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Dr. Mack E. Crayton III: A Profile

Dr. Mack Crayton III is a Professor in Molecular Biology at Xavier University of Louisiana where he teaches Genetics, Molecular Genetics and General Biology to undergraduate students. He holds 4 degrees; a B.S. degree of biology from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, a M.S. degree of biology from Tennessee State University, Nashville, a M.S. degree of genetics from University of Connecticut, Storrs, and a Ph.D. degree of genetics from University of Connecticut, Storrs.

You currently teach and live in Louisiana, correct? Correct. Has Louisiana always been your home? No, I lived in Nashville TN while a Master’s Degree student at Tennessee State Univ.; I lived in Storrs CT while a PhD degree student; and I lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina while working as a Post-Doctoral Research Scientist.

Where did you grow up? I was born and grew up on Shreveport, LA. What was the neighborhood like? Shreveport is the third largest city in the state of LA. I grew up in an urban setting, in the Allendale neighborhood of Shreveport. Allendale is characterized as a low income and high crime neighborhood i.e. ‘the hood’.

What was your family like? My parents where High School graduates and working-class people. They were homeowners and our home was located in the ‘better’ section of Allendale. My parents were married for thirty-seven years before my father’s death in 1995 from a massive heart attack.

Do you have siblings? I am the youngest of seven children, five boys and two girls.

Do you come from an educated family? No. On my Mother’s side of the family, her children are the first in her family to attend college and to earn college degrees. For my Father’s family, my grandfather, Mack Crayton Sr., was the son of an emancipated slave and became a sharecropper. He had little to no formal education. Mack Sr. had nine children, five of whom earned college degrees and three of the five college graduates earned Master’s degrees. Mack Jr., my uncle, earned a Doctorate in Divinity degree. Of my siblings, six of the seven children attended college; three of the seven earned college degrees (both my sisters and myself). I am the only one of my siblings who earned a Master’s and Doctorate degrees. Of my fifteen nieces and nephews, eleven have earned college degrees and a few are currently pursuing Graduate degrees.

What motivated you to attend college? My parents made attending college a requirement for all of their children. Additionally, my first job as a grill cook at McDonald’s showed me that I desired a career rather than a job.

Why 4 degrees? Why not stop at 1? It was not intentional – laughing! – As I moved through my career and my career goals became better defined, I continued my education in order to meet my career goals.

Why did you pursue the study of biology and genetics? I have been intrigued with science since I was a child. As a kid, I spent hours playing in the backyard with insects and dissecting flowers. Fittingly, I grew up to become a Drosophila (fruit fly) Geneticist. My interest in Genetics stemmed from the observed differences in skin color among my siblings. I wanted to know why some of us had lighter skin and others had darker skin but we had the same parents.

Was it something that you always knew you wanted to pursue? No. It wasn’t until I entered the HBCU, Tennessee State University, that learned that African-American Scientists existed. By that time I was in my early twenties; my world expanded and my life changed.

What are you currently working on/researching? Currently I have only one research student and I do research at a very modest level. I’m still interested in understanding the mechanism for turning genes on or off (i.e. gene expression). Also, I am interested in the evolution of genes in accordance with the evolution of species.

Why did you choose to teach at an undergraduate university? I feel that my purpose in life is to help educate others, African-Americans in particular. I feel it’s my primary contribution to society.

Xavier University of Louisiana is a HBCU, (Historically Black College and/or University), so the majority of the student population is black, (a whopping 76.3%). Did you intentionally choose to teach at a HBCU? If yes, why? Yes, I decided to forgo potential career opportunities at Ivy League and Major Research Universities in order to teach at an HBCU. Again, I believe my purpose in live is to help other African-Americans earn a college degree. My purpose in life is based upon W.E.B DuBois theory of the Talented Tenth, where each educated African-American should be obligated to help at least ten other African Americans earn a college degree. Dubois is one of my heroes, along with Dr. M.L. King and Dr. Ernest E. Just (the first noted African American Molecular Biologist). I chose Xavier University of Louisiana specifically because Xavier is both an HBCU and Christian (Catholic) University. I am able to express my Christian belief while training future African American scientists.

Do you feel that black students are well represented in the STEM majors? No, Black Americans are still a minority in STEM careers.

