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Agnes Day

Microbiologist Agnes A. Day was born on July 20, 1952 in Plains, Georgia to Annie Lee Laster and David Laster. The youngest of thirteen children, Day was raised by her third-grade teacher, Reverend Mrs. Rose Marie Bryon. Day’s interest in science began when she and her older brother would walk through the woods catching insects and animals. After graduating from Mainland Sr. High School, Day attended Bethune-Cookman College in Florida where she received her B.S. degree in biology. Day then attended Howard University, graduating with her Ph.D. degree in microbiology in 1984.

After obtaining her graduate degree, Day became a research fellow in the Bone Research Branch at the National Institute of Dental Research, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She left in 1988 to join the faculty at Howard University as an assistant professor. Since 1992, Day has served as a tenured associate professor of microbiology in the College of Medicine at Howard University. She also has held the position of chair of the department of microbiology. In addition to instructing students in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and coordinating graduate courses, Day is known for her research on drug-resistant fungi and breast cancer health disparities. She 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. Day is in demand as a science expert, having been interviewed as part of a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) special and TheGrio’s Black History series. In addition, she has served on numerous panels as a scientific expert in microbiology and breast cancer research.

In 1995, Day was awarded the Outstanding Research Award by the Howard University College of Medicine. She has also received the College’s Kaiser-Permanente Outstanding Teaching Award, and has mentored over forty students. Day is a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and sits on its Minorities in Cancer Research and Women in Cancer Research committees. She is also a member of the American Society for Microbiology where she is a member of the Committee on Microbiological Issues which Impact Minorities (CMIIM). Day received the William A. Hinton Award for outstanding research mentoring from this organization in 2011. She also served as a consultant for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Black Churches-Black Colleges program. Day lives in Washington, D.C.

Agnes Day was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on May 4, 2012.

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Bethune-Cookman University

Mainland Sr. High School.

Campbell Middle School

Bonner Elementary School

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God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

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Mycologist Agnes Day (1952 - ) is an expert on drug- resistant fungi and breast cancer health disparities working in Howard University’s College of Medicine.


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Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Agnes Day's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Agnes Day lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Agnes Day describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Agnes Day talks about her family's sharecropping roots in Plains, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Agnes Day describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Agnes Adeline Day explains how her father left the family

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Agnes Day talks about her mother's childhood connection with President Jimmy Carter

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Agnes Day recalls a sharecropping story from her brother

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Agnes Day talks about relocating to Florida as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Agnes Day lists her siblings and describes her earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Agnes Day describes her early childhood memories of her father

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Agnes Day talks about taking after her mother's personality

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Agnes Day describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Agnes Day discusses the use of corporal punishment in her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Agnes Day recalls her most memorable sight as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Agnes Day talks about kindergarten and first grade in Daytona Beach, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Agnes Day talks about the history of and segregation in Daytona Beach, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Agnes Day remembers meeting her third-grade teacher, Rose Marie Bryan

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Agnes Day talks about her love for reading, instilled by her siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Agnes Day talks about being informally adopted by her teacher, Rose Marie Bryan

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Agnes Day talks about Rose Marie Bryan and her foster children

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Agnes Day talks about living with Rosie Marie Bryan

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Agnes Day reflects upon being torn between her mother and Rose Marie Bryan

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Agnes Day talks about the Children's Center and vacation bible school

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Agnes Day talks about her reputation in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Agnes Day describes the feud between the Laster family and the Persell family

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Agnes Day talks about extracurricular activities and social life in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Agnes Day talks about her memories of the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Agnes Day talks about moving from a segregated to an integrated high school

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Agnes Day describes her decision to attend Howard University

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Agnes Day describes her health problems at Howard University

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Agnes Day talks about transferring to Bethune-Cookman University

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Agnes Day talks about meeting her husband

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Agnes Day talks about her graduate program in bacteriology at Howard University

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Agnes Day talks about obtaining her Ph.D. degree in microbiology at Howard University

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Agnes Day discusses the differences between scientists and physicians

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Agnes Day describes her doctoral dissertation

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Agnes Day talks about how she was encouraged to build confidence during graduate school

