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Paris Brown

Paris—engineer, ceramist, and pilot—flew from Houston to Duke to grow brains in a dish. Now, she’s charting a course toward neuroethics and science policy after graduation.

Trainee Spotlight is a series of interviews from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences that showcases the science and lives of the people behind the lab coats studying the brain at Duke. Be sure to also explore a list of our spotlighted trainees' favorite spots around town here.    

We’d love to hear from you – please suggest someone for the series or nominate yourself by emailing DIBS’s Director of Communications Dan Vahaba

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


What do you love about your job? 

I came to Duke as a mechanical engineer doing research in oil and gas, so I had no experience with biology, let alone the brain. And when I came here, my PI Shyni Varghese was like, “I have full confidence that you can do these things.” I hadn’t picked up a pipette since general chemistry in undergrad, and now I make cerebral organoids from human stem cells to study neuroinflammation. It's a mix of tissue,, stem cell, and neural engineering. I really like the freedom of having to discover what works best— for the most part, I have to figure out protocols by myself.  

Everyone in my lab is also super supportive, even though we do pretty different things. The Varghese lab is traditionally an orthopedic lab, so the brain is a relatively new realm that we're diving into. I really like the people and how applicable the research is to current issues. It will hopefully eventually help people and lead to less invasive ways of diagnosing and treating patients. It's very much bench to bedside. 


30-day-old brain organoid under microscopy.
A 30-day-old brain organoid under microscopy. (Photo courtesy of P. Brown) 

What upcoming projects are you excited for? 

I make tiny brains from human stem cells. Traditional ways of studying the brain, like using 2D culture systems or animal models, aren't good at capturing the complexities of the human brain. 2D is not 3D, like the brain microenvironment, and a mouse brain is not a human brain. That gave rise to this newer method called organoid technology, which is a 3D cell model. I use that technology to study how certain factors, like peripheral stressors from orthopedic surgery or mood disorders like depression, play into neuroinflammation. 

I spent over a year optimizing these brain organoids that I'm developing. It takes over 50 days for me to grow them, so every time I start over, there is a long wait. But actually seeing the functionality with the end result is really cool. I have done tests to make sure that the organoid has differentiated into proper brain cells, but I wasn't sure if they were functional. I knew that the different types of cells were there, but I didn't know if they were talking with each other. The other day, I did some calcium imaging to assess neural activity, and it worked. I was really excited.  

Also, to be sure that the brain organoid was functional, we integrated it with a mouse brain, and it was really cool to see the organoid sprout into the brain. It's just really amazing. 

Brain organoids in progress.
Brain organoids in progress. (Photo courtesy of P. Brown) 

What are your hopes for this research? 

What I'm hoping is that we can take stem cells from someone, let's say, with Alzheimer's disease, and we can essentially make miniature versions of their brains. This would allow the technology to help with therapeutic advancements or diagnoses, and it's a less invasive way of doing things in a regular clinical setting. It does have some ethical considerations, but it would generally be easier and safer. 


What does organoid building look like in the lab? 

I take a bunch of reagents and create this cocktail of growth factors to introduce them to my organoids so that they differentiate into multiple brain cells. To oversimplify it, there is basically a media formula for each cell type to be differentiated into. But because it's a 3D system that needs to form multiple cell types, you can't fully control what it differentiates into. If you have a 2D system, you can say, “This wall is going to be neurons and the other will be astrocytes.” The cocktail that I use differentiates the organoid mainly into neurons—maybe 80% neurons and then 20% astrocytes. There are actually more astrocytes in the human brain than that, but astrocytes are really hard to differentiate into, and I'm more so looking at neurons in my study, so I want more neurons in this case. 


Any big plans after you graduate? 

I actually want to go into science policy, specifically for neurotech and AI. I feel like I've changed my career path 1,000 times, so that might change, but that's what I'm interested in. I'm taking classes at the law school in the bioethics department. I feel like a lot of scientists don't necessarily think about ethics when they do science. I'm really interested in how science affects society and who it affects. I would like to do this fellowship program in DC—fingers crossed. That's what's on my mind right now. 


Where do you call home? 

I'm from Houston, Texas. Born and raised. Basically, Texas was all I knew until I came here. I went to undergrad at University of Houston, so really, I’m a Houston girl. I really like the nature aspect of North Carolina and Durham. Houston is very much a concrete city. 


Do you have any favorite spots in the area

My favorite food here is Alpaca. It is cooked to perfection every time. I've never gone there and been disappointed. That's my go-to spot for food.  

