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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

During Black History Month, The Aggie recognizes Black alumni

A celebration of plant biologist and mentor Dr. Beronda Montgomery

By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org

This article is the first in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month in which The California Aggie interviews a few of the many distinguished African American UC Davis alumni. These alumni discuss their achievements, how they’re uplifting underrepresented communities and offer their wisdom to Davis students. 

During Black History Month, which is celebrated annually throughout February, The Aggie will be interviewing and showcasing a group of African-American alumni. One of these alums is Dr. Beronda Montgomery, who earned her Ph.D. in plant biology from UC Davis in 2001. 

Today, Montgomery is the Assistant Vice President for Research and Innovation and an MSU Foundation Professor at Michigan State University (MSU). During her time at UC Davis, she was part of a training grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), a prestigious honor for graduate students whose research goals are deemed especially creative and impactful. Montgomery’s research focused on plants’ perception of light signals (including which proteins are involved) and how plants change to adapt to different light environments for successful growth. Montgomery remembers her time working in the plant biology and biochemistry departments well, but she acknowledges that other on-campus organizations also impacted her time at UC Davis.

I think that when I was there, I was the only African-American graduate student in my program,” Montgomery said. “But I found that there was a larger community at Davis.”

Montgomery joined various organizations, including the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program (BUSP) and groups centered on women in the sciences, in order to find a community in biology. By joining these organizations, which were mostly made up of undergraduate students, Montgomery said that she became a mentor for younger students, especially those who came from underrepresented backgrounds. She said that in addition to being able to help younger biologists, these larger networks helped her through her time at UC Davis.

After leaving Davis, she continued to mentor while completing her postdoctoral work at Indiana University, where she became a formal mentor for the Graduate Women in Science program. She also participated in a collaborative program between Indiana University and several historically Black colleges and universities. In this way, she connected with a wide and diverse group of students across the U.S. When she began her career, she found herself diving deeper into different methods of mentoring. 

“I wanted to know if there were some documented practices that worked well for mentoring, and that’s how I moved from just doing the mentoring to also being involved in conversations about effective mentoring,” Montgomery said. “Over the years, I began to study mentoring and published papers on it. Some of that work, together with a number of students and junior scientists that I’ve mentored, ultimately led to me getting some recognition.”

Montgomery’s website lists all of her publications on both mentoring and leadership. Her work primarily focuses on mentoring and uplifting women and communities of color in STEM and in higher education in general. 

Mentoring, Montgomery said, is about promoting the growth of an individual rather than trying to fix them or the work that they’re doing. It also includes creating an environment that supports a diverse array of mentors and mentees. 

Montgomery takes a different stance to mentoring than the “classical approach,” which she said pushes individuals along a narrow, pre-paved path that is in the “mainstream.” Instead, she aims to address the individual mentee’s needs and goals in work and social settings, paving a new path for mentorship. 

In a collaboration between the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the NSF, Montgomery and some of her colleagues have built a program to support mentoring in STEM, called the ASM-NSF Leaders Inspiring Networks and Knowledge (LINK) program, which aims to “link” or connect students with professors and researchers. She was also a chair of the ASM Watkins Graduate Research Fellowship, which works to increase the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM earning their Ph.D. in microbiology. 

Most recently, Montgomery was awarded the 2021 Mentoring Keynote Lecture Award from the American Society of Cell Biology to celebrate her efforts and success. This award is given to an individual each year who mentors “scientists and scholars who belong to underrepresented groups, particularly racial and ethnic minorities.”

 In addition to being a mentor and studying mentorship, Montgomery attributes a lot of her success — in both plant biology and leadership — to her own mentors.

“Some of my most powerful mentors have been peer mentors,” Montgomery said. “I’d like to mention that because a lot of times, we think we have to find the ‘wise senior Guru,’ […] but some of the most powerful mentors I’ve had throughout my career have been peers who were going through some of the same things. We have different strengths, and we can share our strengths through community.”

Montgomery also stressed that everyone needs, and has, mentors; everyone has people who have helped them get where they are today. She said that science is tough, especially for members of underrepresented groups and that no one should go through that alone.

“I think sometimes science can really prize people who we think are these lone geniuses who figure things out all by themselves, but I still have mentors now at this stage of my career,” Montgomery said. “We all need mentoring, and we can also all serve as mentors.”

Overall, Montgomery emphasizes that forming networks with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives is very important in science — and in life. When asked what advice she would give to underrepresented students in the sciences, she emphasized this need for diverse perspectives.

“I think the first thing I would say is that you’re needed in these spaces, even if you don’t hear that message routinely,” Montgomery said. “The other thing that I would say is that it’s critically important to build and find networks of support. Sometimes those networks will be built in for you […], but I also had to show some agency to identify networks that had diversity, whether it was gender diversity or racial and ethnic diversity.”

While diversity in STEM education and careers has increased, there is still a gap between white and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) populations in these fields. While a campaign to support women in STEM has gained popularity in recent years, the campaign to support BIPOC students in STEM has not grown as successfully. Eleven percent of the workforce in the U.S. is Black, but only 9% of the STEM workforce is Black, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report. More specifically, only 6% of those in the life sciences, which would include biology and botany, are Black, compared to 65% white. Montgomery said that this pattern is what motivated her to be so involved in mentoring students and in the conversations around effective and inclusive mentoring. 

“For me, some of the biggest struggles have been a frustration with the system adapting and changing,” Montgomery said. “I think that too frequently we focus on individuals and want to point to their individual deficits or the problems that they have. We don’t often pay as much attention to the ways in which the system itself could improve to support people, and that has been a frustration, but also a motivation, for some of the mentoring and leadership work that I do.”

However frustrating the system may be for Montgomery, she has always found a way to both grow through and work to address the problems she has faced. She also said that she has found successes worth celebrating along the way, which is somewhat uncommon in science. While many people constantly look toward the next step or don’t accept something as a “success” until an experiment is complete or a paper is published, Montgomery has been called an “over-celebrator” by friends. She doesn’t mind this title, though; she recommends celebrating every small step — and then celebrating again when the whole project is done. 

 “I think it’s critically important that we celebrate the small steps,” Montgomery said. “If you celebrate the small steps, and you get to the end, and something’s not successful, you still recognize the successes and the hard work that you had to put into that, as opposed to just whether you don’t get the grade that you want or the paper is not accepted.”

Though so much of her life has been devoted to mentoring, she is also an acclaimed plant biologist with multiple publications on photosynthetic organisms. Her research today is an extension of her Ph.D. work at UC Davis and her postdoctoral studies at Indiana University. Her contributions to the study of plant biology have earned her much recognition and awards.

According to her Wikipedia page — yes, she even has her own Wikipedia page — she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology in 2018, a fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in 2020 and a fellow of the American Society of Plant Biologists in 2021. A complete list of her many awards and accomplishments can be found on that page. 

In 2020, Montgomery co-founded Black Botanists Week, a weeklong celebration of BIPOC who are interested in and work with plants. In April 2021, she published her first book, “Lessons from Plants,” which ties together her plant biology knowledge and what it has taught her about the art of mentorship. 

Written by: Maya Shydlowski — features@theaggie.org

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