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Agnes Day describes the findings of her research on Cryptococcus

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Agnes Day talks about future research on Cryptococcus

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Agnes Day describes her experience at the National Institute for Dental Research

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Agnes Day talks about joining the faculty of Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Agnes Day discusses the implications of the excessive use of antibacterial agents

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Agnes Day describes returning to Howard University as a faculty member

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Agnes Day describes her research on breast cancer

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Agnes Day discusses her study of heritable and acquired skin diseases

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Agnes Day talks about the skin disease Xeroderma Pigmentosa

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Agnes Day talks about breast cancer in black women

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Agnes Day discusses environmental and genetic risk factors for skin cancer and protective measures against the disease

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Agnes Day talks about her coverage of the war against microbes on PBS

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Agnes Day talks about microorganisms in the body

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Agnes Day talks about her scientific publications

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Agnes Day talks about her daughter's diagnosis with breast cancer

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Agnes Day reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Agnes Day describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community today

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Agnes Day talks about her family and her brother Larry

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Agnes Day talks about how she would like to be remembered







Agnes Day describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up
Agnes Day describes her experience at the National Institute for Dental Research
All right, so, now, we always ask this question, and what were some of the sights and sounds and smells of growing up?$$Funny you should ask that (laughter). I was just thinking about this the other day, had no idea it was coming. My mother [Annie Lee Harvey] would, 5:00 o'clock every morning, take the broom and just bam on all the doors in the apartment that we lived in, "Rise and shine, make haste while the sun rises". "Get up, get up, get up, clean up this house, go to school", and then 6:00 o'clock, she was on the bus going to her maid's jobs. And in the summertime when school was out, I would actually walk her to the bus stop and just hold onto her dress until she got on the bus. And when the bus took off, I would run alongside and wave to her. And then when the bus was gone, I could still smell the exhaust, and so even now when I've smelled bus exhaust, it triggers that memory of me running beside the bus waving at my mom. So that is definitely a smell that reminds me of childhood. A sound, (chuckle), I haven't heard this in a while, but leather belts smacking against flesh. I was not a bad child. I was an inquisitive child. And that inquisitiveness usually led to, I wonder what would happen if I did this versus that. And my brother, Larry, who when I was born I was told, told the family that this is my sister, and he made himself my personal guard. He and I would always dream up these experiments to do. Or we'd go into the woods and catch snakes, little black snakes or garden snakes or we'd catch grasshoppers and things, and we'd dissect them, for want of a better term, or we would put them on ant hills and let the ants eat the flesh. And then we'd take the skeletons in for show and tell at school. But the sound of just getting spanked for doing something that we should have known was not the thing to do. And back in the day, the neighbors had full permission to spank you. Well, let's call a spade a spade. They could whup us, as we used to say. So one day I remember getting four whippings. And I was inside my house, so thank God the neighbors didn't know about it. But in retrospect, I probably deserved it. But that another story (laughter).$Okay, so you got your PhD, now one of the, I guess, you had, you got a job--I don't know if it was right away, but with the National Institute of Health, right?$$Yes.$$And the National Institute for Dental Research.$$Yes.$$Now, what were you doing there?