As Neurobiology’s own Corey Roach joins his cohort of graduates this Saturday, May 13th to participate in the Hooding Ceremony in Duke Chapel, his name will be called, he’ll cross the stage, and his advisor, Anita Disney, will place the ceremonial doctoral hood over his head, signifying his success in completing his PhD degree. While earning a PhD degree from Duke is a milestone achievement for each and every graduate, few people will be aware of all the hurdles Roach has had to overcome in order to be crossing this particular stage. His story is extraordinary. As Disney says of his early years, ‘Corey was raised in extreme poverty, enduring periods of temporary homelessness and a complex and challenging home life. There were times when his most fundamental needs were simply not met, which makes his ability to nonetheless wrangle an education out of the situation truly extraordinary. This is particularly notable when you realize that Corey’s mother didn’t finish, and his stepfather didn’t *start* high school. So he was the first in the household to finish high school, then the first to finish college, now the first to get a PhD and go on to postdoctoral training.’
I put a few questions to both Roach and Disney, and what follows is a condensed version of our interview.
SCHREIBER: What about Corey stands out to you?
DISNEY: His courage and resilience, and his laser focus on achieving an escape trajectory for himself and as many of his people as he can bring with him. He’s also enormously funny and creative.
SCHREIBER: What are some of the hurdles you had to overcome along the way to getting your PhD?
ROACH: I grew up in profound generational poverty. I faced the more direct socioeconomic ramifications of my background (like securing food and safe housing between semesters) during my undergraduate years. By the first few years of graduate school, many of these issues tapered off as I became more financially independent. Incredibly, the graduate school stipend is more money than anyone in my family has ever earned.
Growing up, my family had many issues arising from severe mental health disorders and substance abuse. Those issues persisted after I started college and distancing myself from those issues to focus on my education has always been hard for me.
SCHREIBER: Where were you prior to coming to Duke?
ROACH: Before joining Anita’s lab, I was in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s to PhD Bridge Program. I was studying the transcriptional regulation of the dopamine neurons in the nematode worm, C. elegans. The goal of the Bridge Program is to improve the demographic representation in STEM fields. To this end, the program helps students develop strong academic foundations, research skills, and one-on-one mentoring relationships that will foster a successful transition to the PhD.
I joined Anita’s lab in summer of 2015 when her lab was still at Vanderbilt, and our lab moved to Duke in the Summer of 2018.
SCHREIBER: Why did you choose to join Anita Disney’s lab?
ROACH: I liked the way Anita approached science. She prefers to study deeply complex systems. Her goal is to converge on understanding how these systems operate by approaching them from several different angles. She does not stray away from difficult questions due to a lack of existing technology, and instead leans into innovation to help her more directly address questions.
SCHREIBER: What are your research interests?
ROACH: The focus of my thesis work is investigating the role(s) that neuromodulators play in cognition in the mammalian neocortex using molecular, pharmacological and electrophysiological techniques. I have more recently become interested in the cellular and genetic mechanisms that neural circuits use to establish and maintain network functionality and chemical homeostasis.
SCHREIBER: What is your approach to mentorship? Did you find that Corey, as an under-represented student, had particular needs when it came to mentoring?
DISNEY: My overall goal as a mentor is to make myself unnecessary, and as people travel that path to independence, to help them develop peer-mentoring and team science skills, to nurture curiosity, and to build for that curiosity a rock-solid epistemological foundation - in thought and practice. To do that, I take a student-centered approach, looking at each person as a unique collection of skills and goals, strengths, and areas for growth. As a lab, we openly discuss each person’s ‘superpowers’ (where they can offer peer support) and learning goals (where they need peer support). When this works well, the result is a dynamic environment in which people group and re-group accordingly over time and in which individuals practice using, sharing, and being celebrated for their learning achievements on the one hand, and practice learning from, or co-learning with, peers on the other. Behind the scenes, and based on my understanding of each person, I try to set a lab culture and vision, and to be the keeper of a master map that charts a course to each person’s goals via some awesome science.
