Tawaun Lucas grew up in Compton, East LA, a city with a reputation - whether deserved or not - for producing gangsters, not neuroscientists. It’s a reputation Lucas just ignored.
A high-school athlete who dreamed of playing in the NFL or going to the Olympics, the 22-year-old instead joined this year’s entering class of neuroscience graduate students at Stanford with a new set of aspirations.
Dreams change, Lucas explained me when I interviewed him for a story I wrote about the 135 new bioscience graduate students starting the fall semester at Stanford. As I describe in the story:
Lucas only changed his aspirations from sports to science after being sidelined by injuries his sophomore year at California State University-Northridge, where he was on a scholarship as a track athlete. But starting Stanford’s neurosciences PhD program is a dream come true, he said. "Stanford was always my first choice," he said. "I applied to 12 schools." When he got the acceptance call from Stanford, he said he nearly dropped the phone. "I almost teared up and cried," he said. "It was surreal. I can’t even describe the experience."
Lucas’s mother worked as a bus driver for the Long Beach school district. His dad was a maintenance worker. No one in his family went to college, and he wasn’t a particularly good student in high school, so the path to studying neuroscience at Stanford was an unexpected one. But programs for underrepresented minorities in the sciences helped him along the way, as did his own fascination with human behavior and the study of the brain:
His interest in science didn’t develop until his undergraduate years. He was living at home at the time with his parents, working as a bank teller while attending Cal State Northridge. He began to turn his energies to academics when athletics was no longer an option. "Once I figured out what I wanted to do, I became focused," he said. He chose to study psychology because the environment he grew up in had sparked his curiosity about human behavior. "I grew up in an urban area around some pretty crazy people who made some pretty weird decisions," he said. "I began to wonder why do people, say, raised in Compton or Watts, for example, make different choices than someone raised in, say, Manhattan Beach? Is it socioeconomic? Psychological? Is there a genetic element?
Anthony Ricci, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology and member of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, who played a role in encouraging Lucas to apply to Stanford and is part of an institution-wide effort to encourage diversity in the sciences, emphasized just how important diversity is to future advances in science:
"A person’s background is really important to how they think about a problem," Ricci said. "If everyone were white, middle-class, Harvard-trained, they might think too much alike. Science needs people who think differently."