Erykah Walton has seen firsthand the importance of promoting diversity in STEM fields through her experience conducting research with a team headed by Kam Dahlquist, Loyola Marymount University professor and chair of the Biology Department.
As part of the group’s study into whether naturally occurring mutations in a specific protein affect how individuals fare when infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, Walton was tasked with investigating the protein’s frequency across ethnic populations. But she discovered that in the large databases kept by the National Institutes of Health and other major sources, nearly all of the samples came from people of European descent, making the statistical comparisons challenging. “These databases didn’t reflect the diversity of our country,” says Walton, a rising senior majoring in biology. “I realized this was a systemic problem.”
Walton’s commitment to promoting diversity in STEM, both at LMU and beyond, was recently recognized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which awarded her its Marion B. Sewer Distinguished Scholarship. The prestigious national honor is given to five students each year who make significant contributions to the diversity and advancement of the scientific enterprise.
Walton traces her interest in medicine to a powerful experience she had as an eighth-grader shadowing her aunt, a physician specializing in pain and rehabilitation medicine. “One of her patients asked me to give him the epidural in his lower back,” Walton recalls. “I said ‘No, sir, I don’t have medical training — I could paralyze you.’ But it was such an honor to have this person trust me that way. I’ve also seen how much mistrust there is of medicine among communities of color and I want to address that, both as a physician treating patients and as a liaison between patients of color and medical research institutions, helping to increase representation.”
As a biology peer mentor, Walton helped organize the People of Color in STEM interest group, which produced two successful virtual events last year. “Shaping Your Future in STEM,” held in the fall, included a panel of Black and Latinx alumni with successful STEM careers offering advice to freshmen embarking on their LMU experiences. In “Expanding the Narrative in STEM,” held in the spring, biology faculty members highlighted the accomplishments of Black scientists, with an emphasis on going beyond their discoveries to discuss their lives. Walton has also served as a mentor for Westchester High School students through LMU’s Upward Bound program.
Walton, who chose LMU for the opportunity to experience small class sizes and develop relationships with faculty, says the participation of so many of her professors in the spring event reminded her that she had made the right choice. Further validation came when Dahlquist, her research mentor, told Walton about the ASBMB scholarship opportunity and encouraged her to apply.
Although she knew years ago that she wanted to go into medicine, Walton initially questioned whether a science-oriented major was for her. Those doubts were quickly erased as she began her biology coursework at LMU. “I’ve enjoyed my classes so much,” she says. “And receiving this scholarship was further validation that I chose the right path.”