When you take a breath, the air travels into your trachea, your bronchial tubes, your lungs. You may have learned in a Calvin biology class about alveoli and how they get oxygen to your cells. What you might not have learned is that there are microscopic organisms in your airways.

Scientists didn’t even know about them until 2010. It’s the edge of what we don’t know—and that’s exactly where Ariangela Davis Kozik ’13 likes to be.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of understanding all the ways the microbiome is involved in keeping us healthy,” she said.

In addition to her research, she organized a virtual conference and awareness week called Black in Microbiology, which has earned her national recognition. She was profiled in The New York Times in September 2020 and was recently named one of the top 1,000 inspiring Black scientists by Cell Mentor.

‘On fire’ for research

This recognition comes as no surprise to Calvin biology professor John Wertz, who first met Kozik in his “phage hunters” class, where students isolate a unique bacterial virus or phage.

“After doing a major research project as a freshman—and getting a publication from it—she was on fire for scientific research,” Wertz said.

Wertz hired her to work in his lab, where he was studying the bacteria that live in the guts of termites. “He loves insects,” said Kozik, who added with a laugh, “I do not.”

“What impressed me about Ari was that her fire, passion, drive, was in everything she did,” said Wertz.

Kozik went to Purdue’s interdisciplinary life sciences program, earning a Ph.D. in comparative pathobiology.

“I love the concept that we humans are literally covered by other organisms. We don’t think about them because we don’t see them, but they impact our health,” she said.

As a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan, her current research looks at the microbial communities of adults with asthma.

Black in Microbiology

She came away from Calvin with a passion for scientific research and a framework for restorative justice. “I learned that justice is not something that is confined to a certain area—the entire world should be just, science included.”

Kozik and a virologist friend co-founded Black in Microbiology, an online conference to raise the visibility of Black scientists across industries and career stages in the field of microbiology.

Before she started organizing, she knew only one other Black microbiologist, which she said isn’t unusual. She was inspired by similar online conferences, including Black in STEM, Black Birders Week, and Black in Chemistry. “As Black people, there are stereotypical limits on who we are and what we can achieve. We’re trying to counteract that typical narrative,” she said.

She networked on Twitter, using the hashtag #blackinmicro to find other microbiologists. The conference had 3,500 people register, attracted a global audience, and garnered academic and corporate sponsors.

Kozik and other organizers launched the nonprofit Black Microbiologists Association (BMA) to partner with other scientific organizations, scientific journals, funding agencies, and institutions to promote the advancement of Black microbiologists while advocating for a more equitable and just scientific enterprise.

“There are problems and disparities everywhere across all of the layers of society. Black in Microbiology is something that I, as a Black academic, am able to do to effect change,” said Kozik.

Her Calvin community continues to cheer her on. “When Black microbiologists deserved the limelight, she built a power plant. I am not surprised in the least at what Ari has done, both in and outside of the laboratory. But I am incredibly, incredibly proud,” said Wertz.