$$Okay, I worked at the National Institute for Dental Research for two summers prior to my graduation to keep body and soul together and to make enough money so that we can live on the five hundred dollars a month we were getting from our teaching stipends. And my advisor, Dr. Lena Austin, had done a sabbatical at the National Institute for Dental Research. And at the time, she was the only African American professional in the entire building. And that's a whole institute. So once she got in, made a good impression, worked hard, she said, "Well, you know, I have this graduate student. She's looking for a summer job." And the guy said, "Well, you know, if you've trained her, sure." So I worked there for two summers in two different labs. And so when I graduated, I didn't know if I was, indeed, gonna finish up everything in time to graduate in '84 [1984]. So to hedge my bets, I had applied for another summer job out there. And so when I graduated, thank God, I was basically brain dead. I was, I was just wiped out. I needed a break from thinking. Right now, I just want you to give me a protocol and let me go through the motions. I don't want to have to come up with a hypothesis and create a protocol to test it. So I was working with a woman named Marion Young who had just become a staff scientist in the Bone Research branch of the Dental Institute. And so she says, "Okay, so you've worked here before." And she gave me a list of things she wanted me to do and a list of papers she wanted me to get from the library. But she says, "You know my first anniversary is coming up, and my husband is taking me to Rome [Italy] where we spent our honeymoon. So I'll be gone for two weeks." So for the first two weeks of my PhD career, I had nothing to do other than, you know, go to the library and pull these journal articles. But this person turned out, she's like a sister to me now. In fact, I was older than she was when we started out, and I was hired as a microbiologist for the summer. So after a couple of weeks, she gave me a project. She said, you know, "We're trying to isolate the gene for these bone proteins to try to determine if there's a biomarker that we could use to determine if a person is going to develop bone disease like osteoarthritis or osteoporosis. But we have to clone these genes, and we're trying to set up a molecular biology lab. And since you're here, you know, I want you to be a part of it. So I'm gonna give you, you know, this project, and you can work it along with me." So I said, "Sure, great, fine. No problem." So it turns out that at the end, the last, the very, the last two steps that I had to do in this three-month-long project of working on it every day, the last two days, I noticed that people were dropping into the lab off and on all day. I didn't think anything of it. The last day, I'm getting ready to add the final reagent, I look up. There's standing room only in the lab. So I said, "What's going on?" And so everybody's looking, waiting for these little blue dots to show up to indicate that I had been successful in this project. Ten blue dots showed up. Everybody started cheering, and I'm saying, okay, I'm beginning to take this personally 'cause I'm thinking that they're thinking, oh, this little black girl. She can't do nothing. It's not gonna work, you know, because that was my weakness, thinking I'm the only black professional. We have some black janitors, we have two black secretaries, but I'm the only one with a PhD, so the weight of the race is on my shoulders. I gotta do well, so when people started cheering, I said, you know what? Somebody's gonna give me an explanation. So my boss came out, and she said, "Well, you know, Marion, Pam next door grew the osteoblast cells in culture, and Larry isolated the proteins that we're studying and purified them and made antibodies to them. And she said, you're the second person, you're the third person we've given this project to that could not make it work. She said, you made it work. You isolated ten clones of this proteoglycan protein that we want to study as a possible biomarker." And so I said, "So this is a good thing, right?" And she said, (laughter), "Yes, a very good thing, Agnes." So I was supposed to leave at the end of September because it was only supposed to be a summer job. So the boss man, Dr. John Turmine (ph.), always calls me "kid," calls me into his office and he says, "So what are your plans for, you know, when this job ends?" And I said, "Well, you know, I've been brain dead all summer, so I guess I'll start looking for a real job." He said, "What do you wanna do?" And I said, "Well, I don't know. You know, I'm a microbiologist, and here I am working in basically histology anatomy, and biochemistry." He says, "Well, would you consider staying here?" I said, "Of course, if you would consider keeping me," said, "What'll I have to do?" He says, "Well, I have a post-doc" -- not a post-doc -- "I have a staff fellow position open and available. So I'm gonna put you in that slot." I said, "Well, don't you have to do a post-doc first?" He says, "I don't have a post-doc position. I have a staff fellow position. You want it or not, kid?" I said, "Yeah, okay (laughter)." And he says, "Don't say you slept all summer because you didn't. You got this project to work." And so based on that, we cloned about seven or eight different proteins that we thought were only associated with bone. It turns out most of them are all over the body, but they have different functions, depending on where they're found. So that was my start to being, to doing molecular biology. It had nothing and everything to do with microbiology because you could not have molecular biology without having microbiology. Most of the enzymes that are used to cut DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] and past it onto somebody else's DNA, all of those enzymes are derived from bacteria and viruses. So that's the undergird, and so I was definitely a positive addition to the lab because I was able to give the theory behind what was going on in that little, tiny test tube as well as making experiments work. So, I felt really great, and I was able to get a couple more of my fellow melon and blessed colleagues on out there in summer positions, some kids that I had mentored when I was a graduate student. And I got them summer jobs out there. So it was, it was generations basically, starting with my advisor, Dr. Austin.$$Okay.