Alissa Armstrong can count on one hand the number of African American professors she had throughout her academic career, including her post-graduate studies in developmental biology.
Despite this lack of representation — and because of it — Armstrong now prioritizes representation and inclusion in her own pedagogy and research for the Department of Biological Sciences.
One of her top priorities is to encourage students from historically excluded populations to pursue science. The assistant professor of biological sciences says intentional inclusion “opens students’ views on who scientists are and what they study.
“They can see it as a career option because they see other scientists of color succeed in these roles.”
Biochemistry major Esha Hegde works on Armstrong’s current research project studying how different nutritional diets affect the development of Drosophila melanogaster—fruit flies. In addition to the science, Armstrong has also taught her the importance of bringing her personal perspective as a woman of color into the research process.
“I’ve never been in a more inclusive space, where I’ve been celebrated not just as a scientist, but on a human level,” Hegde says. “She has taught me how to own my space in the lab.”
Because of her strong focus on diversifying her field, Armstrong has earned the Science Diversity Leadership Award, which supports Black, Latinx and Indigenous researchers in biomedical research. The award provides $1.15 million in funding over five years to support her research, outreach, mentoring and teaching activities.
Armstrong is using the funding to support intensive research experiences for undergraduate and graduate students of color in her lab and outreach to K-12 students in historically excluded groups.
“This work will help diversify research leadership by providing a nurturing environment for students of color at all levels to acquire the hard and soft skills necessary for a career in research,” Armstrong says.
Bringing humanity to fruit flies
Armstrong’s current research involves studying how different nutritional inputs in fruit flies affect organ systems on a cellular level. By examining how the organs communicate with adipose tissue, or body fat, researchers can better understand nutrient-sensing pathways and translate those to higher organisms, including humans.
Fruit flies are ideal for the research because they have similar organ systems to humans and their stem cells can be easily manipulated. In both species, fat tissue and ovaries behave similarly, and insulin-signaling pathways regulate glucose absorption.
Stem cells can become any kind of cell that the body needs. Learning how diet affects these special cells helps researchers explore how diets affect human body systems.
Given the link between obesity and increased risk for certain diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cancer, Armstrong hopes that the research performed in her lab provides a better understanding of the role adipocytes and adipocyte-dysfunction play in controlling normal and abnormal physiologies.
“If we know how cells that make up tissues and organs are responding to diet, we may be able to target molecules to combat the disorders associated with obesity,” Armstrong says.
Lab work = life work
Esha Hegde has been focusing on the cellular side of Armstrong’s research as well. Along with gaining experience using tools of the lab, such as immunofluorescence staining and using confocal microscopes, Hegde has earned funding of her own, through the Megellan Scholars program for undergraduate research, which she’ll use to continue her work in the Armstrong lab.
As a first-generation college student, Hegde came to USC knowing she wanted to pursue research but didn’t know what her next steps should be. She says Armstrong not only helped her navigate research spaces but has given her confidence to succeed beyond the lab as well.
"Dr. Armstrong has given me a strong background on why I’m doing the things that I’m doing, not just how to do them,” Hedge says. “Those reasoning skills carry over into my other classes and other areas of my life.”
Hegde says one of the most valuable skills she’s learned so far is how to keep the big picture in mind, even when focusing very closely on her research.
“Even though it may not seem like your findings are impacting people around you, Dr. Armstrong has taught us to zoom out to the big picture of what problem we’re helping to shine light on.”
“It’s in line with what I see myself doing in the future — research that is applicable to humanity.”