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Crystal Grant Balances Academics and Activism

Crystal Grant in her lab at Emory University. Photo Credit: Emory/Bryan Meltz

Welcome to a new generation of scientific discovery. Grab a sign, a water bottle, and some comfortable shoes!

Marching with thousands of climate change activists, students, teachers, and scientists on a hot Atlanta day was not part of Crystal Grant’s biology Ph.D. syllabus. But there she was, eagerly joining dozens of others from Emory University at the “March for Science” on April 22.

After the march wrapped up in Atlanta’s Candler Park, Grant was wowed, “This is my first march. This was super exciting, I didn't know what to expect. I think it is much more of a celebration than protest. There were some funny chants, like, ‘What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!’”

Federal research funds are on the chopping block in the Trump administration, so activism has become a critical part of Grant’s doctoral experience. She’s a member of the Emory Science Advocacy Network, grateful that her advisers support this extracurricular activity, even when it means taking to the streets.

With a grandmother who was a midwife in Jamaica, and a mom who is a nurse at a VA hospital, Grant was intrigued at an early age with biology and neuroscience. “My mom, in her nursing class, dissected a sheep’s brain, and brought one home one day. I thought that was really cool,” she said.

Grant graduated from Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, New York, which has a top-rated science program. She was attracted to the order and structure of genetics even then.

Crystal Grant at March
Signs like Grant's at the Atlanta March for Science were aimed at praising and protecting science research | Credit: Marsha Walton

“If you wanted to challenge yourself, they encouraged you. I’m so grateful for that. It showed me what I was capable of,” she said. She went on to earn a B.A. in biology, with a minor in anthropology, at Cornell University.

Her doctoral studies in genetics and molecular biology at Emory involve questions researchers have pondered for ages: How do we stay healthier as we get older?

“A recent discovery is that people age, at the cellular level, at different rates. We can see that when we look at different people. Some people you look at and say ‘I can’t believe you are 40, you look 20.’  At the cellular level, it looks like that too,” she said. 

Grant is examining blood tests from participants in the 20-year Women’s Health Initiative study. DNA methylation profiles from blood can be used to predict human aging rates with great accuracy.

In the short term, Grant will be working on tools to “ask” our cells, “How old do you think you are?”

Colleagues in her field have published studies on how diets affect how cells feel. They have determined that people who eat a lot of red meat have older looking cells. Those studies are in early stages, but she expects to work with epidemiologists to find out more.

Much less predictable than what goes on in her lab is what is swirling around science policy and funding. Grant first encountered threats to scientific study in 2013, while working in a leukemia research lab during the 16-day government shutdown.

“A lot of the scientists were expressing this uncertainty. They heard about colleagues working at federal labs being told they couldn't go into their labs, couldn't work with their mice. People were worrying about entire yearlong experiments being ruined because for this two-week period you couldn’t do your experiment. I remember being so frustrated, and seeing all the scientists around me feeling really helpless,” she said.

Grant is taking action to counter expected cuts in federal science and medical research. She’s hitting the halls of Congress. AAAS provided staff to help her and other graduate students navigate the complexities of Capitol Hill. They also provided a scholarship for her to make the journey to Washington to lobby for scientific support.

“It seemed so clear that there needed to be more scientists at the table when talking about the budgeting process,” she said. “We need more scientists willing to leave the lab and talk about what they are doing.”

The Congressional visits were part of a AAAS advocacy workshop for 100 graduate and undergraduate students, known as CASE, Catalyzing Advocacy in Science & Engineering. Topics ranged from how the federal funding process works for research, to nuts and bolts about appropriation bills and continuing resolutions. 

Because so few members of Congress have academic backgrounds in science, students were encouraged to communicate in a different way than they might in a classroom or in a paper for a journal. AAAS experts urged them to tell their own stories about their research, their challenges, and the public good that can come from their discoveries. Those personal stories could play key roles in helping craft legislation and set federal spending levels.

She and her colleagues also promoted other positive impacts that science and medical research can have, such as an economic driver for a community. “I think Atlanta is poised to become a hub of biotech with Emory, the CDC and Georgia Tech. We could become the next Research Triangle if we invest enough in that,” she said.

While it may be hard to match the energy of a rally and march like the one on Earth Day, Grant says she’ll continue to be active. “[It’s] really scary to see the pie chart of just how small a sliver, and a shrinking one, that research actually makes up,” she said. Whether it be letter-writing campaigns or hosting lawmakers to push for continued support for science research, she’ll continue to advocate for science.


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<p>Crystal Grant in her lab at Emory University. Photo Credit:&nbsp;Emory/Bryan Meltz</p>
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