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Brent Allman receives the Kharen Fulton Award

Brent Allman, a fourth-year student in the Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution doctoral program, has been named the Laney Graduate School’s 2019-20 Kharen Fulton Diversity Awardee. Established to honor a longtime Laney Graduate School employee who championed the recruitment and success of diverse cohorts of master’s and doctoral students, the award recognizes students who contribute to diversity and inclusion at the university.

Allman grew up in southern California where, as an adolescent, he moved from a highly diverse middle school to a predominantly white school. The transition “was challenging,” according to Allman. “My race had always been an issue with my peers, but it became even more of an issue at the mostly white school”  where students told him he did not look or act “black enough.”

“Because of the way I look, that alone changes my experience in my identity,” Allman explained. “Even if we have the same identity, our phenotypes define how other people treat us or how they even may validate or invalidate our identities.”

In addition to race, his sexuality became a point of contention in school. “Before I knew what gay was, I was bullied and teased, starting in the second grade, for being effeminate and having mostly female friends,” Allman said.

Allman’s experience is common among LGBT+ youth and youth questioning their identity. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control’s 2017 national Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), “the prevalence of bullying on school property was higher among gay, lesbian, and bisexual (33 percent) students and those students questioning their identity (24.3 percent), than heterosexual (17.1%) students. At the start of his adolescence, Allman began questioning his sexual identity. He became more confident with his identity at the age of 16, eventually coming out to his best friend at that time, and the rest of his family and friends after graduating high school.

While attending youth centers in gay-friendly neighborhoods, he gained a new sense of freedom to be himself. Throughout the hardships he faced in his youth, Allman had many academic and intellectual interests that became outlets and drivers for pursuing his future interest in population genetics and quantitative biology. His interests in mathematical approaches to studying genetic differences within population groups were key curiosities that resulted in his graduate pathway.

“I really liked building things and playing video games; I still play Pokémon,” Allman confirmed. “I think, oddly enough, the synthetic video game world also sparked my curiosity about the actual world. Like, wow, look at all that’s possible in this fantasy world; I wonder what else is possible in the natural world?”

Allman double majored in mathematics and biology as an undergraduate student at the University of San Diego. He later continued mathematical studies in the University of Georgia’s Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program and received training in quantitative biology. That training motivated him to continue developing his skills in quantitative approaches to studying population genetics and evolution at Emory University’s Laney Graduate school.

“I’m really happy I did that,” Allman said. “In the world of biology, just having that stamp of approval of thinking quantitatively really helps you stand out just on paper alone.”

Emory University professor of physics and evolution Daniel Weissman could not have agreed more: “I met Brent when he was interviewing at Emory, and I was immediately impressed by his maturity and his mathematical training,” explained Weissman. “In his first year here, he did a research rotation with me in which he took over and finished a project (Allman & Weissman, Evolution 2018) that I had been struggling with for years. I'm very lucky to be his co-advisor!”

Weissman, Allman and co-advisor Katherina Koelle, professor in evolutionary biology, are currently working on a project focused on how viruses reproduce. In scattered conversations, Koelle and Allman came up with the idea for their project.

As the two biologists continued to work together, Allman proved to be a capable graduate student.

“What’s great about Brent is that he takes ownership over a project,” Koelle said. “He also comes to terms with the literature, doing research to make sure that the work that he does is building on what’s already known instead of working in a vacuum. He’s got a lot of initiative.”

When Allman is not in the lab, he focuses on programming that supports the LGBTQ+ community at Emory. For three years, Allman has moderated a weekly discussion group for trans, queer and questioning graduate students.

He serves as the co-president of the LGBTQ+ Graduate Coalition, and with the help of other graduate students, he is working on implementing a committee on diversity, equity and inclusion to assess program needs of students and provide diversity training for members of the Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution (PBEE) Graduate Program in the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences..

And, as Ethics Chair for the PBEE program's seminar committee, Allman organized a presentation on the #MeToo movement in STEM, Emory’s policies on gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and where students who are dealing with related issues can get help.

Allman believes the Kharen Fulton Award, which recognizes leadership in graduate student diversity, inclusion and community, is a sign that he is spending his time outside of research wisely.

“To know other people feel similarly not only validates that I’m spending my time well, but that the problems I’m working on and the communities I’m trying to build are valid and important,” Allman said.

Lisa Tedesco, Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs-Graduate Studies and Dean of the Laney Graduate School believes Allman’s values and commitments represents one of the graduate schools most important initiatives—diversity and inclusion.

“Brent’s academic journey fosters community in remarkable ways, building capacity for community among graduate and undergraduate students and faculty,” says Tedesco. “This is a well-deserved honor; and his work is a fitting illustration for what our centennial celebration is all about -- “It Starts with One.”

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