ADI Spotlight: Richard Thornton

April 18, 2023
Richard Thornton smiling with plastic leis on.

Richard Thornton (He/Him/His)                    

Department: Molecular Biology

Program Year: G4

Undergraduate/Other Institutions: 

North Carolina A&T State University (B.S. in Biological Engineering)

Hometown: Bowie, Maryland

ADI Affiliations:

Tell us about your background.

I am originally from Bowie, MD; a town in the middle of Prince George's County. For my entire childhood (and most of my adulthood until very recently) PG County had the distinction of being the wealthiest predominantly-Black county in the entire country. I say this to preface how my environment contributed to my background and led me to where I am today. Going to a private Baptist school until the 8th grade, I thought it was normal to see Black families display all the trappings of the upper-middle class. While my family wasn't wildly wealthy, I knew we were always fine financially. As I got older I realized how much of a blessing this upbringing was and how dedicated my parents had been to get us into that position. Both of my parents went to North Carolina A&T State University, where I would eventually attend and become the 4th generation (on my dad’s side) to do so. Another monumental blessing. After graduating with a degree in Biological Engineering I did a 2-year research study at Harvard Medical School where I started to solidify my research interests, but more importantly learned how to find and develop community. I became close with the Minority Biomedical Scientist of Harvard (MBSH), the primary affinity organization at the med school, and I was incredibly thankful for how I was welcomed and allowed to thrive. It was during this 2-year period that I was in a predominantly-white space for the first time in my life, and joining MBSH showed me how to effectively navigate these spaces while also making my own space. Since being at Princeton I have been able to synthesize the personal worldview crafted by my early environment, utilize the community-building skills I learned from MBSH, and realize the ongoing goal of creating a better social landscape for minority graduate students.

What are your research interests?  What excites you about it?

My research interests have primarily focused on signal transduction in the context of cancer or movement. Essentially, how do cells convey information over large distances to do actions such as moving or growing? I was first introduced to research through my microbiology professor sophomore year of college when she thought that I would enjoy it. I am so thankful that she saw that in me and encouraged my exploration deeper into science. The lab on campus happened to study breast cancer, specifically how the effects of a natural plant extract compared to a chemotherapeutic agent. I did several experiments called wound healing assays where I tested how well cells could close a gap. Even though this was simple work, I thought it was the coolest thing and I knew that I wanted to do more of this thing called research. For the next 2 years I proceeded to do work in cancer signaling, where I was enthralled by deciphering cellular communication and how the phenomenon known as cancer arises. I think that I am drawn to science as a whole because it allows me to continually ask “why does this happen?”. Ultimately, I hope to use my PhD to work in the biotechnology/pharmaceutical field so that I can use my skills in the pursuit of finding new medical solutions and help people in the best way that I am able.

How has ADI programming impacted you? 

I am confident that without the support of the ADI team my graduate school experience would be immensely more difficult and less fulfilling. From my 1st year, I made it a priority to attend ADI-related events, a decision that has connected me with many amazing people and provided me with cherished memories. I am in the unique position of having multiple friends that hold the position of Diversity Fellow (DF) and /or GSP mentor, so I have seen all the work that goes into planning ADI events, and also the passion that motivates the organizers. Seeing firsthand how to build and sustain a caring community inspired me to take a more active role, leading me to apply for a DF position myself and also accept the Co-President position in the Black Graduate Caucus. ADI programming has left an indelible mark on my graduate career and it is my hope that I can continue to lend my support to this amazing team in the time I have left here at Princeton.

What's been most helpful to you in acclimating to Princeton?

I think that the 2 most useful things for acclimating to Princeton are my previous experience with MBSH and the existence of the ADI team. I knew to seek out support and other minority/affinity organizations after my time at Harvard, and I was overjoyed to see that the community infrastructure was already built thanks to the ADI team. This foundation is the single most important thing in regard to the upkeep of the community I continually refer to. For example, the ADI administrators are key liaisons for connecting students to the resources that they need to make Princeton feel more like a space where everyone can belong.

What advice would you give prospective, incoming, and/or first year underrepresented Princeton graduate students?

Find your people and know yourself. Graduate school will likely be the longest time you have spent in one place as an adult. You will come into grad school already having grown a lot in undergrad, but there is a different phase of growth that happens afterward. Make sure that you are aware of how you interact with new information, how you manage stress, how you treat your mental health, and how you find enjoyment. There are so many opportunities in grad school, but for most of them, you have to be the one to ask for them, create them, or plan them.

What activities do you engage in beyond research?

I am the current (and hopefully future) Secretary of the Graduate Student Government (GSG). I also serve as Co-President of the Black Graduate Caucus and a peer mentor through the Graduate Scholar Program (GSP) and the Mol Bio Grad Mentor Committee.

What should the ADI community know about you?

I am a 3rd degree Black Belt in a little-known martial art called Kuk Sool Won, I enjoy photography (I have taken many ADI pictures, GSG pictures, and Mol Bio pictures in various capacities, haha), and I am an avid fan of geek culture (anime, manga, fps games, Marvel, and other assorted stories). I am very involved on campus (ADI, BGC, GSG, Mol Bio, GSP, and probably something else) so you will likely see me, feel free to say hi.

What is, or would be, your superpower?

Teleportation, easily. Moving things and travel has cost me so much time and money I would love to just pop into a place that I can envision. I am also decently forgetful soooo teleporting would be super helpful for when I leave something at home.