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Namandje Bumpus on Chemistry, Sports and Community Service


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Namandje Bumpus on Chemistry, Sports and Community Service

By Catherine Kolf

Namandje Bumpus on Chemistry, Sports and Community Service

Namandje Bumpus is an associate professor of medicine and of pharmacology and molecular sciences. Her lab studies how the body breaks down medications into metabolites and what effects the metabolites have. 

How did you become interested in science?

BUMPUS: I always liked figuring out how things work. My parents gave me a chemistry set when I was about 7 years old, and I really liked it. A few years later, when I was still in elementary school, I wrote a letter to the American Chemical Society, asking them what careers were available for chemists. To my delight, they sent me back a whole packet of information about all sorts of interesting jobs. I was sold.

I chose to be a biology major at Occidental College in Los Angeles and started doing some plant research. I loved the research part but wanted to apply my interests to something related to human health. That's why I sought out a summer undergraduate research fellowship in pharmacology at the University of Michigan; I've been doing pharmacology ever since.

What type of questions do you study?

BUMPUS: My lab studies drug metabolism. When you take a drug, it is changed by your body—especially by your liver—into molecules that can more easily be removed from your body, and these molecules often have effects of their own. These metabolites, as they're called, are sometimes even more beneficial than the original drug, but sometimes they also cause harmful side effects, like nausea to the point that the patient can't eat. We want to understand how the metabolites are formed and what their effects are so that we can try to maximize their benefits and minimize their harm. We are particularly focused on doing this for a few HIV drugs.

What do you like to do outside of the lab?

BUMPUS: My dad was a professional boxer, so I grew up playing sports: boxing in my dad’s gym, playing basketball and running track. I won my first national medal in track and field at the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics in Knoxville, Tennessee, when I was 11 years old, and more followed. My senior year of high school, I helped my basketball team win the Massachusetts Boys & Girls Club’s state championship as our top scorer. I still like to run and play basketball. I have run the Detroit Marathon and a few half marathons so far, and I still play two basketball games a week with a league in Washington, D.C.

I'm also a third-generation community activist and feel most fulfilled when I am doing grassroots work shoulder-to-shoulder with my neighbors. I live in Washington, D.C., and many in my local community face food insecurity every day. One thing I do to help is volunteering at Food & Friends, where I help to prepare meals for people living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other life-challenging illnesses. It is very rewarding, particularly since HIV drugs are a big focus in my lab. I like being able to contribute at the grassroots level in addition to my efforts as a scientist.

I am most passionate about the group that a few friends and I set up to organize transportation to farmers markets for people living in food deserts. Working cooperatively within a community on a cause that is bigger than any of us as individuals gives me purpose and keeps me motivated, energized and always moving forward. I can then apply that sentiment to my science and pass it along to the students in my lab.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

BUMPUS: Find challenging course work wherever you can and take it. Get involved in research as soon as you can so you can figure out if you like it. And try to diversify your research experiences. As a high school or undergraduate student, staying in the same lab for several years might give you confidence, but it won't stretch your skill set or challenge your mind in the way that a new lab experience might.

And don't be daunted by your own or others' perceptions of what a scientist looks like or what his or her background should be. Just go after it, if it's what you want to do.