Significant Figures: Steven Townsend
November 10, 2022
“I want to do what’s right and make a positive change.”
Raised in Detroit by a single mother without a high school diploma, Dr. Townsend is now a leading expert on breast milk chemistry and inspires the next generation of scientists.
He is most known for his scientific research on human breast milk which has appeared in a variety of publications, including scientific journals like Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry, Nature Communications, and The Journal of the American Chemical Society, as well as popular platforms like The Daily Beast and HowStuffWorks.
He wasn’t expecting to become a leading expert on human breast milk science. But when he and his wife were expecting their first child, he realized how chemically different infant formula and breastmilk are. Breastmilk contains over 200 human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). Today, some formulas contain just one or two. When the Townsends were expecting their first child, no formula contained any HMOs at all.
Dr. Townsend is a synthetic chemist, and so he decided to try synthesizing HMOs in his lab. His lab has made great progress, and they now have synthesized nearly 40 different HMOs.
HMOs are poorly understood, although they are believed to help develop the baby’s immune system and gut microbiome. HMOs are also difficult to create in a lab. While some are simple (like 2’-fucosyl lactose, which is now commercially available in some formulas), others are more complex, such as lacto-N-fucopentaose I.
His research, though, has implications beyond supplementing infant formula. Mom groups across the Internet call breastmilk “liquid gold,” and some groups believe that topical application of breastmilk can cure ear infections, stave off sunburns, and more. While there is no evidence to support those particular claims, Dr. Townsend has discovered that human breast milk could help prevent premature birth.
Or, more accurately, the HMOs could. See the Townsend Chemistry website for more information about Dr. Townsend’s research.
But Dr. Townsend’s impact goes beyond science. He also draws from his background and personal experiences to serve as a role model and resource within the community at large.
Recent data supports that representation matters. For example, an experiment at Southern Methodist University showed that undergraduate women taking economics courses were twice as likely to continue in economics if they had women economists as available role models, when compared to those without such role models.
In a 2021 Pew Research Poll, over 75% of Black adults surveyed said that young Black people would be more likely to pursue STEM degrees if there were more examples of Black high achievers in STEM. For Dr. Townsend, this was true.
Although his mother never graduated high school, she emphasized the importance of education for her children. Dr. Townsend was interested in science from a young age, and his mother encouraged his interests. He has many memories of his mother taking him to the library so he could read about Black scientists.
“Seeing someone who looks like you performing a job enables projection. It allows you to picture yourself doing what that person is doing,” Dr. Townsend said, “For me, St. Elmo Brady, Percy Julian, and Samuel Massie were models for what I could be.”
And now, Dr. Townsend himself is a model for the next generation of scientists. He pushes and inspires his students academically, and he mentors a team of graduate and undergraduate students performing research in his lab. And like the data suggests, he is also a personal inspiration for many more.
“Students flood [my] office—and usually it’s not for chemistry,” Townsend said.
For upcoming departmental seminars and DEIO Coffee Breaks with “Significant Figures” see the Department of Chemistry events calendar.