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Black History Month: Scientific pioneer strengthens Horton’s resolve

Graphic that reads
Paulina Horton (Graphic by UTHealth Houston)

Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of February, UTHealth Houston will highlight stories of students who share the vision and reflect on the people who influenced who they are today.

From the time Paulina Horton was a child, her parents encouraged her to pursue her scientific interests. Then, during her undergraduate years at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she discovered the history of one pioneering Black scientist who would show her how far she could really go.

Ernest Everett Just was a professor and head of physiology at Howard University College of Medicine for more than three decades in the field of developmental and cell biology in the early 20th century. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1916 with a PhD in zoology and physiology.

“His perseverance, dedication, and genuine passion for science has inspired generations of Black scientists, including myself,” said Horton, who earned her Bachelor of Science in biology from Howard University, a historically Black university.

Currently, Horton is a sixth-year PhD student in the Immunology Program and graduate research assistant at MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Houston Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

She credits Just’s ambitions with helping her embark on her own path of scientific discovery despite obstacles she would face.

“As I’ve gone on to progress in my career, I have faced opposition from people telling me not to ‘dream too big,’ or people calling my abilities into question,” Horton said. “His story reminds me to persevere in my dreams no matter what opposition I face and to never let anyone else’s limitations influence my own ambitions.”

Born in 1883, Just was confronted with many hardships and barriers when he undertook his scientific studies during the period of reconstruction following the end of the Civil War.

“Just started his career during a time where there were very few opportunities for Black Americans to pursue their ambitions due to the racist sentiments that permeated our country,” Horton said. “However, instead of crumbling under these circumstances he continued to fight for his place in academia and became one of only a handful of Black people to hold a PhD.”

Just’s recognition as a trailblazing scientist was cemented when the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, awarded Just the first-ever NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1915. The award honors a man or woman of African descent and American citizenship who made the most significant achievement in a variety of fields. With a few exceptions, the award has been given every year since 1915.

Later recipients of the award are W.E.B. Du Bois in 1920 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957.

It was at Howard University, in the Ernest Just Building, where she spent hours studying and took her first immunology class.

“If not for that class, and my training at Howard, I probably wouldn’t be pursuing my doctorate today,” she said.

When Horton isn’t working on her research, the history buff is learning about ancient civilizations and their cultural interactions, or spending time with friends trying new foods.

The Las Vegas native hopes to have a career in health science consulting or sales and marketing for a biotechnology company once she completes her studies at UTHealth Houston.

However, Horton will always acknowledge who first encouraged her scientific dreams: her parents.

“Paula and James Horton always fostered my curiosity and gave me so many opportunities to pursue my interests,” she said. “Whether that be buying me Gray’s Anatomy books or taking me to the library to research things for fun. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without the sacrifices and support they’ve given me.”

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