From Mississippi to MIT and Beyond
Jerry L. Bryant
The story of my time in the King Lab is a little unique in that I was the first African American to join the lab and the first African American male to earn a Ph.D. from the Biology Department. The first graduate was a brilliant woman from Florida, Yvonne Jones (Brown), who entered the Ph.D. program the same year that I did. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology with Sheldon Penman the year before I graduated.
Grew up in the segregated south being born in 1950 in Magnolia, Mississippi where I attended segregated elementary and high schools there. My mother was a high school teacher, and my father was a common laborer. They both gave great support and had high expectations for my older brother and sister, and me. Though I was the first, we all ultimately earned terminal degrees in our respective fields.
Growing up, I experienced all the challenges that Black people faced in the Jim Crow South with segregated facilities, restaurants, stores and even water fountains. I remember sitting quietly on the front porch of our home next to my father and brother all night for several night. We were trying to protect our home and our church which set across the street from our home. Five Black Baptist churches had been bombed in our area over the previous weeks and the word was being spread that our church would be next. Black churches were targets for the Ku Klux Klan because they were sights where voting and civil rights organizing occurred. The only church bombing that received nationwide news coverage was the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which occurred on September 15, 1963, killing four young Black girls. However, many Black churches were bombed in the South during that period and Pastors and citizens were terrorized, beaten, and abused.
Ironically, I was asked by a fellow graduate student if I was happy to be in Cambridge and away from the racism of the south. This was during the time of the desegregation riots in South Boston, where local parents were throwing brick as the bus loads of Black children that were being brought to schools in South Boston every morning. The Boston Police were there basically to protect the angry White parents and not the children. This was during the time that several White men, armed with baseball bats and golf clubs, attacked a group of Black elementary school children while they were on a field trip to the Bunker Hill Monument. This was during the time when the famous photograph was taken of a Black lawyer being attacked by an angry White teenager using the flag of the United States of America at Boston City Hall. Several rather public murders of people of color were also committed during that time. I obviously was not impressed with the racial climate in the Boston area.
While our schools in Mississippi were segregated, we enjoyed the best that our Black teachers could offer us in a climate of love, respect, and encouragement. While I was not the best high school student, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the medical field, but not as a physician, although there were no Black role models available to me. I always had a curiosity for the origins of illness and how to discover ways to treat disease.
In 1967, I entered the segregated Mississippi Valley State University on a music scholarship, although I majored in Natural Science. The day that I stepped onto the campus I was still 16 years old. I excelled in the sciences and graduated with honors at the age of 20. During my matriculation, I seized on every opportunity to gain new experiences and instruction in science. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory offered a short course in radioisotope techniques using a mobile classroom that they brought to campus. I and only about five other students were allowed to take the course along with a few faculty members.
That experience opened a door to enter one of the first summer internship programs open to Black students at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, NY. There I studied with Arnold Sparrow collecting mutational data from an experiment that flew aboard Biosatellite 2. The model system was the spider wart (Tradescantia) counting mutational events that caused a change in the color of stamen hair cells on the flower.
The next summer, I was accepted into another internship program at Argonne National Laboratory where I was fortunate enough to work with Miriam Finkel, investigating the role that C-type virus may play in various diseases using the Chinese hamster model. This is where I learned electron microscopic techniques and was introduced to virology.
During my senior year, my roommate and I decided that we would apply to graduate schools in research, knowing that most of these universities in the south would reject our applications outright. We were rejected by all the major White universities including University of Mississippi., Mississippi State University, Louisiana State University, Tulane, etc., where we had applied. My roommate and I also decided to apply to our dream universities. He applied to Harvard and I to MIT. He was accepted into Tuskegee University but was immediately drafted by the Army to go to the Vietnam war. Few Black students were receiving educational deferments while White student received deferments regularly. He opted to join the Marines to gain more control of where he would serve. My roommate had a similar background and experience as I did, and I was elated when he went on to a great career with Bio-Rad and Zeiss.
I received a letter back from MIT and assumed it was the classic rejection letter that I had seen several times before. To my surprise it was from the biology department, signed by a person I never heard of before (though he was a Nobel Laureate), offering me entrance into the Ph.D. program. My first thought was that I would not be able afford the tuition and living expenses and would need to decline. What I saw was a dollar amount, thinking that would be what I would owe per semester. I had to read it a couple of times to understand that this figure was for stipend support being awarded and not what I would need to pay. It was the most amazing feeling of my life to have the opportunity of my dreams.
Thus begins the greatest academic trek of my life. I arrived at MIT having been assigned a room at Ashdown House with a roommate in computer science. While it was an old dormitory, it was very comfortable by the standards of my college days, rooming with three people in a small dorm room.
When I first met Jon, he was in the EM room. Elaine Link told me to knock on the door and when it was safe, he would let me in. I had never seen him nor knew anything about him, so I had no idea what to expect. I was assigned to him as my advisor, but I don’t know how or by whom. I had indicated in my initial conversations with the department that I was interested in virology and microscopy. That must have been the key, because I knew nobody there.
