, Tanisa, were both key in helping me to become a well-rounded person as I have the tendency to “geek out” and get too serious sometimes.

Anything I achieve in life is due to the strong foundation laid for me by my family.

Like anyone, I’ve faced a number of challenges on my journey. However, I try not to focus on the challenges, per se, but instead remember the lessons that I learned from them. The distinction is subtle but important. Focusing on the challenge keeps you looking backward, while focusing on the lessons learned allows you to keep moving forward.

One challenge I faced in middle school and high school, like many striving to achieve academically, was being told by some of my peers that I was “acting white” (from both black folks and white folks) because of my high level of academic success, speaking standard English, and not using the “n-word.”

This taught me that sometimes the road of success, especially as a black male, could be a lonely one. More importantly, this taught me not to derive my value from others’ acceptance. My dad once told me, “Never believe your own hype…you’re never as good or bad as people tell you.” This doesn’t mean that I don’t listen to critical feedback from trusted friends/family. As it says in Proverbs 12:15 “a wise man listens to advice.” However, I learned that I couldn’t spend my life trying to conform to someone else’s view of who I should be.

My work ethic is “work smart, work hard.” There’s no substitute for hard work. However, more importantly than working hard, I always want my work to be smart. Working smart means taking a step back to evaluate everything that I have to do, and making a wise plan of attack before starting to work. I distinguish things that are “urgent” (i.e. what has to get done right away) versus things that are simply “important.” Working smart for me also means recruiting others to work collaboratively, when appropriate, to ensure that everything gets done in a timely manner. I also think it’s important to “stay humble and stay hungry” no matter what success you experience. If you ever get too full of yourself or too satisfied, then you’ll begin to kick back, relax an lose the edge that helped you be successful in the first place. As the Notorious B.I.G. once said, “The key to staying on top of things is treat everything like it’s your first project” (Jay-Z’s “My First Song” from The Black Album).

I also endeavour to be a good steward to of my time when I am working. This means, not wasting time on Facebook or random news sites when it is time for work. I’ve noticed that I’m exponentially more productive during my working hours when I remove those internet distractions.

Additionally, I am diligent to (as often as possible) take at least one day completely off from work every week. This means no checking email, no reading papers, no experiments…nothing! I started doing this midway through graduate school when I was working all the time and was getting burnt out. Without wading into the theological debates of what actually constitutes a “day,” one of first principles in the Bible is taking the proper time to rest from work. God rested on the seventh day after completing His labor (Genesis 2:3). I figure if God can rest after completing His most important work of setting the foundations of the universe, then I can surely rest from doing my scientific experiments. I find that I’m much more effective working the other times when I’ve taken the time to properly rest from my daily labor.

I had some great teachers that motivated me. My ninth grade biology teacher, Kenneth Cutler, told me flatly at the age of 13 that I would be a scientist. Until this point I had mainly thought about pursuing a career in journalism, but he identified a talent in me that I had not seen in myself. Being a “know-it-all” 13-year-old, I figured that he didn’t know what he was talking about. However, at his suggestion, I participated in a few pre-college summer research programs a local universities (Duke, University of North Carolina). Although I was still unconvinced about a career in “science”, I decided to do them because they paid more than any other job I might have gotten.

These experiences turned out to be key in getting me excited about pursuing a career in the sciences. During one of these programs, a speaker said, “As a medical doctor, you treat at most thousands of patients in your lifetime. The person who discovered penicillin has treated billions over generations. That’s the type of impact you can have with a research career.” This opened my eyes to the wide-ranging impact of research and got me interested in pursuing a career in science.

I decided to major in biochemistry & molecular biology in college (University of Maryland, Baltimore County—UMBC). I was part of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program. The scholarship program was created in 1988 as to address the under-representation of African-American men receiving STEM PhDs, and currently aims to increase the number of men and women from diverse backgrounds receiving STEM PhDs. The program provided the opportunity to explore my varied research interests through summer internships and long-term research experiences, all of which affirmed that research was the career path for me. These included research at Stanford, Harvard, the National Human Genome Research Institute, and UMBC.

It was at UMBC in Dr. Suzanne Rosenberg’s lab that I discovered immunology. I still find it mind-blowing that our bodies have such a complex system that is able to keep us relatively healthy in a world that is full of microbial and cellular assaults. It was in her lab that I decided I wanted to pursue a PhD in immunology with the goal of becoming a research professor.

