Floretta Jones
Floretta Jones

UTSA Spotlight: Floretta Jones is one of only 100 African-American women to earn a biology doctorate in the United States

By Kris Rodriguez
Public Affairs Specialist

(June 11, 2008)--Thirty-four-year-old Floretta Jones recently became a member of a select group when she graduated in May. She is the first African-American woman to earn a biology doctorate at UTSA and one of only 100 African-American women across the country to have earned the degree. She credits much of her success to the funding of her doctorate by the MBRS-RISE (Minority Biomedical Research Support - Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) program.

A native of San Antonio, Jones attended Providence High School and was raised by a father who retired from the military and a mother from rural Alabama. When her father died after a debilitating stroke, she knew she wanted to work in a research field that could help others avoid a loss like hers.

Fortunately, Jones' mother was there to witness her daughter's success.

"They would always tell me, we don't care what you do, but get your education so you can take care of yourself," said Jones. "They were very adamant about education; education was very important."

Jones enrolled at UTSA and earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1996, then took a couple of years off before returning to pursue a doctorate in biology.

With a renewed enthusiasm for science and research, she began working in the lab of Brian Derrick, associate professor of biology, whose research focuses on adult neurogenesis, the ability of organisms to produce neurons in the brain throughout adulthood.

"We have renowned investigators at UTSA that have come from larger, more well-known universities, and they're doing a lot of exciting research," said Jones.

Along with stem cell research, the work could help treat people with brain diseases, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and strokes.

Jones' dissertation reported her study of the dentate gyrus of the hippocampal formation, one of only two brain regions that shows neuronal production throughout a lifespan in several species.

"I studied that aspect with regards to enriched environments and long-term potentiation," said Jones. "Long-term potentiation is a cellular mechanism believed to underlie learning."

As one of the top researchers in his laboratory, Derrick admires Jones' determination and self-motivation.

"Floretta was amazingly responsible, accountable, fun to be around and a very calming force," said Derrick. "Her talents aren't simply as a scientist. She can handle people in a professional, respectful and dignified way."

But not only did she work year-round in pursuit of her doctoral degree in biology, Jones also took time out of her summer schedule to assist Edwin Barea-Rodriguez, associate professor and chair of the Department of Biology, with his program to teach high school teachers about the brain.

"For the last four years, Floretta coordinated the visits of more than 100 teachers who wanted to learn more about brain research," said Barea-Rodriguez. "She gave her time to make an impact on thousands of children that were taught by these teachers in the United States and abroad."

Completing her degree was a process that required not only years of dedication but also approximately $150,000. MBRS-RISE funding helps increase the participation of students from minority or underrepresented groups in scientific research and develop the biomedical research capability of faculty, while increasing the number of minorities doing biomedical research.

"The opportunities that MBRS students have to be in a lab and go to large scientific meetings is fantastic," said Jones. "For students to get that exposure is invaluable as they can go on and enroll in those doctoral programs. MBRS provided my tuition, my stipend and made sure I went to at least one meeting a year including the Society of Neuroscience, where more than 30,000 members attend."

Jones eventually would like to start a family, but for now, she happily accepted a Texas Teaching Fellowship that places math and science educators in high-needs schools; she will teach this fall.

And, she has her sights set on becoming a congressional fellow in Washington, D.C., where she can use her education and research background to help the scientific community attain funding to help people suffering from illness and disease.

But, whichever route she chooses, Jones' efforts have made her a trailblazer as UTSA's first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in biology.