Jon opens the door to the EM, and I was really confused because I was coming straight out of Mississippi, and had a rather jaded view of scientists and professors in white lab coats. After all this the most elite university in the world. This guy had a ponytail, wearing a rough-dried shirt, shorts, mismatched socks, and sandals. Jon greeted me warmly by saying “You must be Jerry. I am Jon King and I have been looking forward to your coming to join our department. Welcome.” At some point I gathered my composure after initially wondering what in the world had I gotten myself into.
I was excited to see the electron microscopes with which I could recognize and connect. However, it was surprising to see the lab and smell the new odor of LB agar plates in the trash, full of E. coli and Salmonella ripening in the trash bins. Everyone was so nice and welcoming, although it was not clear that Jon’s lab would be where I would choose to do my thesis work. This was a great group of people. Jon and Elaine really made me feel comfortable in connecting with the microscopes, which was what I had experience with.
In a few days, it was time for incoming graduate students to declare their concentration of study. I chose microbiology and looked forward to the orientation session to determine courses of study. Since I was not sure how this was to be done, I watched intently as students were called up to talk with the general graduate advisor to understand the process. Students were being asked what they were most interested in, and suggestions were made by the graduate advisor as to which courses would best fit their interests outside of the core courses.
Suddenly my name was called, and I nervously went forward to the graduate advisor’s table. At that point, the advisor leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest and asked me, “So what do you want to take?” I was shocked because this was obviously not the greeting that anyone else had received as far as I could see. My response was to politely state that I thought that we were to discuss the coursework together. His reply was, “It doesn’t matter what courses you take because you won’t be around very long.” While this blatant expression of low expectations was discouraging and frightening, it also brought on an instant sense of resolve that I would not fail simply because of a few words. I had heard that before in Mississippi. I kept this experience to myself all through graduate school.
Then there came coursework and the first exam of my graduate career. This exam was in the class that the same graduate advisor taught, and I was determined to make the highest score in the class. I studied to the point that I was sure to do well until I got the little blue exam booklet and saw the exam itself. The questions that were being asked were asked in a way that I was not accustomed to seeing. Data, charts and graphs, design of experiments to prove hypotheses. These were the kinds of questions that were on the exam. I made one of the lowest scores in the class that day.
I soon noticed that students had formed study groups, but I was never invited to join in, even after enquiring. I also noticed that many of the students had parents that were accomplished scientists and professors. One person’s father was a Nobel Laureate.
I had to quickly learn a new way of thinking and the only people I could call on were the people in Jon’s lab. They helped tremendously because I had a lot of ground to make up. Then there was biochemistry 705 and, while organic chemistry was my favorite undergraduate class, this was very different.
In addition to this stress, my father died at the beginning of the second semester. It was too much for me to handle, so I went to Jon and asked him if it were possible to take a leave of absence and return a year later after completing that first year. To my surprise he come to me a day or so later and told me that it was all arranged and that he would welcome me back in a year. I was determined to return but I needed to be able to bring my young family back to MIT with me. We returned a year later as planned.
I did a lot of maturing and reflecting during that year off and returned with a renewed will to succeed. I wish that I could say that it was clear sailing from that day forth but that would not be true. I have never worked so hard in my life and hardly saw my family, but my wife was so supportive. We will celebrate 50 years of marriage in 2023.
People pitched in and helped me to understand how to read the original literature and think like a scientist. The department even paid for a tutor for a semester from Gene Browns Lab, and that was a tremendous help. For that, I am grateful. Most of my colleagues in the King lab became close to my family and we would often have them over for dinner, serving whatever we could scrape up. We had a “wait party” with Jon when our second child was due and for our third child. Bill Earnshaw lived in our apartment building, and we had some exciting parties in the Eastgate rooftop lounge. He almost disclosed the secret of a surprise baby shower that friends were planning for my wife, and he and I laugh about that even now. Bill and I shared the same enthusiasm for audio equipment and recordings.
Following a couple of rotations through different labs, I knew that the King lab was where I wanted to be. I was fascinated by bacteriophages and Jon’s thoughts on self-assemble were exciting. My first project was to try and discover what determined the bacteriophageT4 tail length. That turned out not to be so straightforward. Then I discovered a phenomenon called photodynamic inactivation while trying to create mutations in P22 using 9-aminoacridine. This led me to my thesis project which was to determine the targets of this inactivation process in P22 and describe the nature of the inactivation process. The primary target of the inactivation of the virus was determined to be two proteins in the capsid which were shown to participate in DNA injection and passage into the cell.
