When USC Stem Cell researcher Senta Georgia was granted tenure on March 10, 2023, she became the first Black PhD scientist to earn this promotion in the history of the Keck School of Medicine, which was founded in 1885.
“There are not that many Black PhD scientists, and so it’s a pipeline problem,” said Georgia, who was promoted from assistant professor to associate professor of pediatrics, and stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at USC, and is a principal investigator at the Center for Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). “But at the same time, we’re 50 years after Title IX outlawed sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal funding, and I’m still the first Black PhD scientist—of any gender—to earn tenure while at the Keck School.”
Since being hired as an assistant professor at CHLA and USC in 2013, Georgia has dedicated herself to remedying this pipeline problem by improving access for students and trainees from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue research in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.
At the same time, her stem cell lab at CHLA is working towards the regeneration of the insulin-producing “beta cells” of the pancreas as a potential therapy for patients with diabetes, a disease that disproportionately affects communities of color.
“I appreciate being at Children’s Hospital for the impact that we can have on child health and for the rich diversity of patients that we have, both in their ethnic backgrounds, but also their genetic backgrounds,” she said. “We’re using our patient samples as a springboard to do more translational work, and I find that very exciting.”
Star gazing and trailblazing
While Georgia was navigating her own path into the sciences, she would not have found her way without seeing scientists similar to herself—both on Earth and in space.
Georgia was a junior high student in Pemberton, New Jersey when Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel into space as a scientist aboard Endeavor in 1992.
“She was an astronaut, but she wasn’t the pilot or the navigator,” said Georgia. “She was there to run experiments in space as a scientist. So that was a very profound impact on who it is that I thought I wanted to be, and a huge turn in my career and in the way that I could visualize myself being in science.”
Georgia also observed role models closer to home. Her grandparents founded both a jazz club in Atlantic City and a moving company, where she would spend most summers helping out her family and gleaning entrepreneurial and management skills that would later come in handy in running her own lab.
During a ninth-grade field trip to a company that was developing sequencing technology to advance the human genome project, she became intrigued by genetics.
She intended to make it her field of study as an undergraduate at Stanford University, but quickly came to prefer molecular biology’s elegant simplicity. She worked in the labs of Stephen Houser at Temple Medical School and Daria Mochly-Rosen at Stanford University, and graduated with dual honors with a bachelor of science in Biological Sciences and Ethics in Society.
After graduation, she spent two and a half years as a research technician studying pancreatic development in the lab of Anil Bhushan at CHLA. This inspired her to stay on with Bhushan as a PhD student, and to follow him to UCLA.
“When I was a graduate student in 2003, my class was not 50 percent women, and my professors were not 50 percent women,” she said. “And so that’s a big way that Title IX has changed things. Part of the development of a person’s career is being able to visualize themselves in that same space. And so it takes having women in the position of leadership to let younger women know that they can be leaders.”
At UCLA, she pursued postdoctoral training and eventually became an assistant adjunct professor at UCLA’s Larry L. Hillblom Islet Research Center, before accepting a tenure-track assistant professor position at CHLA and USC.
“I could name very specific women in beta cell biology who have a huge impact on my career, because they are a generation ahead of me,” she said. “Now that they are full professors and our leaders in the field, they create space for me to see myself as a leader in the field. And so Lori Sussel at the University of Colorado Medical School at Anshultz is one of those people in my life that I really appreciate. Maureen Gannon at Vanderbilt University is one of those people for me. Even locally here at USC, I would say the Joyce Richey, who is the Chief Diversity Officer for the Keck School, has been a profound influence in my life and in my career.”
She added, “I appreciate the fact that I can look up and see women in positions that have helped me and have helped me visualize my potential along the way.”
What tenure allows
As a newly tenured associate professor, Georgia is currently focusing her lab’s inquiries on how metabolism influences the regenerative potential of the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas, which are lost in patients with diabetes.
“I really am excited by the collaborations that I have across USC, and almost 100 percent of them are with other female faculty, including Megan McCain and Stacey Finley in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Kate White in the Department of Chemistry,” she said. “Part of me that would say it’s because they don’t look at me and assume that I’m too busy, because I have four children. And when they have to cancel a Zoom call, I don’t take it personally. In some way, there is a level of comfort that we have with each other. And we also want to see each other succeed, and our collective work can amplify our individual careers.”
One of her lab’s most impactful recent projects described the critical role of a gene called NEUROGENIN3 in enabling stem cell to differentiate into pancreatic beta cells. When this gene is mutated, children develop a severe form of diabetes and malabsorptive diarrhea called enteric anendocrinosis.
“From our stem cell work, we’ve actually made a significant change to clinical care for people with this particular type of genetic diabetes,” she said. “And while there might only be 150 people in the whole world that have this type of diabetes, the work that my lab has done has made some significant improvements to their quality of life. And so continuing to make those types of small but important translational discoveries is really exciting to me and very fulfilling.”
Now that she’s achieved tenure, Georgia also intends to become an even stronger mentor and advocate for creating a pipeline of students to diversify the sciences.
“That’s the type of thing that you’re allowed to start thinking about and doing once you have tenure,” she said. “I definitely want to keep my lab going, but I can start to think outside of my lab and to the impact that I have on the university.”
Georgia is the principal investigator on a newly awarded $2.9 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to establish USC COMPASS: Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science. A partnership between the Keck School, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, the program just welcomed its inaugural cohort of 10 USC undergraduates from historically underrepresented backgrounds with an interest in studying stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.
“The goal is to recruit, support and train students from historically underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in regenerative medicine,” said Georgia.
At the graduate level, Georgia is the chair of admissions for the Keck School’s PhD Programs in Biomedical and Biological Sciences (PIBBS). She recalls that it was “exceptionally lonely” to be a Black woman pursuing her PhD in the biomedical sciences twenty years ago, and wants to build a stronger community and support network for minoritized PhD students today and in the future.
Georgia also co-led, with USC Stem Cell faculty member Albert Almada, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee for USC’s Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. The committee recently authored a statement formalizing the department’s commitment to DEI. In partnership with Justice through Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Well-being and Social Transformation (JEDI-WeST) at the Keck School, the committee also conducted a survey of the department as a first step to conducting a climate intervention to create a more diverse an inclusive environment for all.
“Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s happening in the space where you are,” said Georgia. “But I can see what’s happened behind me, and I can see what’s happened before me, and I know that Title IX has created space for me to exist and to do the type of things that I do.”