My work merges the fields of stem cell biology, cancer biology, and immunology. Stem cells are defined by two properties: (1) their ability to give rise to other types of cells (called “lineage potential”), and (2) their ability to indefinitely regenerate themselves (called “self renewal”). I study the stem cells that maintain blood production, and how blood cancers (leukemia) hijack some of the mechanisms that normally regulate stem cells. Stem cell biology is truly fascinating and has the potential to revolutionize how we treat disease, and radically improve human health for the better. Like all scientific breakthroughs, this will require a lot of time and more knowledge than we have currently. However, it’s exciting to think that my work has the ability to impact the lives and health of people all over the world!

The most direct manner in which I use STEM everyday is in conducting my research.

Beyond my personal work, the impact of the STEM fields is in every area of my life. The computer and cell phone I use, the ability to have the whole world at my fingertips through the internet, and the car I drive are all the results of STEM work. The fact that I have never had to deal with diseases like polio or measles—things that had negatively impacted the lives of those in the generations before me—are all a testament to how STEM work has changed all of our lives for the better. Hopefully, the work other scientists and I are doing today will allow our kids and grand kids to look at cancer the way we look at a cold—a treatable nuisance.

Best Advice

When I was in high school, my dad told me once “Kenny, take the good out of a situation, and let the rest of the stuff roll off your back like water rolls off a duck.” This revolutionized how I approached the world. Instead of letting less than ideal circumstances frustrate me, I aim to see what I can learn from it/how I can grow, and then let the rest just roll right off.

My Mentors and Why

I have a number of mentors. Mentors are key, because as people who have already done some of the things that I am seeking to do, they can offer me insights that will help me avoid making common mistakes. Also, they are important in helping me navigate various career opportunities or hurdles that I am face at any given point. I also have different types of mentors. Some of our relationships are strictly professional, while others are a mix of professional and personal (i.e. I can bear my soul to them). Advice to young people of color pursuing a career in the sciences: Get a lot of mentors. When you are a freshman, find an upperclassman who is doing well to mentor you. Do the same thing when you are in graduate school, and in each step of your career. The things you know/the skills you have are important, but who you know also matters a lot. The connections you build open the doors that your competency lets you walk through. Also, do not think that a mentor needs to necessarily have the same background as you. To be frank, as a person of color in the sciences, it’s a luxury you can’t afford. However, just as you do not want to be pre-judged based on attributes out of your control (race, gender, etc.), do not limit who can be your mentor based on these attributes.

Quotes I Live By

A few passages from the Bible keep me anchored regarding my daily pursuits: Matthew 6:33. “Seek first His kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Ecclesiastes 12:13. “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

Invent One Thing

There are two things that I’d like to invent: A device that would allow people to see Jesus clearly, and truly show love and compassion to each other. A transporter—Star Trek style. If I could just beam places in a matter of seconds instead of having to spend hours on airplanes, that would be great!

Book I'm reading

I’m currently spending most of my ‘leisure time’ re-reading the Bible, leaving little time for other books. However, a couple of books that I’ve read over the past few years that I highly recommend: “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan “The Reason for God” by Tim Keller “Kindred” by Octavia Butler (great sci-fi writer!).

More about : Kenneth D. Gibbs, Jr., PhD: (M13)

Dr. Gibbs received his PhD in immunology May 2010 from Stanford University, where his research focused on the mechanisms that regulate blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells in normal blood development and leukemia. He is continuing this research as a postdoctoral fellow in Garry Nolan's research group. He plans to pursue a tenure-track position in the fields of stem cell and cancer biology, and use his career as a platform to encourage the participation of underrepresented students (minorities, women, first generation college students) in science.Gibbs works with the high profile researcher Garry Nolan. Gibbs’ research focuses on the mechanisms that regulate blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells. He probes the biochemical response of hematopoietic stem cells to external stimuli (called cytokines), and the functional outcomes resulting from those signals. To complete his research, Gibbs developed new methods for examining hematopoietic stem cells. When not in lab, Dr. Gibbs enjoys traveling, reading, spending time in the outdoors, and is active in the children's ministry at his church.

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