Kevin Cox Jr., 28, asked a lot of questions as a child. He wanted to know how and why things came to be.
The plant biologist, a Florissant native, figured his curiosity would take him into the medical field, but at the end of his sophomore year at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, he found a new interest: microbes.
Eventually, his inquisitive nature paid off. In September, he landed a $1.4 million fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The money will fund his work as a plant science fellow at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
“This fellowship means everything,” Cox said. “It not only jump-starts my whole career, but it allows me to be a leader in the sciences — not just to the general public, but also to those from underrepresented backgrounds.”
Cox said he did not see many African American scientists as a child, and today only one person in his family works in the science field. Now, he hopes to set an example for people of color to see that science careers like his are possible.
The fellowship finances four years of work in the laboratory of Blake Meyers, a leading researcher at Danforth. Cox is researching how and why plants are susceptible to diseases. After his time in the lab, the award money will allow him to pursue a faculty position and begin his own lab at any university in the U.S. for another four years.
The postdoctoral researcher said he is keeping his options open to any institution in the nation. And, since he is also a mentor to young people of color, Cox said he is not counting out historically black colleges and universities because they could provide an opportunity to guide minorities into plant biology or other science fields.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Andrea Henderson: Now that you are starting your fellowship, can you break down what you will actually be working on while at the Danforth Center?
Kevin Cox: Overall, I'll be studying how plants get infected and why they get infected. Plants get sick just like humans, and in some cases they can actually die, which is bad for us, because that means less food, and that's a dire need with a growing population. My project involves looking at this interaction between plants and microbes and figuring out what genes are directly involved in this interaction.
Henderson: And with your agricultural lab work, how will this benefit Missouri farmers and crops?
Cox: It'll benefit Missouri farmers and farmers in general because if we can find the key genes that are involved in these plant diseases, then we'll be able to produce better crops that are more resistant to diseases. And that means we lose less crops and the farmers will be able to produce crops on a consistent basis without the fear of losing millions of dollars each year because of pathogens.
Henderson: In any other field you have people that you admire and mentors, but being an African American in the plant science field, I'm sure that's limited. So, tell me, who are some African Americans in the industry that you admire and those who helped navigate you throughout your career?
Cox: You know, to be honest, I hardly had any African American mentors in the sciences. I would probably say it'll be next to nothing. And that leads to another passion: mentoring. I saw a gap in the sciences. There was this lack of African American presence, and so what I want to do is be a mentor to those underrepresented groups just to help them have a presence.
Henderson: And how did that make you feel, knowing that you didn't have any African American guidance within the science field?
Cox: It was tough having no African American mentors. There were times where if I needed to vent culturally I wouldn’t have anyone to vent to, because I'll be the lone African American in my entire department or in classrooms. And going through that tough feeling is why I want to become a mentor, so that way they won't have to go through what I had to go through.
Henderson: How do you think that we can get more people of color interested in science and more specifically in plant biology?
Cox: I think the biggest thing is to get them involved as early as middle school, because at that age they are starting to have somewhat of an idea of the field they want to go in. I know when I was going through high school, I didn't realize that being a plant biologist was a career. As I look back now, if I had somebody come in and say, "This is something you can do with a biology degree," then that would have probably inspired me from the start.
Henderson: And getting children involved early is something you are doing now. Can you talk about your efforts with teaching STEM concepts to diverse students around the region?
Cox: These STEM outreach programs involve me going out to other schools in districts that can’t really afford to have field trips to the Danforth Center. So, we brought the science down to them. It gives the students an idea of what science and scientists are like, and the majority of them are African Americans. It’s a fun experience interacting with them, because they remind me of myself and just trying to inspire them about science was a rewarding experience.
Henderson: What would you say to a young person growing up in Florissant today, where opportunities like yours are not even on their radar?
Cox: What I would tell that person living in Florissant is that they should definitely keep their options open and explore what they love doing, because that's what ended up helping me land my career.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.
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