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DU Postdoc Cameron Venable Awarded Ford Foundation Fellowship

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Venable will spend the year engaged in research and supporting underrepresented students

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Cam Venable

Cameron Venable’s road to academia began with Bill Nye the Science Guy and “The Magic School Bus,” and it culminated in a PhD in biology from Penn State University. His resume boasts numerous research projects, from studying ground lizards and Red-Footed Boobies in Puerto Rico to investigating climate change’s impacts on red squirrels.

Since 2020, he’s been at the University of Denver, studying crickets and parasitoid flies alongside associate professor Robin Tinghitella.

Now Venable has been awarded the prestigious Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, which goes to only 24 people across the country each year. The winners are chosen with an eye toward increasing faculty diversity across U.S. universities.

But, Venable says, his academic achievements don’t tell the whole story.

“The issue in academia is: We see these finished products of people, and everyone talks about their success,” he says. “I applied for like 16 internships and didn't get a single one. I applied for all kinds of grants and never really got one. This was the first one I really got, and it was kind of cool because it was the first time I actually felt seen or valued.”

Venable found his love for science while attending high school in Maryland. But he left the choice of a university and a major up to a lucky coin flip. That landed him at Pennsylvania’s Lebanon Valley College studying biology. He was the first in his family to attend college and faced many barriers.

“My first test in freshman year of college, I just completely bombed,” he recalls. “I didn't have any idea how to study or anything like that, and I was panicking. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I'm so dumb.’”

After finding a mentor who gave him his first field research opportunity, Venable found his groove. But when graduation day arrived, he still found himself questioning his place in academia. His financial situation made unpaid internships unsustainable, and even as others celebrated their new jobs, he struggled to find his next step.

He did find it, of course. Venable spent that summer researching in Puerto Rico and decided to pursue his PhD at Penn State University. (Venable grew up admiring a Penn State pillow that his grandfather gave him, and attending fulfilled a lifelong dream).

But again, he struggled with difficult advisors and feelings of loneliness and inadequacy —issues that would crop up time and again through his journey to graduation and his first postdoctoral position at the University of Michigan.

“I thought, ‘I might as well just pack it up. I've never gotten any grants. People didn't want to talk to me and put me on websites, because I'm just a Black guy,’” he says. “It just felt like I was starting to accept that I'd been fighting against it so much, but maybe it just wasn't cut out for me.”

Just as he was considering leaving academia for good, he found a position with Tinghitella’s lab, packed up his belongings and moved to Denver. Through the Ford Foundation Fellowship, he’ll remain at DU’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at least through September 2022.

He says his research has always been guided by big questions. Most recently, he’s asking how prey evolution may affect predators. The Tinghitella lab has been working with crickets that have evolved away from the typical chirp to a purr, rattle or even silence. In doing so, the crickets can more successfully evade one of their most dangerous predators, the parasitoid fly, which has historically located its prey by following their chirps. Venable wants to know if and how these flies might be evolving alongside the crickets, adapting to hear the crickets’ new varieties of calls.  

“Can they adapt to this other sound? Because if not, the flies can't find the crickets, which means that should wipe them out,” Venable says. “I'm kind of looking at how the predator, or parasitoid fly, is, one, changing its behavior, and two, can different populations of them learn to find crickets faster?”

In addition to studying crickets through lab work on campus and field work in Hawaii, Venable is committed to making DU a more welcoming, transparent and inclusive place for students. He mentors through DU’s Equity in STEM program and is part of the Black Male in STEM Initiative, which aims to expose young Black men to STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I look at science as my platform to do what I truly want, which is make the world a tiny bit better if I can,” he says. “It’s really just connecting with people, teaching and letting people know that, yeah, you don't come from much, you're from an underprivileged background, but dude, you can do this too if you want. Don't let anybody stop you — but I'm not saying it's going to be easy.”

Even as he contributes scientific prowess and guidance to DU students, Venable’s role as a postdoc is often behind the scenes. Yet, Tinghitella says, his work in the lab offers a unique perspective, and his focus on inclusion is an invaluable addition to the University.

“As a graduate student and postdoc, he has showed his commitment to engaging with communities that are underrepresented in the sciences,” Tinghitella says. “And I think the Ford Fellowship committee recognized that Cam will spend his career working to further diversify his chosen field, moving things in the right direction,” she says. “We’re so fortunate that DU students and community members will be the recipients of those efforts over the next year.