Georgia Mae Dunston Biography
Began to Look for Answers, Studied Human Biology, Discovered Genetics, Returned to the Black Community
Professor of microbiology, research scientist
Born into a working class African-American family in the segregated southern United States, Georgia Dunston had little reason to believe that her life and career would be very different from those of her parents or grandparents. She was motivated to pursue higher learning, however, by the inspiration of encouraging teachers at every level of her education and by her own burning curiosity about the human condition. In search of the answers to her early childhood question, "Why are people different?," she has not only continued to study human biology throughout her life, but she has initiated various studies into the much-neglected field of African-American genetics.
Georgia Mae Dunston was born in the summer of 1944 in the small port city of Norfolk, Virginia. Her father, Ulyses, worked for many years as a cook at a commercial barbecue wholesaler, and her mother, Rosa, had various working-class jobs as a restaurant dishwasher, a laundry presser, and a commercial cleaner. Though the Dunstons worked hard at fairly low-paying jobs, they did not consider themselves poor. Their lives were similar to those of the other families in their tight-knit black community, centered on family, community, and the church. Young Georgia went to the local Baptist church every week with her family, attending Sunday school and singing in the choir. As she looked at the unfairness in the world around her, she began to come up with some big questions for God.
Began to Look for Answers
Dunston was only ten years old when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in the nation's schools was illegal. In the South of the 1950s, segregation—or separation by race—was enforced by white people to keep blacks out of white institutions. In schools this meant that black students were not allowed to attend school with white students. After the Supreme Court's ruling in 1954, some of Dunston's classmates were among the first sent to white schools. This was called integration, and many racist whites continued to resist integration long after it had been required by law.
Though Dunston herself was not bussed to a white school, she was aware of the tension between whites and blacks, and of the unfair treatment many blacks received. She tried hard to fit in this knowledge with the lessons she learned in church, but she could not. Over and over, the same questions arose in her mind. If God created everyone, then why did God make people different from each other? In addition, she wondered, if everyone is equal in the sight of God, why do white people seem so much better off?
Dunston liked going to school and did well there. One of her elementary school teachers, Eleanor Williams, was an especially strong influence, both praising and encouraging Dunston and inspiring her to work harder so that she could live up to Ms. Williams' high opinion of her.
When a junior high school science teacher sparked an interest in biology, Dunston brought her old question to God into her study of science. "Why are people different?" seemed as much at the root of biology as of religion. In high school, her thirst to understand the human experience led her to philosophy, and she read Jean-Paul Sartre and other philosophers who wrote about the nature of society. However, she soon focused again on science when a teacher suggested that science offered a better chance of getting a job, pointing out: "There are no black philosophers."
Studied Human Biology
As her high school graduation grew near, Dunston had thought little about going to college. No one in her family had ever graduated from college, and her parents assumed that she would go to work once she was out of high school. However, she was one of the top five students in her graduating class and received a full scholarship to Norfolk State University, a traditionally black college close to home. Dunston thus began her work toward a college degree.
At Norfolk State, Dunston continued her study of biology. As in elementary and high school, she developed good relationships with her teachers. She was especially impressed with the dedication of Professor Louis Austin. Austin was so determined to give his biology majors a wide variety of courses equal to that available at a large university that he taught a large number of classes himself. Though he worked tirelessly to encourage blacks to go into scientific fields, Austin was also demanding. Shocked to receive her first C grade on work she knew she had done well, Dunston approached Austin to ask him why. "Because you can do better," he told her. Inspired by his confidence, she continued to work harder and do better.
After her college graduation, Dunston went to stay with her aunt in New York City and look for a job. She had a biology degree and thought she would easily get a job as a medical technician. Medical technicians work in laboratories performing tests that help doctors diagnose and treat diseases. She went to an employment agency and saw that there were many such jobs available. Hopefully, she began to go out for interviews. However, once employers saw that she was a black woman, they claimed that they did not have any job openings for technicians. The only jobs she was offered were unskilled cleaning jobs.
Determined not to take a job which would not use any of her scientific knowledge or skills, and discouraged by the racist attitudes she had encountered, Dunston returned home to Norfolk. Professor Austin, her old professor and biology mentor at Norfolk State, suggested that she should go back to school for a graduate degree. He told her that there was an advertisement in the journal Science seeking applications for a George Washington Carver research fellowship at Tuskegee University, a well-known historically black university in Alabama. Dunston applied for and received the fellowship and began to work toward her master's degree at Tuskegee.
Still fascinated by the mysteries and variety of human biology, Dunston began to study genetics at Tuskegee. Genetics is the study of how characteristics are passed from one generation of living things to another. During the 1950s scientists had discovered that genetic information is encoded in a certain kind of molecule, called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. This DNA is carried in living cells in units called genes. When living things reproduce, they pass their DNA on to their offspring and this causes their offspring to have some of the same characteristics as the parents. The study of DNA was a new and exciting field when Dunston began her work on it in the early 1970s.
Away from home for the first time and recovering from the breakup of an important romantic relationship, Dunston threw all of her energy into her studies and laboratory work at Tuskegee. David Aminoff, an exchange professor from the University of Michigan who taught Dunston biochemistry at Tuskegee, was so impressed with her academic performance and dedication that he offered to help her get a training grant so that she could continue studying toward her doctorate in human genetics.
During the early 1970s, a group of African-American students at the University of Michigan had organized demonstrations and other actions about several political issues on campus. This group was called the Black Action Movement, and one result of their work was that the university launched a program for admitting more black students. Georgia Dunston was accepted into the Rackham Graduate School of the University of Michigan as one of the African-American students admitted during this time. She was the first black student in the university's Human Genetics department and likely the first black to earn her Ph.D. in that field. Though the work was hard, Dunston was still propelled by the same basic question that had driven her quest for knowledge as a child: Why are people different from each other?
