TheGrio’s 100: Dr. Agnes A. Day, leading microbiologist

TheGrio's 100 - She uses her profound knowledge of science and microbiology to explain mankind's existence in terms understood by many...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Agnes A. Day discusses toxins in biological warfare agents, decodes the qualities of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and cites the advantages of probiotics in yogurt with ease.

At the same time, she uses her profound knowledge of science and microbiology to explain mankind’s existence in terms understood by many.

“The bacteria, especially the resistant ones, are the recapitulation of Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest,” Day said, while serving on a panel of scientific experts four years ago at The University of Southern California. “If you have the capacity to be resistant, you are going to be the population to survive while all the sensitive ones die off.”

It is perhaps Day’s innate understanding of her own words that aided her own survival while living in a housing project in Daytona, Fla., where she was the youngest of 13 children. Today she thrives at Howard University, where she is a tenured associate professor and interim chairman of The Department of Microbiology at the College of Medicine.

In a PBS interview a few years ago, Day said that her third-grade teacher, Rev. Rosemarie Bryant, recognized a special “something” in her, and invited the inquisitive youngster to live with her. Day’s mother approved, and under Bryant’s guidance, the young Day was provided “opportunities that I wouldn’t normally have growing up in the projects of Daytona.”

In the same interview, Day recalls an older brother often leading her on exploring adventures in the woods where they would catch insects and animals. They’d later go to the library to learn more about their finds.

Those early experiences were all that Day needed to find her path.

She went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in biology from Bethune-Cookman College in 1974, and earned a master’s and Ph.D. in Microbiology from Howard in 1984.
Day then served as a staff fellow in the Bone Research Branch, National Institute of Dental Research, National Institutes of Health from 1984 to 1988, after which she returned to Howard University as a research assistant professor, according to Howard’s Web site. She has secured more than $2.5 million in grant funding, and her research interests are mechanisms of drug resistance in fungi, the development of animal models of breast cancer, and molecular characterization of the aggressive phenotype of breast cancer in African-American Women.

She encourages the public to stay informed about new developments in science and medicine and to ask questions.

“Know what is going on, and how it’s going to impact you,” she advised in the PBS interview. “Most of the taxpayers’ money is what’s supporting a lot of the research that’s being done here in the United States and abroad. And so you have an investment in the scientific discoveries. So you should really know how they’re going to benefit you or hurt you.”

Day also serves as a scientific reviewer for research grants submitted to the National Institutes of Health, The National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense Cancer Research Initiatives. She was awarded the Outstanding Research Award by the Howard University College of Medicine for her continued research excellence, and was presented with the Kaiser-Permanente Outstanding Teaching Award by the Howard University College of Medicine.

She is a member of several professional organizations, including the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for Cancer Research, where she is a member of the Minorities in Cancer Research and Women in Cancer Research Committees.

Click here to check out the other Grio 100 history-makers in science.