Professor Laverne Melon’s Journey from Student to Mentor in STEM

When Professor Laverne Melon first arrived at graduate school to get a PhD, the principal investigator of the lab told Melon that she would have to wait to start her Master’s project. When Melon asked why she wasn’t able to start, her PI told her that there weren’t any male mice left to use as preclinical models.

“We were just sacrificing the females,” Melon said. “Because ‘they’re too hormonal’–that was always the excuse.”

The exchange sparked an interest in women’s health studies for Melon. She recognized the dearth of science focusing on women’s health, a reality made clear to her by a 2014 study she encountered that came to a concerning conclusion: 80% of the models used in research studies where sex was specified were male. Melon has since dedicated her career to studying psychiatric diseases with large gender gaps in diagnosis like depression. Her lab at Wesleyan uses genetics, neurophysiology and mouse models to study postpartum depression and vulnerability to depression following alcohol use in females.

Melon’s path to being a Principal Investigator herself began in her home country of Trinidad, an island in the Caribbean. It was there that she first became fascinated by science when she encountered the subject in school.

“I found out that we didn’t know everything there was to know,” Melon said. “I realized that people were actively finding things out and putting that information in the books we were reading and that seemed really cool. I wanted to be one of those people.”

Melon moved from Trinidad to the United States when she was 9 years old. Her family faced housing insecurity and moved frequently due to their legal status as undocumented immigrants. Despite the hardships she faced, Melon found ways to explore her passion for science. She began volunteering in a Columbia University lab studying cancer genetics while she was a sophomore attending the prestigious Townsend Harris High School. When the time came for Melon to graduate high school, she saw attending college as an opportunity to change her living situation.

“I was still undocumented and I was trying really hard in school knowing that college was a way to get stable housing and food, to change a lot of what my childhood was like,” Melon said.

Melon attended Middlebury College on a Posse scholarship after graduating high school. She worked as a research assistant in a behavioral neuroscience lab and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. Melon considered working in industry after she graduated from Middlebury, but ultimately decided to attend graduate school. She earned an MS in

Behavioral Neuroscience at Binghamton and then moved to Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis to complete her PhD work, earning a degree in Addiction Neuroscience. It was working as a Teaching Assistant while studying for her degree that helped Melon realize she loved teaching.

“I like to mentor early scientists and help them realize their potential,” Melon said. “ It’s cool to see someone kind of grow and become independent.”

For Melon, part of that mentorship involves a dedication to increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM. She emphasized the importance of diversity in STEM and the negative impacts that the absence of it has on the entire field.

“There are deadly consequences for our lack of inclusion in STEM, beyond not making it a welcoming place for everyone,” Melon said. “It slows down progress dramatically and we see that now with instances like the fact that no one thought we’d have to use pulse oximeters on fingers of darker skin tone.”

Melon recalled an interaction she had with a postdoc who’d been assigned as her supervisor while she was volunteering at a Columbia University lab that made her particularly aware of the need for increased inclusion in STEM.

“He said, ‘You’re black and a woman- I can do one, but not both,’” Melon said. “I was 15, so I laughed. Like, is this an adult person saying this to me?”

Supportive lab homes helped Melon deal with the racism and segregation

“I try to do that here at Wesleyan,” Melon said. “I try to make the lab home a place where folks can feel free to be their whole selves and not feel like they have to take off a part of themselves to put a lab coat on.”she experienced throughout school and her career. The encouragement and help she received from her own teachers inspired her to create a supportive and inclusive environment in her own lab.