What has been your experience in your own classroom? My classroom experience is quite different from my experiences as a STEM student because I teach at an HBCU. At Xavier, the Biology/Pre-Med department is the largest academic department at the University – there are approx. 500 Biology Majors. Additionally, Xavier’s Pharmacy School is one of two in the State of Louisiana. Pharmacy majors have a minor in Biology, so I teach these students as well. In a lecture class, typically 75-80% of the students are Black/African-American.

According to a study done by the National Science Foundation, (NSF), in 2010 black men only account for 3% of the scientific workforce. Do you feel that this is an accurate representation? I would agree with this statistic. Currently, on most American college campuses, female students out number male students three to one. When applying this statistic to a science classroom at Xavier (HBCU), male students typically comprise approximately 10% of the class enrollment in a typical lecture class. At Xavier, this 10% male enrollment is fairly equally divided among the following ethnicities: Black/African American, Asian, and Arab/Middle Eastern.

What have you experienced as the racial minority in the scientific community? Overall my experience has been good. I can recall only one incident that I felt was racially biased. While I was a graduate student I attended a Genetics conference that was held at a hotel. As typical of conferences held at a hotel, there is coffee/refreshments available to conference registrants between sessions. At this hotel, the coffee/refreshments were being monitored by hotel staff rather than conference officials. During the break, my fellow graduate students (who were White and Asian) and I, along with other registrants were helping ourselves to coffee and refreshments, when a hotel worker made her way through the crowd and confronted me by saying “Excuse me Sir, these refreshments are for the Scientists.” Showing her my registration badge, I replied “I am a Scientist.” That was the only incident I’ve had, and fortunately is was not from anyone within the scientific community itself. In Science, I do not feel that I have been discriminated against based upon my ethnicity/race. One great thing about STEM disciplines is that they are quantitative, so your work speaks for itself. Also, STEM disciplines tend to operate in the culture of “what you know matters more than who you are.”

Do you feel that there is a psychological cost to working in a predominantly white environment? My experience working in a predominantly White environment was the impetus for my own personal growth. Initially being in an all White environment for the entire workday felt isolating. Often the only Black people I would encounter during my day were the janitorial staff and grounds keepers. Because of my own humble beginnings and some self-imposed obligation to ‘stay real’, I would always try to befriend the janitorial staff. I guess I did’t want them to think I was an “Oreo” – Black guy on the outside but a White guy on the inside. Often these attempts to befriend other Black people at work were unsuccessful because my education level/job title as a Research Scientist often became a barrier for their acceptance of me. For a while I didn’t know where I belonged. As I continued in Science, I learned that my personal/professional interests and goals often aligned more closely with people who didn’t look like me. As a result I grew to truly open myself to accepting people for the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. Ironically, it took working/living in a predominantly White environment for me, a Black-American, to truly embrace the teachings of one of Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Today I have a diverse set of friends, as well as friends who are Black Scientists.

Have you learned anything from your research in genetics about the differences of “races”? Are there any true differences besides the differences in skin pigmentation? The physical differences that we observe among the various ethnic groups are due to evolutionary adaptations to the geographical environments in which our ancestors lived. Today, a sub-discipline of Genetics call Comparative Genomics and a new budding field of study called ‘Personalized Medicine’ continue to reveal subtle difference in our genetic make-up (our DNA). These differences are referred to as alleles (varying forms of a single gene), and a particular allele may be found with greater frequency within one ethnic group as compared to another. Why? Generations of selective-matings. People tend to have children with people within their ethnic/racial group, therefore specific alleles become prevalent among members of that ethnic group. In accordance, we have found different efficacies in drug therapies among Blacks, Whites, Asians, and Hispanics for several health related illness based upon allelic differences. As a result, Minority Scientist, such as those at Xavier and at many other HBCUs focus on Health Disparities, health related issues (diseases) that a more prevalent and deadly in ethnic Minorities than they are in Whites. Among these health issues are cardiovascular disease, Cancers, Diabetes, Hypertension, HIV infection, and Infant Mortality.

What advice would you give to young black students pursuing higher education? Find your passion(s) and follow it/them. Trust in a being higher than yourself to guide you toward your passions and destiny in life. Do not allow gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or other social norms to dictate your path in life. Also, be aware that you can have more than one passion and that your passion will change as you grow as a person. Remain open to change and do your best to enjoy this journey, that we call life.

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