Olivia Geneus is a PhD candidate in nanotechnology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is also the co-founder of the Black in Nanotech initiative, which highlights both the contributions of Black scientists and the barriers they face within the field of nanotechnology. She talks to Physics World’s Margaret Harris.
Your first degree was in physics. What sparked your interest in the subject?
I enjoyed physics in high school. My physics teacher, Dan Smalley, instilled a great deal of confidence in me. How he applied the concepts of the field to the real world, initially and greatly sparked my interest. To no-one’s surprise, after also taking the advanced placement (AP) in physics with Smalley, I decided to further pursue physics in my undergraduate career. In both high school and university, I wanted to seek a field that had a mixture of science, health and medicine, but was uncertain of what satisfied that combination. A physics and public health double major at university was the closest combination to meet my interest.
While I was an undergraduate I took organic chemistry courses and I enjoyed them, which led me to apply to graduate programmes in chemistry. I told myself if I got into at least one programme, I would absolutely go for it. Thankfully I did, and I chose to go to the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo). I chose a principal investigator from listening to one of his seminars, where he spoke about nanomedicine and nanotechnology (encompassing the science and the biological applications) – and I realized that this was the perfect combination for me. I was fortunate to be selected as a graduate student and part of his laboratory based on merit.
What nanotechnologies are you working on?
Currently I am developing a nanoformulation that is suitable for the targeted therapy of hypoxic regions of glioblastoma multiforme – a type of brain cancer. Specifically, my project involves synthesizing a hierarchal nanostructure that consists of ultra-small core shell lanthanide-based nanoparticles that are encapsulated with a PLGA chitosan coating that is then surface modified with a hypoxia targeting moiety.
The aim is to develop a drug delivery system that will be able to cross the blood-brain barrier and target hypoxic regions of glioblastoma. These hypoxic regions have low oxygen levels as well as low pH, and are resistant to chemo- and radiation therapy. Because of that, the tumours tend to metastasize, invade and relapse. My research goal is to improve the oxygen and pH levels within these hypoxic regions, while simultaneously providing dual imaging capabilities (e.g. MRI and CT), therefore, making the chemotherapy more effective.
It is really hard for anything (beneficial or not) to actually cross that blood-brain barrier because that is what keeps out pathogens and bacteria from entering the brain. We developed in vitro models, which suggested that a good percentage of my nanoparticles have crossed the barrier. The next step is determining if it works in vivo with animal studies.
You mentioned that your principal investigator made a positive impression on you from the start; what do you enjoy about working in his lab?
Part of it is how he presents his research; thoroughly breaking down complex ideas. Working in his laboratory, I am mentored by physicists, biologists, engineers, medical doctors and a variety of different experts. His laboratory is multifaceted, and the research projects conducted have a variety of interdisciplinary chemistry topics that overlap with medicine. The overlap with medicine is my priority interest, again incorporating science and medicine.
You founded Black in Nanotech Week, which ran for the first time in December 2020. Can you describe the event?
The virtual event included conference-style presentations from faculty members so participants could learn about different applications of nanotechnology. We ran Q&A sessions with experts from academia and industry and we also had graduate admission recruiters detailing their nanotechnology programmes, degree options offered, the application process, and the eligibility requirements. Plus of course, participants shared their own research in nanotechnology. One of the highlights of the event was guest speaker Hadiyah-Nicole Green, who is one of few Black women to have earned a physics doctoral degree and the first person to cure cancer using laser nanotechnology. She was willing to share her experiences and resources with the participants.
Black in Nanotech Week ended on a Saturday with a self-care event: a 45 minute yoga and meditation session. As scientists and as humans in general, we tend to not take breaks from our research or from our work. So, it is always important to step back and take care of ourselves and our mental health.
What is next for Black in Nanotech Week?
We plan to expand Black in Nanotech into an organization that highlights and celebrates Black voices in science and specifically nanotechnology. Our goal to is emphasize the importance of representation to younger individuals who are in middle and elementary school. To expand the percentage of Black individuals in STEM, recruitment efforts must start at the younger educational level.
Mentorship is clearly important to you, is that why you decided to start Black in Nanotech Week?
Yes, as I move forward with my career, I continue to find myself too often the only Black woman in a room full of bright minds, especially in nanotechnology. Unfortunately, there are very few who look like me in the field, and I, as a Black woman, want to help pave the way for other women of colour who are interested in nanotechnology. Thus, being a STEM diversity advocate is my way of changing the cold climate that marginalized groups consistently face in the scientific fields.
What are some of the challenges you come across while mentoring?
One of many problems is that we tend to start mentoring undergraduates when they are choosing to go to graduate school, but my goal is to begin even younger. Under-representation starts before the undergraduate and high school levels and I think mentoring should begin in elementary school – because that is where students in some communities are not seeing the opportunities in STEM.
When I was in high school, I was unaware of the many different scientific fields. I knew the basic subjects of chemistry, biology and physics, but STEM is more diverse than that.
You are also working on a project that is aimed specifically at Black women; can you tell us about STEMNoire?
I had the great opportunity to be on the planning council for STEMNoire, which is a research conference and a holistic wellness retreat for Black women in STEM. We realized that we wanted a conference that provides an open space to talk about our journeys, our successes, our failures and the obstacles that we have overcome without delegates feeling that they are in a minority. We wanted a group where Black women are the majority and are comfortable enough to share everything that we have experienced in our scientific fields.
In-person conferences are a bit difficult at the moment; are you planning online events or STEMNoire?
Yes, our inaugural conference was planned for summer 2020 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. Instead, we held a one-week virtual conference highlighting Black women in STEM and related fields in July 2020. Our official conference will be held in June 2021. The content is yet to be finalized. Participants can expect a variety of events, including various keynote speakers, poster sessions, and oral presentations – focusing on Black women’s current research work, expertise and experiences within their respective fields.
And for you personally, what are your plans after you finish your PhD?
I hope to be in a laboratory still working in nanotechnology – ideally in a pharmaceutical company or industry where I continue cancer-related research because it has definitely touched home. Many members of my family are cancer survivors including my dad, brother and grandmother. Thus, cancer research will always be dear to my heart. I would love to keep going in that field.