Profiles in Brain Science: Teleza Westbrook

Friday, February 3, 2017

Welcome to Profiles in Brain Science, a new rotating interview series focusing on people at Duke who study or treat the human brain and nervous system. Our first entry starts with Teleza Westbrook, a research technician with Duke Neurobiology. Westbook talks to us about her current work examining the retina of tree shrews, her past teaching science and math to middle-school students while performing world tours as an NFL cheerleader, and what diversity and inclusion mean to her.

What are your responsibilities within the Duke School of Neurobiology? What does a typical day for you look like?
I am a research technician under Greg Field, PhD. I oversee all the duties of the lab. My principal investigator also allows me to assist in research. A typical day consists of performing several retinal dissections, lab maintenance, collaborating on research projects, and doing viral injections in mice. I would say overall my days are pretty eventful. At the moment I am a co-author on a project studying the tree shrew retina. We are specifically researching intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells. We hope to learn more about the density gradient, morphology and dendritic stratification of these cells.

How did you decide to join Duke Neurobiology? What do you enjoy most about your work?
Before joining Duke in May, I was a middle school science and math teacher for three years. This was never my ultimate career goal. I've always aspired to become a pediatrician. I really wanted to get some experience in the research setting before making the transition of going back to school. What better place than Duke! I specifically found interest in neurobiology because I've always found the nervous systems quite interesting. I mostly enjoy having the opportunity to conduct research. This has challenged me in more ways than planned allowing me to gain experience that will benefit my path to medicine.

You’re a member of the School of Medicine’s diversity and inclusion council. How did you decide to join this group, and what do you hope to accomplish as part of it?
Towards the end of 2016, I attended an open forum the School of Medicine held regarding police brutality. I was very vocal expressing my concerns while also encouraging others. After the forum Judy Seidenstein approached me stating, that she would like to recruit me to become a member of the Council. Once I learned more about the Council's mission, I grew more passionate in using my voice to stand up for minorities that face adversity. During my time on the Council, I hope to influence individuals to no longer view minorities as a disadvantage. I would love for people to see the beauty in diversity and how it contributes the world in a positive way.

Before coming to Duke you were a science teacher. What subject(s) and age groups did you teach? What were the best and worst parts of that position?
I taught science and math. Throughout my years of teaching, I taught between 5th and 8th grade. Being a teacher was extremely rewarding. It wasn't the actual teaching I enjoyed the most. The best part was being able to have a positive impact on the lives of our youth. I taught at schools in underserved communities, so most of my students came from broken homes. I found myself being a mentor more than a teacher, encouraging young kids that didn't know more to life than having parents strung out on drugs and people losing their lives everyday. I saw it as my job to show my students that they can rise above what they know and take control of who they want to be. There is always a downside to being a teacher. Unfortunately, I couldn't save all of my students. I had to sit back and see some of them choose the same life their parents did.

While you were teaching you also held another, quite different position: a cheerleader for the NFL. What memories stand out most about that experience?
Cheering for the NFL was an unforgettable experience! Aside from enjoying the thrilling game day experience, I had the opportunity to travel many parts of the world. As NFL cheerleaders, we do military appreciation tours. This requires us to travel to military bases all over the world. I participated in two of them throughout my years as a cheerleader. The first one was to East Africa. I got to visit Ethiopia and Djibouti. My second tour was to the Middle East. This tour went to Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. There are several misconceptions of this profession. People think we're just a bunch of women that are dressed provocatively cheering on the players. My team was full of professional women. I have cheer sisters that are nurses, doctors, lawyers and students. There are so many more professions I haven't named.  All of these women are extremely influential in their communities. One of my favorite parts of being an NFL cheerleader was seeing people's reaction when I told them what we do outside of cheering!

Westbrook poses during a military appreciation tour.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
I am very passionate about my life as a Christian. Outside of Duke, I spend a lot of time doing things to gain a closer relationship with Christ. My husband and I hold fellowship and worship at our home with a couple of friends. I also enjoy exploring my musical talent. I learned how to play the violin growing up. Just recently I began self-teaching how to play the acoustic guitar! My husband and I are super obsessed with fitness, so I spend a lot of time in the gym. I recently retired as a dancer mainly because I've struggled to find dance opportunities here in Raleigh/Durham.

Westbrook with her husband, Cameron, and their family.