THE SOVEREIGNTY OF SCIENCE
Do the terms pathology, immunotherapy, molecular interactions and cardiomyopathy mean anything significant to you? Could you define these terms if your life depended on it, or would any request to do so be met with a Kanye shrug followed by a “How, Sway?”
If your answer is “no”, then don’t worry, you’re in good company, because we didn’t know what any of them meant either. But we’ve got someone who does.
If you’ve been following us since our January launch, you know that our Black, Gay, and Gifted features have included a steady mix of authors, musicians, professors and content creators from around the world. Our goal is as it has always been, to showcase the talent and ability same gender loving men of color. This month’s feature is no different as we are excited to introduce you to the Free State born and bred, Avery D.Posey, Jr., Ph. D.
Avery is an instructor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, a member of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapies, and because he wasn’t busy enough, he serves as the Director of the Posey Laboratory. The Posey Laboratory is housed within the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and is focused on the development of novel cancer therapies for humans and dogs that genetically alter cancer patients’ own T cells to improve the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.
A lot of times when we look at the success and achievements of a particular person we give little or no thought to the journey that leads them to their current station. We tend to view them as a finished product when in truth their lives have been carefully assembled- much like a piece of furniture from IKEA. Posey is no different.
Prior to becoming the first African American male to receive a Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of Chicago, ahead of him studying dysfunctional cellular processes and molecular interactions underlying the development of muscular dystrophy and cardiomyopathy (*whew). Posey was a kid who literally grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was known locally as ‘the projects’”, Avery states in his recollection of his all-too-humble Indian Head, Maryland beginnings. “It was originally built as a housing community for low-income black residents of the town on one side of the railroad tracks.”
You don’t get to be where Dr. Posey is without reading a book or two, and as he recalls the influence his paternal grandparents had on him. Posey’s paternal grandfather was a high school teacher who taught drivers ed and in the field of physical sciences while his paternal grandmother taught in early and elementary education. Avery’s grandmother, who served as his after school caretaker is described as being an active participant in his education.
“She volunteered in my head start and kindergarten classes and made sure I was always reading.”
Outside of this, Avery recounts memories of the evenings his grandmother spent assembling take home bags of books and logic games for the kids in his elementary school. “She’s an amazing woman”.
Throughout his time at Henry E. Lackey high school, Posey was far more active than the average student. “I participated in as many after-school clubs and organizations as I could”. His participating in these activities not only helped to broaden his educational experiences but afforded him the opportunity to spend a lot of time outside of the classroom on field trips as well.
While he was already ahead of the game, Posey’s activities in high school included tennis, track, and field, serving as an Executive Member of the Maryland Association of Student Councils, the National Association of Student Councils and as a student board member of the Charles County Board of Education.
Who else is feeling a little unaccomplished right now?
Do you remember what you were doing in 2001? Were you at your local movie theatre watching the then newly released Training Day or were you somewhere trying to figure out how to navigate Windows XP? Were you bopping to the latest Destiny’s Child groove or trying to figure out just what key Alicia was trying to sing in? Think about that for a moment if you must, but know that while many of us were spending our high school years doing high school stuff, the future Dr. Posey was out in these streets hitting milestones.
Posey’s senior year tenure as a voting member of the Charles County Board of Education was as historical as it was significant as he was the first African American male student to serve in the role from his county. Not to be outdone by history, the significance of Avery’s role is found in it providing him the opportunity to, for the first time in his life, interact with other SGL men of color.
“This was the first time in my life that I can remember where I interacted with a group of black gay men of my age that I aligned with, that I felt held similar goals for the future.”
Avery, along with Christopher Lloyd and Domonic Rollins were also members of the Maryland Association of Student Councils. They, along with another SGL colleague Bernard Holloway who was a member of the MASC executive board but not a student member, forged a bond.
“If you’re not black and gay, you may not exactly understand what it feels like to never really feel like you’re fitting in with any particular group, but this was the first time I can say I felt a glimpse of what it’s like to belong.”
Posey spent his undergrad at the University of Maryland- Baltimore County (UMBC) where he had two majors and earned a Bachelors of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a Bachelors of Science in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, because why not?
The next leg of Dr. Posey’s educational journey lead him to the University of Chicago where he was accepted into the institution's Ph. D program for genetics. It was there where he trained under Dr. Elizabeth McNally, an expert geneticist and one of the smartest people Avery knows. He credits Dr. McNally for teaching him how to effectively develop and execute scientific ideas.
“I was the first black male in this program and I was one of four black students that joined any of the biological sciences Ph.D. programs at the University of Chicago in 2011.”
Dr. Posey is currently working to develop new tools and strategies to improve the efficacy of T cell therapies for adults and children with solid tumors that cause more than 90% of cancer deaths.
“We also are working to develop T cell therapies for dogs because we
love dogs and [because] dogs develop the same type of cancers that humans do. We think that we can make T cell therapies for patient dogs and learn a lot about how they work, and maybe even reasons why some don’t work, so that eventually we get better at treating humans – and then better at treating dogs.”
The most recent breakthrough Avery’s experienced through his work has been learning how to broaden T cell therapies beyond cancer. This development may be extremely interesting for individuals living with HIV as, according to Dr. Posey, “ Others are working on using these types of therapies to improve HIV treatments and to treat autoimmune diseases.