Everyone in my lab has unique needs and Corey was no different. Specifically in the domain of representation: by definition, if you’re under-represented in science there aren’t a lot of people around day-to-day with whom you identify. This is the key need I try to meet for my lab in this space, the need to find fellow travelers, to feel seen and understood, and to develop a sense of belonging. Although my lab is majority marginalized/under-represented, I don’t draw from a specific identity group, so the only common thread we all share (beyond our curiosity and love for science!) is some more abstract sense of unity in diversity. Building a team from that foundation has unique challenges for all of us, myself included.
SCHREIBER: What programs or people would you say were most instrumental in helping you get to this point? How did they help you?
ROACH: There are two people who really invested themselves into my career and were committed to mentoring me.
First and foremost is Anita. Anita believed in my potential as a scientist. She trained me in everything from the technical minutia of our work to professional communication, to even career development. She was thoughtful in tailoring her training style to my strengths and weaknesses. She wanted me to be able to leave her lab with the full gambit of professional skills needed for a successful career. I am now in the third month of my postdoc, and feel abundantly prepared for the environment, and know that much of this feeling is attributed to Anita’s thorough training.
Second, Dina Stroud, one of the original co-directors of the Bridge Program. She took an interest in my career, and always checked in on me along the way. She made me feel like someone cared about my success very early.
SCHREIBER: What are some of the challenges Corey encountered while doing his PhD?
DISNEY: My goodness, I honestly hope that no one else ever has such a difficult time in my lab as Corey did. It started with a change of institution (he joined my lab when I was at Vanderbilt University) during which the lab was closed for 18 months. Then, our new lab had been open only 13 weeks when it was closed again with the pandemic! We had had only three days of in-lab recording and training at that time. When we re-opened again, I had a child at home whose school remained closed until May 2021, and so that three days of training was the foundation upon which Corey built his project. Corey also had different Core facilities to support his project at Vanderbilt, and he had to change his methodological approach here at Duke, which turned out to be very difficult. On a personal level, Corey and his partner suffered extraordinary personal losses due to the pandemic. Corey’s grit and persistence, and capacity for independent work were taxed beyond any reasonable expectations over these years. It’s quite astounding that we nonetheless managed to meet expectations for an on-time graduation!
SCHREIBER: What are your plans following graduation?
ROACH: As of now, I am doing a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania with Yale Cohen. My project investigates how prior information influences top-down and bottom-up connectivity in the auditory system of the rhesus macaque.
I would eventually like to start a lab of my own. I envision a comparative neuroscience program that leverages the simple nervous systems of several small invertebrates like C. elegans and insects to address my new research interests. The ultimate goal of my research would be to uncover conserved circuit motifs that are integral to network stability that could be targeted by psychiatric intervention to restructure pathological brain states.
SCHREIBER: What advice would you give to other students facing challenges similar to your own?
ROACH: It is difficult to live a life as an academic that is lavish by comparison without experiencing some degree of guilt. On top of this, people from disadvantaged backgrounds are often resented by their families for investing in themselves rather than helping provide. Try to remember that you did your duty by making it this far, and that everything else is gravy on the fries.
SCHREIBER: Do you have any experience with mentorship yourself?
ROACH: Yes, I mentored three undergraduate students during my time in the Disney lab. I trained them in research methods and helped them develop their own independent projects. I also guided them as they pursued secondary education like graduate school and med school. Seeing my undergraduates reach their goals has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career to-date.
Disney adds that one of the three undergraduates that Roach mentored was an undergraduate scientist of color in her lab here at Duke. When Roach graduates with his PhD on May 13th, the very next day his student, Naim Wright, will graduate with Honors in Biology, having achieved High Distinction. Wright himself has already expressed interest in continuing in a research career, which pleases both Roach and Disney. And so Roach has emulated the best of his own mentors and has begun mentoring younger scientists himself, continuing the virtuous cycle of paying it forward and extending a hand along the way to others in need.
A big congratulations to you, Dr. Roach, on your graduation—what a remarkable achievement! We wish you much continued success and look forward to hearing about future successes on and off the bench!