Outside the Lab

The human side of research

Anna Powell Teeter

Baindu Bayon (B.S. ’03, Biology) and I meet at a busy Starbucks in Indianapolis. She’s an out-of-towner now — she recently moved to Washington, D.C. — but she was born and raised in Indiana. Baindu moves with the grace and confidence of someone entirely in her element. She’s poised, elegant, and steady as she speaks. Her voice is deep. We sit at a tall table while people line up nearby to order drinks. Outside, the sun shines. It is Sunday. Cars turn in jerks in the small lot.

I ask Baindu about her parents’ native Sierra Leone and about her childhood inclinations toward science. She pauses after each question with a smile and begins to share, gesturing with manicured hands, her eyes steady on mine. Her stories are full of detail — sights, sounds, smells — and I notice myself hanging on every word. I even have a hard time breaking eye contact to look down to my pen and pad to take notes.

In time, we begin to talk about illness, medicine, and death. Baindu’s mother passed away about five years ago, due to a rare form of gastrointestinal cancer. Baindu remembers sitting at a computer to study the condition — she was in graduate school at the IU School of Medicine back then — and she remembers hitting dead end after dead end. She was surprised by how little research on the illness was available. To make matters more stressful, she was the only member of her family in the medical field, and the pressure she felt was significant. Faces turned to her at each new development, faces seeking answers, advice, appropriate reactions. If her expression betrayed worry, worry spread to those around her.

Baindu earned her Ph.D. in medical and molecular genetics from IUPUI in 2017.

And then, a pivotal afternoon, one that Baindu recalls with clarity. Her parents picked her up from her lab on campus and headed to the hospital for her mother’s appointment. Baindu remembers her mother complimenting her again and again in the car, telling her that she looked pretty, remarking on her makeup. In the hospital lot, her father had trouble parking, getting a wheelchair, helping his wife onto it. It was apparent that the sickness had taken a toll on him, as well. Baindu did what she could to help. They wheeled her mother into the hospital, laughing and joking and talking.

But at the nurses’ station, something felt off. The nurses were not their typical, cheery selves. Looking back now, Baindu supposes that they knew. Probably, they’re warned ahead of time when bad news is about to be given, since they have to help families at checkout. When the doctor sat with Baindu’s family in the examination room, he explained that the results of the scans were in and that the cancer had spread. There was nothing else he could do. And Baindu’s mother shrank. She almost collapsed.

“They don’t say much else,” Baindu tells me now. “They say, ‘We’re going to give you some information on hospice, if you’re interested.’ It’s all very final.”

When her father went to check out, Baindu and her mother were left alone in the silence.

“It’s going to be okay,” she told her mother. “We’re going to be at home. You’re not going to have to worry about these hospitals anymore.”

When they moved back into the waiting room area, her mother was silent. She kept on looking at her daughter. Then she told her to be strong, to take care of her brother and sister, and after that she was never the same.

It wasn’t the illness itself that changed her mother so suddenly, Baindu thinks. Rather, the doctor’s words changed her. The lack of possibility. The lack of hope. It almost gives a person license to give up. If you’re sick, Baindu reflects, no matter how exhausted you feel, as long as there’s a clinical trial or a company developing something new, you can keep your drive. But when you’re told that nothing lies ahead, you lose meaning and purpose.

“She’s gone, but anything I do, I want people to see that I am her child, still focused on helping others.”
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Baindu was in her lab at IU when her sister called to say that their mother had stopped breathing. And the grief left Baindu questioning everything. She wasn’t sure how to get through. Her advisor suggested that she take the semester off, but Baindu decided against it.

“I kept feeling like, maybe, if somebody had been working hard on a treatment for my mom, she would be here.” Her lids fall and she studies the wooden table. Then her eyes shoot up to mine with renewed energy. “Who knows? Maybe what I’m working on, maybe it’s an inch, maybe it’s a centimeter closer to discovering something so that someone else doesn’t have to lose their mom or grandmother.”

I feel amazed by her belief in action during such a groundless time. “You have to have something that keeps you going,” she tells me. Her mother, moreover, was the person who taught her to read and write, to investigate, to seek to understand her immediate environment. “She’s gone, but anything I do, I want people to see that I am her child, still focused on helping others, still keeping her memory alive.”

A sense of dedication to others runs deep for Baindu. Her family, community, and ancestors are central to her sense of purpose. She tells me about a visit to Sierra Leone as a child. She was six at the time. Her aunt was about to give birth, and Baindu and her cousin were told to wait in the car outside of the hospital. But she was only a child, and idleness gave way to boredom, so in time she ventured inside the hospital to look for her family.

And what she saw shocked her: Bed after bed after bed of women in labor, screaming in pain, with only two doctors walking among them. She shakes her head at the memory and tells me it looked like a scene out of M*A*S*H.

At the time, seeing that, Baindu felt fear, but as she grew, she processed the memory more deeply. She was aware that in the States, she received independent medical attention when she needed it. And this got her thinking.

“I was just one degree removed from being in that environment,” she tells me about West Africa. “There is nothing I did to deserve access to healthcare and immunizations.”

This September, Bayon began working as an AAAS science and technology policy executive branch fellow at the NIH's National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

That knowledge made her feel responsible for closing these kinds of gaps, and as Baindu grew up, the scope of her interest widened. Initially, she attended medical school following her undergraduate work, but after her mother's diagnosis, Baindu opted for a Ph.D. instead of an M.D. She grew more interested in the processes of medical treatments and the questions raised by modern research.

In her lab, she became curious about what went on outside of it, exploring how clinical trials get to people in need and how issues of psychology, sociology, and politics tightly influence their access to those trials. In 2017, she earned her Ph.D. in medical and molecular genetics from the IU School of Medicine, where she studied the role of the beta-secretase enzyme in Alzheimer’s disease.

The varied interests and questions that have swirled around Baindu’s mind her whole life have recently congealed into an exciting new pursuit. In a few weeks, she tells me with a wide smile, she’ll move into a new position. This August, as an AAAS science and technology policy executive branch fellow, she’ll start work for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Small Business Education and Entrepreneurial Development. She’s previously worked for the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, and she’s excited to bring her expertise in clinical innovation to the business side of medicine.

Her whole course of study, her whole life, Baindu tells me, has prepared her to work for the NIH. She could feel it when she first walked into the institutes’ offices in Washington, D.C. And I'm sure that those interviewing her could feel it, as well.

Lana Spendl

Lana Spendl is the author of the chapbook of flash fiction We Cradled Each Other in the Air. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Cortland Review, Notre Dame Review, Zone 3, Hobart, and other literary journals. She holds an M.A. in Spanish literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Indiana University, where she served as the nonfiction editor to Indiana Review. Lana can be reached via her website: lanaspendl.com.