Bacteriophage labs around the world were a close-knit group and the bacteriophage meetings were held every year at Cold Spring Harbor. The King lab always attended the meetings but one year we had to split the group up and have half of the lab to attend the first half of the sessions and the other half to come and attend the second half using the registration of the first group. That year, I was in the second group, and I used the registration of Bill Earnshaw. The sessions were not a problem with respect to attendance because names were not often checked. However, at the evening meal, names were checked from a list of registrants. I confidently walked up to the registration table and showed my name badge. The lady at the table said, “You are not registered for the conference, are you?” I said “Of course I am. My name is Bill Earnshaw. That name must be on the list.” She calmly said once again, without looking on the registration list, “You are not registered, are you?” I finally realized why she would know that I was not registered. I was the only Black guy in the conference! We laughed and she let me in. I always made sure that I had registrations in my name for all future conferences.
My most terrifying time in graduate school was the preliminary exam. We were given a folder with only the abstracts of seven papers with no data, authors or laboratories listed. We were given 30 minutes to choose five abstracts to “defend” then we were questioned by several faculty members on the papers for which the abstracts were written. I was very nervous but felt better when I saw that I understood a bit about each of the abstracts I chose. The oral exam was brutal, but I was able to answer most of the questions asked on the first four abstracts. The exam committee was satisfied and decided that after two hours of examination, it was enough. Then to my utter shock, Jon told the committee, “I think we should go through the fifth abstract, at least briefly.” Fortunately, I composed myself enough to answer a few questions about the abstract. Then Jon asked me, “Who do you think wrote this paper?” I had no clue. It turns out that the author was Maurice Fox who was sitting on the exam committee. Maury took a couple of puffs on his pipe and said, “That was not a fair question, was it?” I could have died on the spot. I passed the exam but had to serve as a teaching assistant for Maury’s genetics course.
The second most terrifying time was the thesis writing and defense process. Two things that Jon did during that time that I will never forget and will be forever grateful for was that he reminded me that I was the world expert on the work I did for my thesis. The other thing was that Jon did was to stay at my home for the better part of a week while I wrote copy as he read and edited, and my wife typed the thesis on a typewriter. I was so tired by the date of the thesis defense, that I was not even concerned about the outcome. I was relieved to just get through the ordeal and the rest would be history either way.
I was awarded an NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship to work on a beautiful colonial algae called Volvox, with David Kirk at Washington University in St. Louis. My project was to try and understand the elements that controlled the inversion process in the morphological development cycle. The organism develops by forming a blastula with the flagella facing inward, then inverts to the adult form with the flagella facing outward. This moved me toward a more developmental biology track. I was blessed to give the first presentation at a prestigious film session of the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, in just before Lou Tilney. My presentation was a film that I made of normal and mutant, abortive inversion processes shot in time lapse using a gun camera designed for fighter jets. The film broke during my presentation but once it was mended, the presentation was received to a partial standing ovation. However, my studies turned out to be very difficult given that reliable genetics had not be worked out very well and publications were slow in production. This proved to be a career issue that would be difficult of overcome.
I engaged in another postdoc with Roger Beachy at Washington University working on Tobacco Mosaic Virus and the movement protein that facilitated passage of the virus from cell to cell. From there, I went on to engage in a postdoctoral experience at Monsanto, then to lead research at a small biologics company and finally to a faculty position at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
After a few years, I was recruited to an administrative position at the United Negro College Fund in Fairfax, VA, as the first National Director of Science Education Initiatives. My job was to develop and manage a multimillion-dollar program funded by Merck & Co., Inc. which was the largest program UNCF had ever received funding for until that time. There has been no other program like it in its comprehensive scope and direct support. The funds were directed to support education and development specifically for African American scientist at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels at institutions across the nation. The position allowed me the opportunity to support undergraduate and graduate students, and postdocs at most of the elite research universities in the nation, including MIT. Most gratifying was the opportunity to support students and postdocs in the labs of Minx Fuller and Peter Berget from the King lab and students in the King lab also.
I retired from UNCF in 2012 and transitioned into full time leadership of Chantilly Baptist Church, where I have served as the Pastor since the year 2000. The church membership will be celebrating my 21 years of Pastoral Leadership on October 24, 2021.
Over the years, I have developed and managed a similar program with Parke-Davis and later for Pfizer. I have served on the advisory board of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Postdoctoral Excellence Program, for three terms. I also served on the MIT Biology Department Visiting Committee for 5 two-year terms.
I close with an account that clearly indicates who Jonathan King is and what his vision is outside of his unparalleled understanding and contributions to the universal biological concept of self-assembly. Jon is interested in and engaged with people of all walks of life and seeks to better the world through activism in various arenas.
Jon and Jackie decided that they wanted to tour the south to gather information and understanding about the proposed right-to-work laws and organizations that were organizing around that issue. They also seemed to want to feel the pulse of the south. I invited them to go and stay for a few days with my mother in Magnolia, MS, and with my wife’s mother in Shreveport, LA, during their tour. They did so and had a wonderful experience. Our parents never forgot the privilege of spending time with Jon and Jackie and spoke of that wonderful time until the time of their death.
Jon, I am so grateful for what you and Jackie have meant to me and my family, and I am thankful for the relationships I have been blessed to experience among the members of the King Lab at MIT.