Ebony Flowers receives fellowship from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Enrichment Program

Ebony Flowers
Ebony Flowers (Photo by Sergio Bianco)

Ebony Flowers has already received three fellowships during her year-and-a-half as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at USC. First, she was awarded the Choi Family Postdoctoral Fellowship, which helped recruit her to Min Yu’s laboratory. Then she earned a fellowship from the A.P. Giannini Foundation, which provided funding to study the role of free radicals in breast cancer. Now, she is continuing this research project with an additional $60,000 from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Postdoctoral Enrichment Program, which supports the career development of underrepresented minorities in biomedical research fields.

Tell me about the research project that you’re pursuing with support from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, as well as from the A.P. Giannini Foundation.

My postdoctoral research in Dr. Yu’s laboratory is focused on the influence of metabolism on the spread of breast cancer cells from the primary tumor to other organs in the body in a process known as metastasis. The cells that are shed from the primary tumor, termed circulating tumor cells or CTCs, are the cells that travel through the bloodstream and lymph nodes to give rise to tumors in new organs. A frequent barrier for CTCs to surmount during metastasis is the presence of harmful molecules termed reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the different microenvironments throughout this progression. Typically, increased ROS levels lead to cellular defects and eventually cell death, but somehow, CTCs can survive these circumstances, suggesting they have unique properties that allow them to endure unfavorable conditions. The intention of my project is to determine how these cells use fat not only as an energy source, but also as protection from being targeted by ROS, designed to eliminate them from the blood.

What inspired you to become a biomedical researcher?

I was only a few months away from graduating from California State University, Long Beach, with a bachelor’s in Biology, but as graduation approached, I decided to defer going to medical school to enter a post-baccalaureate certificate program, suggested to me by one of my professors. During this time, I attended a seminar by Nobel Laureate, Dr. Mario Capecchi, presenting his work on gene targeting. This was when my journey to become a scientist began. His lecture revealed that there were ways to potentially treat diseases and deformities, but that through scientific and engineering advances, we may be able to prevent them from occurring in the near future. As someone who months before had no direction beyond graduation, it gave me a new lifeline and continues to inspire me when I am unsure about the next stages in my career.

What do you like most about living in Los Angeles and working at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, so it will always be considered my home. One of the common themes brought to mind when I think of Los Angeles is diversity. You can go to the beach, the mountains, the city, or the desert within a relatively short distance. There are hidden gem neighborhoods, abundant in various people, languages, cuisines, architecture, art, and music. There are wide-ranging industries that push the limits of innovation, ambition, and creativity. This is also reflected in the environment of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. The atmosphere is productive and full of excitement and committed to excellence, yet there is a spirit of community and cooperation while facilitating the empowerment and individuality of its students, faculty, and staff.

How did your first postdoctoral fellowship—supported by the Choi Family—contribute to your success?

The Choi Family Postdoctoral Fellowship instilled in me that I had the support from the entire department when I first arrived. It gave me confidence to apply for other fellowships, knowing that I was in a place that had the resources and infrastructure to help me balance all my obligations and responsibilities, allowing me to be more productive and focused on my work. Having the investment from the department and university also made me a more attractive candidate for external funding by demonstrating the commitment of USC to supporting my research and trust in me that I could fulfill my purpose during my tenure and beyond.

What is the goal of your future career as a stem cell scientist?

By the completion of my postdoctoral tenure, I would like to have a sound technical and conceptual foundation in the promising and advancing field of cancer metabolism and to contribute as much to my local and scientific communities as I can. I want my research to have an impact on the prevention and treatment of cancer. If something from my results keeps someone else’s loved one present to share more laughs and experiences, I could not ask for more. Ultimately, I just want to look back and see that I helped and was a part of something much greater than myself. I would like to apply the lessons and skills that I have obtained throughout my academic career to unite with or create a platform for emerging young scientists, especially those from underrepresented or marginalized groups, to introduce diverse and

How have you spent the time that you’ve had to be away from the laboratory due to COVID-19, and are you back in the laboratory now?

During my time away from the laboratory, I have spent a lot of time reconnecting with friends and family, even if most of it has been virtual. Since I am venturing into a new field, I have dedicated a great deal of my time to reading about my projects and planning experiments. I have also taken several courses, attended virtual seminars and conferences, and coordinated potential collaborations to better propel my project forward.

I am currently back in the laboratory now, though under quite different but understandable circumstances. I am very motivated to take this opportunity as a fresh start and to utilize the time I am granted to complete the objectives I have set for myself while working remotely.

Has the pandemic been a source of additional stress as you pursue an already competitive academic career?

Like many, I feel that the pandemic has added more anxieties than I had before, but I have also gained a better appreciation of everything and everyone around me during this time. I have a different perspective of my priorities—which I realized were not aligned properly once I had the time for serious contemplation. I have been put in a position that not many people from my community are given a chance to attain. This inspires me heighten my dedication to succeed, not only to thank the people who fought to get me opportunities, but also to create opportunities for people like me in the future.