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Immunologist Danielle Twum Calls for Innovative Research, Generosity to Support More STEM Success Stories

Danielle Twum
Danielle Twum.

Along with her career as a cancer immunologist, AAAS Member Danielle Twum blends her scientific knowledge with her social media savvy for two other important missions. She helps support the mental health of stressed young scientists, and uses her online influence to ignite a spark for young people who may never have thought about a STEM career.

“I realized that social media could be a powerful tool for outreach when a friend told me that [one of] my posts had made the Reddit front page. The screenshot also showed up on Facebook, after being shared by a teacher in the Midwest,” she says.

As Twum’s words have spread across social media platforms, parents and teachers have filled her direct messages with thanks for her inspiration. And her acts of kindness have taken other forms.

“When I was in graduate school, I was greatly helped by a lot of people who came into my life, bought me dinner or lunch at random times when I was having a hard time in the lab. I thought maybe I could also pay it forward, like others had done for me,” says Twum, who now works for a California biotech startup.

So, just before Christmas in 2019, she sent out a Tweet; aimed at sleep deprived Ph.D. students working alone in a quiet campus laboratory over the holidays. They heard her.

She spent $300, messaging the students she connected with to “just buy yourselves a very flamboyant dinner.”

And another social media post from Twum morphed from a local fundraiser to refurbish her high school’s science labs, and then, to a national talk show appearance.

Wesley Girls' Senior High School wanted pictures of alums who had gone into science doing 'science stuff'. On that day, I had run some qPCR experiments looking at how much of a gene some cells were making,” she says. She describes the work as looking at how much of a gene a group of cells have, giving Twum, and other researchers, an idea of what the cells are actually up to.

Twum shared a photo of herself celebrating a successful day in the lab. It got the attention of the Kelly Clarkson Show. Soon after, Twum made a guest appearance with the singer and American Idol winner to talk about women in STEM.

To Twum, simply being out there and visible is important.

“There's a lot of children and a lot of adults who are always so surprised that I am a woman of color with an advanced degree. I try very hard every day to make these people aware that a scientist can look like anything. A black woman with a blonde hair top and designs on the side of their head can also look like a scientist,”says Twum.

Twum knows amidst the rigors of pursuing a degree in any STEM field, mental health sometimes takes a back seat to labs and course work. She was far away from her own family while working on her Ph.D. at The University of Buffalo.

While most universities provide counseling services, many students don’t believe they have the time, or have enough of a crisis to seek help. That, says Twum, is when a perceptive adviser can make all the difference, by fostering a positive environment. They can encourage students to take a week off, to take a breather or see their friends and family instead of working non-stop for months and over the weekends.

Danielle Twum. Credit: Susana Jett.

Twum is now a Field Applications Scientist for LevitasBio, in Menlo Park, California. Her work involves an innovative approach to cellular analysis, using magnetic levitation technology for cell sorting. She first became interested in this type of disease research when she lost an uncle to brain cancer when he was only in his thirties.

Her research is used in developing cell-based disease therapies. By isolating cancerous cells from patients’ tumor samples, for example, researchers can better understand the tumor, and create more effective and better-targeted treatments to fight cancer cells.

Twum is also staying busy as one of 125 AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors. This initiative provides a national platform for innovators to serve as high-profile role models for middle school girls, and inspire the next generation of STEM pioneers. These STEM professionals show girls the different career pathways they can pursue and how STEM impacts their lives every day.

“It's given me access to some of the most amazing women I've ever met. And I have learned so much from them with regards to what you can do with a STEM degree,” says Twum.

Through the program, and also in her other work mentoring others, she is sharing three tips in particular for young people who think a science career may be part of their future: Stay curious, don't accept disrespect, and also, “you belong here!”

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Marsha Walton