I also really like going to state parks. They have this state park passport where you can get little stamps every time you go to one of the parks here. My favorite one so far has been Umstead Park. It's just very relaxing, and there's just enough people to feel safe without being too crowded. It's very beautiful. I very much enjoy the mountains or the forest—it makes me feel like a fairy. The beach is a close second, but anything woodsy I very much enjoy. 


Frog in hand at Eno River State Park.
Paris loves to find and take pictures of the wildlife wherever she visits. This amphibian friend is from the Eno River State Park! (Photo courtesy of P. Brown) 

What hobbies do you have outside of research? 

Does sleeping count?  

I really enjoy doing pottery. I go to this place in Durham called Claymakers. The classes are a little expensive but definitely worth it. When I first started, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be so easy.” It was so hard—like, so hard. But once you finally make a piece, it can be the ugliest thing in the world, but because you've made it perfect. It's very relaxing and calming, and a huge learning process. 

I like making bowls. They are really easy to make. I have a few of those around my house just filled with jewelry or other knickknacks.


Three items of pottery on a granite counter top.
Paris keeps her collection of handmade glazed clay creations around the house. (Photo courtesy of P. Brown) 

What is something your coworkers might not know about you? 

After high school I went to flight school and learned how to fly because I wanted to be a pilot. At the time, I was going to undergrad for aerospace engineering, but I ended up not liking the atmosphere in the field. I did go and get the student license, except I never took my final test. After I do my Ph.D. prelim, I'm planning on going back and finally taking the test because that's all I need. 

I also enjoy swimming a lot, and diving. As a kid, I really wanted to be a Siren. I feel like if I could live in the ocean, I definitely would. 


You’re a scary movie fan. What’s your favorite horror film? 

30 Days of Night. It's my vampire comfort movie. I remember watching it as a kid a lot. I grew up watching scary movies because my brother would make me sit with him and watch, and then I ended up enjoying them. I love a good scary movie. My favorite scary show is The Last of Us. It’s a 20 out of 10. 


You belong to a few scholarship programs here at Duke. What does that look like for you? 

The Sloan Scholarship is to promote diversity in STEM for Ph.D. students. It's also good for mentorship and community. The Dean's Graduate Fellowship is also a diversity fellowship. Then, the NIH Diversity Fellowship is a supplement from The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. It's a small fellowship that's based off of the parent grant that my lab has to provide more guidance and mentorship throughout my Ph.D. from the NIH. 


Varghese lab holiday party group photo.
Paris poses with her fellow Varghese lab members at the Biomedical Engineering 2023 holiday party. (Photo courtesy of P. Brown) 

What else are you involved in here at Duke? 

I am the DEI Chair of the Engineering Graduate Student Council. I'm the first person to take on this role. I want everyone in the department to feel seen, heard, and respected within our community, so I’ve sent out a climate survey in which I'm collaborating with the engineering school to make sure everyone's concerns get taken care of. I direct them to the right people.  

Earlier this month. I planned something called the DEI Festival. We had around 200 people sign up to come to this showcase of food from different countries and contests for the best dishes. We also reimbursed everyone who cooked. I feel like there are a lot of people in our department whose culture you don’t really see every day. Food is a great way to experience someone else's culture.  

I'm also the president of an organization called Sisters in STEM. It's an organization at Duke for Black women in graduate school for STEM. Most of us are PhD students, but we have some master's students as well. And it's just like a safe space to gather around every month. We always have food because I don't believe in meetings without food. Sometimes we bring in guest speakers or do wellness activities. I'm also planning a trip for us to go to DC in June. It’s sponsored by Pratt, Trinity, the School of Medicine, and the Graduate School for career development and seeing how science and policy fit together. 


What is your top pro-tip for your fellow academics? 

Speak up for yourself. If you are having issues with anything—whether it's class, the lab, or mental health issues—you are your biggest advocate. Even if you think your advisor or peers won't agree, that's fine. You're not going to agree on everything. But if you don't speak up for yourself, then nothing will change. And if you're in a difficult situation and you don't say anything, it's not going to get better. 


What's the best pizza topping? 

The Holy Shiitaki mushroom pizza from Mellow Mushroom is just so good. I don't know if I would necessarily say that mushrooms themselves are the superior topping, but that pizza is the superior pizza. 


If you study the brain (broadly defined) at Duke and are interested in being interviewed for this series or would like to nominate somebody else, please reach out to Dan Vahaba, Director of Communications at DIBS. 


Paris poses in the tissue culture room with a plate of her brain organoids. 
Paris poses in the tissue culture room with a plate of her brain organoids. (Photo courtesy of P. Brown)