Broadening T cell therapies beyond the scope of cancer may also benefit patients with heart disease, which is the leading cause of death of Americans. “My laboratory has developed technology that I believe may lower a person’s risk of a stroke or a heart attack. It’s incredible to see your ideas actually pan out, granted this is a laboratory so it pans out in cells in a dish or in a mouse model – not humans (yet!).”
It would be unwise to assume that Avery hasn’t known struggle. Outside of literally growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, Posey has had to overcome some very personal challenges.
“I’ve had hardships. One of the worst experiences of my life happened in Chicago while I was in graduate school.” Avery says as he recounts his experiences as a first time home buyer during his time in Chicago
“When I was 21, I bought a house. I saw it as an opportunity to gain some capital while I was committed to the 6-year graduate degree program and hopefully make a small profit when it was time to graduate...that failed.”
Three years into living in his home it was burglarized.
“Someone broke into the house while I was at school and broke the hot water heater, which flooded the basement. I assumed it was an attempt to steal it and sell for scrap metal, something that I saw was common on the Southside of Chicago.”
However, Avery didn’t see the break-in as the misfortune, because two weeks after he replaced the water heater it was stolen again. What’s worse is that the thieves, whom Avery assumed were responsible for the first break-in, took everything from food, clothes, and electronics.
“I moved the next day into graduate student housing and tried my best to pay for the new housing and the mortgage for as long as I could, but it wasn’t good enough. I eventually handed the deed back to the bank and cut my losses.” When it was all said and done, Posey has a collection of eight police reports. Circling back to the question Posey states that, “The answer is [that] I just wait until the end of the struggle. There’s a light at the end; there’s always a light at the end.”
Despite the fact that his first attempt at home ownership didn’t quite go as planned, Posey learned a lesson that is as simple as it is short. ”Life isn’t fair. But that’s ok; life doesn't have to be fair for it to be worth it... I am looking forward to my second attempt at homeownership next year after I’ve landed that prized tenure-track assistant professor position, wherever that may be.”
Posey is currently on the third and final year of his position at UPenn. His next goal is to attain a tenure-track assistant professor position at an institution that will allow him the sovereignty to continue the work he’s doing. He’s exploring his options.
As a scientist, Avery enjoys looking at data that’s present and data that is not. When it comes to the impact that his SGL identity has had on the relationships he’s established with friends, family and colleagues, he says, “Outside of the random, off-putting comments from a colleague or family member here or there, I haven’t experienced discomfort.”
“I’ve always had the goal of not being defined by any singular aspect of my identity, whether if that’s my cultural heritage, my SGL identity, or my profession, and so I hope people see me as the complexity that I am and that we all are.” Posey, who describes himself as dedicated, defines success as being able to see his trainee's experiments work and watching them demonstrate their newly acquired skills.
“I run a laboratory with other developing scientists and I spend my day encouraging and shaping their ideas, helping them plan the most efficient and effective experiments to answer their questions and also writing to funding agencies so that we can have the resources to continue developing these therapies.
Outside of his ventures throughout academia, Posey is just a regular guy who’s turned off by regular things such as the ongoing Beyonce v. Janet argument because to him the winner is clearly Beyonce. However, Avery’s mindset has changed when it comes to being involved in these kinds of debates because “I know that hours of energy spent discussing things that will never change your life or anyone else’s is a waste. We have so much good energy within us and we don’t have an infinite amount of time. That energy and time are better spent trying to make someone’s life better, solving big problems, and changing the world.”
The goal of Black, Gay & Gifted is as it has always been, to introduce our Beauxs to members of the SGL community who would otherwise operate in obscurity. Dr. Posey not only meets the criteria but exceeds is as he’s not only a classically trained in molecular and developmental geneticist but he’s an expert in the development and pre-clinical characterization of chimeric antigen receptors and other engineered T cell strategies for cancer immunotherapy.
While this alone is enough to make anyone memorable, Dr. Posey’s opinion of what makes him memorable is his role in creating a welcoming space for women, and SGL men of color in the STEM fields. “I’d hope my laboratory isn’t the first place that these trainees have the feeling of fitting in, but I want it to be on the list of those places.”
Dr. Posey’s participation with organizations such as OUT4STEM has introduced him to local Philadelphia LGBTQ youth, many of whom are black or Hispanic, who have demonstrated a passion for learning more about science and the opportunities that pursuing their interests can expose them to.
“I make my laboratory open to anyone that wants to shadow, wants to learn more or even wants to become engaged. Two OUT4STEM participants spent time shadowing in my laboratory and one came back to work in the laboratory for two years. She recently left us to attend a post-baccalaureate program at Yale.” Posey continues by saying that “I want to be memorable by not being the last- I want many more to follow and to write their own stories.”
Dr. Posey has come a long way from his humble upbringings and from the looks of things it doesn’t appear as if he has any plans on stopping. With an estimated 21 published works, 7 seminars and speaking engagements that have taken him from Boston to Vejle, Denmark and a work ethic that has resulted in a multitude of honors and awards, the biomedical researcher and doctor of Philosophy is proof-positive that success is more of a journey than it is a destination.
For more information on Avery D. Posey, Jr., Ph.D. visit theposeylab.com. There you’ll be able to find out more about what his lab is doing as well as some of the papers they've published.