Collage of student biology research
Finding Her Path
Trinity senior finds research success, community, and a voice for good
Monday, February 27, 2023

When Taylor Black ’23 saw the word “congratulations” pop up in a phone notification on her buzzing home screen, she couldn’t believe it.

The message was an award for her poster presentation this spring at the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in Austin, Texas. A presentation stemming from her years of research on lizard teeth in biology professor Michele Johnson’s lab, this award was an honor won against the likes of Ivy League postdocs.

Not bad for a sociology major who’s minoring in biology—let alone someone who self-admittedly never thought she’d be working with animals from this part of the food chain.

“I’m not a big bug or lizard person, but here I am at Trinity, studying the relation of tooth sizes, shapes, and numbers between different species of lizards,” says Black, who entered the poster presentation contest at the Austin conference almost on a whim. “This conference was during my senior year, so I thought, ‘Why not present my poster? Let’s just do it,’ and honestly, I was more nervous about explaining my research to others at the conference more than anything. But when I looked closer at my phone a few weeks later, it said I had won the poster presentation in my division, ‘Vertebrate Morphology.’”

Black and biology professor Michele Johnson celebrate during a successful presentation at the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in Austin, Texas.

That’s been life at Trinity for Black: one series of unexpected turns after another. 

Recruited as a volleyball player, Black thrived on Trinity’s team under the leadership of coach Julie Jenkins before she decided to focus on her academic studies after one season and sadly had to stop playing. 

Entering school determined to be a doctor and pursue pre-med in order to help people stay healthy, Black soon realized that path wasn’t for her. Instead, she gravitated towards sociology with ambitions of one day starting her own public health nonprofit, keeping her dream of helping people alive in a different way.

As she juggles working in two research labs (one for professor Amy Stone, Ph.D., in sociology and one for Johnson, Ph.D., in biology), Black never anticipated her voice to be heard at a national scale—now she’s never been more confident that her voice is worthy of recognition.

Throughout her undergraduate journey, Black says she’s navigated the unexpected twists in her path through relying on what students like her can expect from Trinity: supportive mentorship from faculty, immersion in a diverse set of communities and affinity groups on campus, and a strong set of extracurricular opportunities to get involved in supporting her fellow classmates, too.

Black (center) thrived playing volleyball during her first year at Trinity but left the team to focus on academics.

Black says she came to Trinity initially because of two of these communities: volleyball and a network of her fellow Black and minority students on campus.

“Playing volleyball my first year, making the final four, that was a great experience. That was something I'd worked towards pretty much since middle school,” Black says. “When I decided to not play volleyball anymore, that really was hard for me because volleyball … that was my community.”

So, Black says she drew strength by leaning into Trinty’s community of Black students—a network she had learned about even before starting classes as a first-year. “During my recruitment, Trinity had run an initiative called the Tiger Pride Program, which essentially brought admitted Black students on campus, let us stay together, and get used to campus together,” she says. “Through that experience, being able to hear other Black students’ experiences, and also being able to see other people who look like me, that had solidified the thought for me that Trinity is a great place to be in terms of having that community built ahead of time.”

Black (third from left) drew strength from her involvement with groups like Trinity's Black Student Union.

And after arriving on campus, Black says she’s immersed herself in groups such as Trinity’s Black Student Union, where she’s now the president. 

“As a Black woman, my most precious community has to be the Black Student Union, because that is where so many Black students congregate, and that is a place where you can actually converse with others who share similar cultural experiences,” she says. “It’s a space I feel that Trinity respects and values on campus.

As Black navigated a challenging set of academic circumstances, she also found herself supported by Trinity’s acclaimed faculty, who prioritize building partnerships with students above all else.

“My success wasn't just with the student population here,” Taylor says. “What also matters is the professors, faculty—everyone who just cares to make sure that you are in the place that you need to be. I've had so many faculty and staff members who really helped me get to where I am. Even the dining and custodial group makes the Trinity community just so special to me.”

Even as Black self-admittedly found herself struggling on Trinity’s rigorous pre-med track, she still impressed Johnson enough to earn a spot in her lizard lab on work ethic alone.

“I had her for integrated biology, and I knew I liked working with her. But even as I was going through all these academic changes—moving away from pre-med to pre-nursing, then to considering a dental career—she found a creative way to include me,” Black says. “Dr. Johnson was like, ‘Well, lizards have teeth! Why don’t you research that?’ And here I am, later getting an award on that very subject.”

And after encountering sociology classes (Trinity’s liberal arts environment is the exact type of place where once-STEM majors like Black can fall in love with the social sciences, and vice versa), Black realized that a driven sociology major with a focus in public health can enact just as much good as a doctor, curing one patient at a time.

“After considering a double major in neuroscience and international studies with a concentration in global health, I took a class specifically with Dr. Stone, on Sociology of Gender, and I realized how much the sociological perspective interested me. I enjoyed the topics, and I decided, ‘Ok, let me see how sociology ends up going.’” Black says. “And as I continued taking classes, I found out a lot more of the health aspects of sociology, which I really liked, especially by taking courses in global health. I feel like it really broadened my horizons to understand everything from a more macro level. I was understanding what puts a [medical] patient in their position, not just what medical state they’re in.”

Black (center) found herself growing more confident working with her lab mates in biology professor Michele Johnson's lab.

Now moving ahead with a sense of direction, a diverse support network, and a strong pair of faculty mentors behind her, Black’s path found a more direct footing.

She has flourished in both Stone and Johnson’s labs, and is still in shock over her recent award:

“I didn’t even realize how big a deal that conference award was until the people notifying me in the email said, ‘Taylor, I hope you realize you were up against masters students and Ph.D. candidates, and you won this as an undergrad with preliminary data,” Black says. “And I went, ‘No freaking way!’ It's crazy to think that lizard teeth, out of all the different things in the world, made people interested in what I had to say. And it honestly meant the whole world that people were interested in what I had to say, especially being a Black woman in a research space that is [usually associated] with white voices.”

Throughout her time at Trinity, Black has also had the chance to lead and help other students along their own paths: 

She is a community manager at residential life and now serves as the president of the Black Student Union. “All these communities of students really make Trinity so special, especially how diverse they can be, you know, in terms of the types of people that you meet, not necessarily just by skin color, religion, race, but the unique individual stories you get to hear along the way,” she says.

Nearing graduation, Black’s now set her sights on a future career in public health:

“I’m going to get my masters in public health for global health epidemiology. But first, I’m taking a gap year after graduating to do some more research within the public health field, to look into all the programs that I want to join and really see my bigger picture, so I have an understanding of what I want  to do in the future,” she says. “I want to really look at what populations are in need, what's happening there, then go out and get my Ph.D. in global health epidemiology. Then I’ll open my own nonprofit, and win the grants I need to be able to help those populations in need.”

For Black, finding this clear path certainly involved a few twists and turns.

But she says that Trinity students following in her footsteps can have the same success—as long as they keep their eyes on what moves them rather than worrying about their direction.

“I would say the biggest thing I’ve learned at Trinity is to not have tunnel vision,” Black says. “You’ve got to trust the path that you're on, even if it doesn't go the way you expected it to. Good things will still come. Whether those good things are people, whether they’re opportunities, or whether it's just chances to learn more about yourself: Don't be afraid to spread your wings a little, because not all paths are the same, and you never know who or what may find you in the beautiful process of it all."

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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