My Science Story: Amber Moore
Amber R. Moore is a graduate student in the Immunology program at Stanford. She studies how infection during pregnancy can change immune cell behavior in the mom and placenta and how these immune changes can lead to pregnancy complications. Here, Amber shares her story about how she became interested in science and what motivated her to pursue a graduate degree.
I grew up in Southeast San Diego. We lived on food stamps for a couple of years, until my mom found work as an animal care attendant. My mom raised me with a lot of help from my grandpa, aunt, and grandma. Typically, members of my family either joined the military or worked in housekeeping. We were too poor to ever take vacation or travel, so joining the military to travel the world seemed appealing. While my family knew the importance of education, none of them believed they had the smarts to pursue it. Instead, they put their hopes and resources into supporting me. My mom went into debt putting me through private schools, my grandma helped me study and told everyone I was going to become a doctor and my grandpa became a strong father figure in my life. I was determined to travel the world someday and become the first person in my family to attend college. We were all on the same page and, looking back, I was very privileged to grow up in a family that supported my pursuits of higher education.
Amber and her mom at her mom's job as an animal care attendant.
I don’t remember when I first became interested in science, but I do recall taking my first real science class in 7th grade and absolutely loving it. My interest persisted as time went on, but I never considered becoming a scientist. Scientists didn’t live in my neighborhood, and the ones on TV didn’t look anything like me. I did, however, consider becoming a doctor. I think becoming a physician seemed like a possibility for me because I saw Dr. Peter Benton on ER (TV series), and I met a black doctor when I was young. Seeing them helped me subconsciously realize that joining the military wasn’t my only option.
Right before I started high school, my mom began addressing her debt and could no longer pay for my private education. The charter school I attended instead, High Tech High, was transformative. It was there that I met Dr. Jay Vavra, who would become my school advisor, biology teacher, mentor and role model. He recognized my potential and encouraged me to explore the sciences. I participated in my first science fair project and won first place at the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair for my phylogenetic analysis of turtles, and its correlation to their biogeographical distribution. This project stemmed from science class lectures and my desire to apply what I had learned to discover something new about a topic that interested me. Dr. Vavra helped me get my first research experience in the computational neurobiology lab at the Salk Institute. There, I was fortunate to have a highly engaged (and very patient) graduate student who taught me about neuroanatomy, memory and emotion. I learned how to section non-human primate brains using a microtome, stain the sections to make cells visible for counting and use a microscope to count neurons in a region of the brain involved in memory and emotion. Dr. Vavra saw me through other projects and internships during high school and helped me gain the confidence and motivation to move forward and begin thinking about a career in science.
I received an offer and a stellar financial aid package from Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and my top choice. While at Bryn Mawr, I sought internal and external research opportunities. One summer, I worked in a bioengineering lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I did inflammation and chemical immunology research. This summer internship sparked my interest in immunology because I learned about its relation to cancer, arthritis, vaccines and other topics that had long fascinated me. I was pre-med, but being at a liberal arts institution, I found myself taking an introductory course to anthropology. It was in this course that I met Professor Kilbride, who quickly became an invaluable mentor and took a vested interest in me and my future. I was too overwhelmed balancing my coursework and work-study jobs to think about my next step, but Professor Kilbride encouraged me to start considering graduate school. I didn’t even know what graduate school entailed, but I knew that Professor Kilbride was certain I could get my PhD and that mattered a great deal to me. I enrolled at Bryn Mawr thinking I would double major in biology and psychology, but I graduated as a double major in chemistry and anthropology. I am proud of my 19-year-old self for being open-minded and bold enough to change course and choose departments that provided the training and mentorship that prepared me personally and professionally for life after Bryn Mawr.
I worked at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland as a full-time research fellow, learning about the beauty and complexity of the immune system and gaining significant research experience. After two years of working at the National Cancer Institute, I was offered a research specialist position at Kumamoto University School of Medicine. I moved to Japan and did HIV research for two and a half years. I loved having my own research project, but I was starting to develop an interest in research questions that fell outside the scope of the lab. It was frustrating to have the skills and know the techniques necessary to pursue new research questions, but not have the intellectual freedom to do so. I realized that it was time for me to go to graduate school and get my PhD.
My journey hasn’t been easy. I have persisted in a field where the lack of diversity is less than welcoming to those with backgrounds divergent from the status quo. Access to knowledge, resources and mentorship was and continues to be critical for my success. What keeps me inspired now is making those essential elements accessible to others from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds. So while I love doing my research, I also dedicate a significant amount of my time to mentorship, outreach and building skills that will help me inspire and encourage students to embrace science and lift up their communities.
P.S. I didn’t need to join the military to travel after all. Scientific and educational opportunities have taken me to Ghana, Swaziland, Hawai’i, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Japan, Korea and Australia. And I’m not done yet!