Science fueled by social justice

Sydney Stanley

Sydney Stanley, PhD ’23, researches infectious diseases with an eye toward improving the health of the world’s most vulnerable populations

May 18, 2023 – Sydney Stanley’s path to a PhD started at home, reading a biography of Marie Curie.

“I was homeschooled for parts of elementary and middle school. Because my mom loves to read, most of my time was spent reading random books. I happened across a biography of Marie Curie and thought she was the coolest person in the world,” Stanley said. “She won two Nobel prizes and was obviously an amazing scientist. But she also really cared about the implications of her work, both good and bad. Her sense of humanity inspired me, plus her dedication, this obsession with what she was working on. She was isolating radium and polonium from pitchblende, this really toxic substance, and she would keep it in her pocket.”

Stanley, in third grade at the time, noted that Curie had a PhD—and decided she would get one, too.

Meanwhile, as she entered public school in her hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, her draw toward science narrowed into a focus on infectious diseases. Frequent bouts of strep throat and MRSA kept her home sick often—days she spent out of the classroom, but learning nonetheless.

“I had nothing better to do than to look things up, trying to figure out why I kept getting sick. It was my first time doing, like, scientific detective work,” Stanley said. “I learned a lot of basic bacteriology and immunology, but ultimately I became interested in how humanity has been so profoundly shaped by single-celled organisms.”

That interest carried her to Duke University to study biology and global health, where she learned to view infectious diseases through an equity lens. She then brought this new perspective to Harvard’s Biological Sciences in Public Health (BPH) program, rooted at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and part of Harvard’s Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. This month, she’ll graduate with her PhD—a long-held dream achieved.

“I knew I wanted to do the BPH program since middle school—as soon as I learned about it, I thought, that is the program for me. I wanted to do basic science research but alongside other people who care about the global health impacts and the importance of doing science to benefit vulnerable people,” Stanley said. “It’s very rare to have a basic sciences department within a school of public health, and it’s just been a really transformative environment to train in.”

Focusing on the most vulnerable

Though Stanley said it was her global health studies that first got her thinking about health equity, the seeds for marrying science and social justice had been planted long ago.

“Back when I was homeschooled, my mom required that I memorize and recite some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most impactful speeches and letters. His famous quote, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ became my motivation for studying infectious diseases on two levels,” Stanley said. “One, by definition, infectious diseases spread person to person—so during global outbreaks, our fate is literally shared in that regard. Two, it’s just fundamentally wrong that millions of people die each year from preventable infectious diseases, and that we have largely addressed illnesses here in the United States that are still a problem elsewhere.”

Stanley got to dive headfirst into these ideas working with Sarah Fortune, John LaPorte Given Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, to research tuberculosis (TB)—a disease that has been largely eradicated in the United States and other wealthy nations, but that each year kills 1.5 million people across the globe, mostly in lower-income countries. For years, it was the world’s leading infectious disease killer, surpassed only recently by COVID-19.

Fortune’s lab is a bacterial genetics lab, focused on trying to understand the various features of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb)—the bacteria that causes TB—that enable it to resist antibiotics and shape the severity of TB. For her doctoral research, Stanley primarily researched TB in Vietnam, one of the world’s 30 high-TB-burden countries. She examined 158 strains of Mtb isolated from patients in Ho Chi Minh City.

“The scale of this research project was unparalleled. So I was intimidated,” Stanley said. “But Sarah believed in me and let me put my own spin on the project. I had a lot of latitude in terms of creativity and asking the questions I wanted to.”

Fortune praised Stanley for “her incredible scientific productivity and her willingness to take on the hardest projects, always in service to the most vulnerable people in the world.” In the end, service is exactly what her dissertation—which was awarded the School’s Edgar Haber Award for outstanding achievement in the biological sciences—accomplished.

“We were able to learn more about the Mtb strains that Vietnam is uniquely challenged with. Our findings—that a subgroup of these strains are intrinsically susceptible to a new TB antibiotic called bedaquiline and are associated with severe TB disease—can help inform the design of better diagnostics and creates an opportunity for precision medicine, tailoring treatments to optimize health outcomes for a specific group of individuals,” Stanley said. “It’s good news.”

A close-knit community

Stanley cites mentorship from Fortune, and from Qingyun Liu and Xin Wang, both postdoctoral fellows in the lab, as critical to her growth as a scientist over her five years at Harvard Chan School. And she said the relationships and sense of belonging she found within the Fortune lab, the BPH program, and the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases were “amazing.”

“The community was the most rewarding part. Having really supportive mentors who are experts in what they do and who champion students, in a friendly environment where there are genuine friendships between trainees and professors…it has shaped what I’ve been able to accomplish,” Stanley said.

Community proved as important as ever midway through her studies, when the COVID-19 pandemic began and the murder of George Floyd spurred a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests around the country. Fortune was supportive when she took a few months off to pursue an opportunity to research COVID-19 at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, determining if SARS-CoV-2 variants were differentially detected by rapid antigen tests. Meanwhile, as a founding member of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases’ Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee, she created and co-managed a series of monthly newsletters meant to spark conversation about the movement for racial justice and other social issues.

“We wanted to do something disruptive,” Stanley said. “I think sometimes as scientists we feel like we should just focus on science, or like we’re immune from these issues as if they’re not a problem in our community. But I’m an African American woman—a group that is underrepresented in science—so racial and social justice is something I think about a lot and that other minority trainees are thinking about. So we sent these newsletters for about a year, starting with images of the Black Lives Matter protests, to spark conversation and force people to think about these issues and share some of the burden.”

Stanley hopes to provide mentorship and foster a similar community within her own lab someday, focusing on research that help improve diagnostics and treatments for bacterial global health threats. TB remains of particular interest: “I like studying TB because it’s such a big problem you can tackle in so many ways, and there aren’t enough hands on deck,” Stanley said. “The TB research community has a family feel; it’s small and supportive.”

She also hopes to remain in the classroom, inspired to teach by her two semesters as a teaching assistant in the undergraduate introduction to global health course taught by Sue Goldie, Roger Irving Lee Professor of Public Health.

“Global health isn’t a traditional subject area that you’re exposed to. So it was really cool exposing them to new concepts and observing their enthusiasm and passion for the subject grow. Teaching them was one of the most rewarding things I did in grad school,” Stanley said.

First up, however, is a postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital, researching a strain of streptococcus pneumoniae—a bacteria that causes pneumonia and results in over 300,000 deaths in children under five globally, and that continues to evade vaccines.

“Obviously there are a lots of steps between what we’re doing in the lab and actually benefiting people,” Stanley said. “So even though science is incremental by nature, I am still excited to study infectious diseases and do my small part towards the ultimate goal: mitigating global health disparities.”

Maya Brownstein

Photo: Kent Dayton