Returned to the Black Community
As Dunston was finishing her studies at the University of Michigan, she met Dr. Willie Turner, an African-American scientist who wanted to build a scientific research facility in microbiology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was visiting colleges around the country looking for black Ph.D.'s who were interested in careers in scientific research. If Dunston would join his effort at Howard, he told her, he would help her get a grant to do post-doctoral studies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation's major center for medical research, also located near Washington, D.C. Studying at the NIH appealed to Dunston. The idea of helping to create a research department intrigued her, as did the idea of taking her skills and knowledge back to serve the black community. She decided to take the job at Howard, joining the faculty of the Microbiology department in the College of Medicine.
Founded in 1867, Howard is one of the most respected historically black colleges in the world, though the university has always admitted all qualified applicants. Starting with a graduating class of four in 1870, by 2003 Howard had 10,500 students enrolled in twelve different colleges. It is considered by some to be one of the hundred best colleges in the United States. Nonetheless, because it was an historically black college, Dunston's professors at the University of Michigan were disappointed that she chose to take a job at Howard rather than seeking a position at a more prestigious (and largely white) institution.
Dunston, however, did not regret her choice. Once told, "There are no black philosophers," she set about to combat the notion that there were no black research scientists. During an exciting period of growth for the Microbiology Department, she helped create a Ph.D. program for medical microbiology research at Howard and completed her post-doctoral work at the NIH National Cancer Institute.
As the research facility at Howard grew, so did Dunston's career as a research scientist. Still following her childhood quest for "what made people different," she began investigating the particular biology of African and African-American people. Very little previous research had focused on the health issues of black people, and Dunston obtained grants to establish her research at Howard. Through these grants she was able to investigate such important questions as why black people frequently had difficulties with organ transplants. Dunston's research uncovered the fact that, since the tests for organ matches had been created using cells from white people, they often did not work when used to test organ matches for blacks. Other Dunston research projects involved studying the genetics of type II diabetes among both African-American and West African people, asthma in African Americans, breast cancer in black women, and prostate cancer in black men.
As she began to study the health issues of black people, Dunston quickly realized that studies done on people of European descent were of limited use when investigating the genetic basis of disease in African Americans. Much of her study of disease had led her back to her fascination with human variation, and it was soon apparent to her that too little research had been done in African and African-American genetics.
Worked to Uncover the Secrets of the Gene
In 1990 a group of international scientists had begun the Human Genome Project, an attempt to discover and study all of the approximately 30,000 human genes and to map out the structure of the human DNA molecule. Dunston correctly suspected that without the influence of African-American researchers, little of the project's work would focus on black populations. She applied for and received a grant to study the genetics of African Americans in order to build a body of reference material that would help apply future gene research to black people.
Dunston's work resulted in the founding of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University in 2001. She raised funds to build labs and recruit other investigators to head various genetic research departments focusing on African Americans, Africans, and other African diaspora populations. Dunston saw the genetic heritage of the African disapora as especially rich for many reasons.
First, many scientists believe that Africa is the birthplace of humankind and of the human genome itself. Because it is the place of human origin, with the oldest continuous history of human populations, the continent is home to the widest range of human genetic variation. The fossil record indicates that modern humans migrated out of east Africa around 100,000 years ago and settled in all parts of the world. Today, most scientists accept that all human populations today are descendents of founding groups out of Africa which have changed in biological characteristics as they have adapted over time to new geographical environments. In more recent history, many African people were forcibly taken across the Atlantic Ocean by the slave trade. Because they were slaves, they did not intermingle with their new society in the same way voluntary immigrants do, and the broad base of genetic variation in the African gene pool has stayed together and remained characteristic of populations of African descent, whether in the Caribbean, Europe, or the United States.
Though Dunston's research into genetics at the National Human Genome Center has provided some important answers to why people from different parts of the world look different, it has also opened a whole new world of questions. For a research scientist these new questions are the most exciting form of success. One of the most interesting findings of the researchers of the Human Genome Project is that in the human genome, 99.9 percent of the genetic material is identical for every human. "And yet each of us is unique," Dunston has said. "We are literally part of one big human family, the genome bears that out. Now the question is how we're going to reflect that knowledge in how we live."
When Georgia Dunston first formed her childhood question about the variations in human beings, she could not have predicted where her search would lead her, or the number of lives that would be affected by her search for the answer. However, digging into the deepest mysteries of the living and studying how different cells work together in the human body to express life, she discovered that research science is not so far from philosophy after all.
(With others) "Organ Donation and Blacks: A Critical Frontier," The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 325, No. 6, August 8, 1991, pp. 442-46.
(With others) "Breast Cancer Genetics in African Americans," Cancer, Vol. 96, No. 1, January 1, 2003, pp. 236-46.
Ebony, May 2003, pp. 60-68.
Emerge, September 1997. p. 30.
Health, March 1995, pp. 19-22.
"History of the Human Genome Project," National Genome Project Information, www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/project/hgp.shtml (October 18, 2004).
"NHGRI Cosponsors a Conference about the Human Genome Project for Local Minority Communities," National Human Genome Research Institute, www.genome.gov/pfv.cfm?pageid=10003008 (October 1, 2004).
"Scientist at Work," Annenberg/CPB Learner, www.learner.org/channel/courses/essential/life/session5/scientist.html (October 1, 2004)
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Georgia Dunston on October 12, 2004.
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