Royce McLemore, a Marin City leader and activist, couldn’t stop smiling when we chatted about her 21 grandchildren, one in particular.
“My granddaughter is the first Black stem cell research scientist from Marin County,” McLemore declared proudly.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Do you know another one?” McLemore replied.
Good point. Until last week, I didn’t know any stem cell research scientists—of any race—from Marin County or anywhere else. Clearly, my circle of acquaintances is lacking.
Then, I met Malachia “Melli” Hoover, 33, a Black woman poised to earn her Ph.D. in stem cell research from Stanford University, School of Medicine. Last month, Hoover successfully passed her oral exams by defending her dissertation on stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.
Since 2017, Hoover has been conducting research on spine degeneration and potential treatments at the Stanford Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. While I’d like to say that I understand the research Hoover excitedly explained, mmm, she blinded me with science.
Then she broke it down in layperson’s terms.
“As we age, our spinal discs degenerate at a very alarming rate,” Hoover said. “It’s a common problem, and we have to find novel ways to regenerate this tissue. Right now, there are not a lot of effective treatments. Treatments include taking out the disc and fusing together the bones. But it’s not pinpointing the crisis. How can we regenerate that tissue, without replacing it?”
Fortunately, Hoover is well on her way to answering that question. During her research, she identified factors that can regenerate spinal disc tissue via skeletal stem cells, which has enormous implications for keeping humans upright and moving pain-free.
It will be a while before people can benefit from Hoover’s research, but her experiments on mice with injured discs show great promise. Hoover inserted a hydrogel of special factors—proteins—into the rodents’ spinal injury sites. The mice were observed over the next three weeks and then tested for cartilage and bone growth.
“We see with these factors that the disc is completely regenerated,” Hoover explained. “I’ve been working on this project for six years. I’m proud to be done. Now, I’m working on submitting these findings to a top tier, peer-reviewed scientific journal.”
Clearly, Hoover is going places. The scientist has obtained trademarks on the special factors that she identified in her research and protected the intellectual property. Next up, she’ll start a company.
“Then we’ll go into clinical trials and eventually have a treatment for spinal regeneration,” Hoover said.
Hoover’s research achievements are remarkable, and her journey to Stanford is equally so. While she lives in Novato now, her roots are in Southern Marin. The eldest of five children, Hoover and her siblings were raised by her mother and stepfather in Golden Gate Village, a public housing project in Marin City, the county’s only historically Black community.
Her early education took place at Marin Country Day School. By the time Hoover graduated from Tamalpais High School in 2008, she was already keen on science and math.
Learning was always emphasized in Hoover’s home. Her mother, Lori Fall, is currently working on her own Ph.D. in public administration. Two of Hoover’s sisters are working on their graduate degrees.
“My mom pushed me to reach all my educational goals,” Hoover said. “When I was a little girl, she would tell me that I was going to be a successful doctor.”
Other strong women also played a role in encouraging and supporting Hoover. Her grandmother, McLemore, lived around the corner, and was a significant influence.
“My grandmother is an important educator, active in civil rights and what’s going on in Marin City,” Hoover said. “I knew that I couldn’t be mediocre.”
Bettie Hodges, who runs the Hannah Project, a Marin City nonprofit offering scholastic support for children of color, also looked out for Hoover and helped her focus on her objectives. It was obvious early on that “Melli” was a very bright student, according to Hodges.
“Ms. Bettie played such a major role in my academic journey,” Hoover said. “In high school, she helped me with SAT prep classes and took me on a Southern California tour to look at colleges. Then in college, the Hannah Project gave me a scholarship for many years.”
The Sausalito Women’s Club also provided scholarships for Hoover, starting with her freshman year at Cal State University, Northridge in 2008. The club assisted Hoover until she finished her studies.
“For almost 15 years, the Sausalito Women’s Club has given me a scholarship,” Hoover said. “I think I’m their longest recipient.”
Hoover’s academic achievements drew national attention, too, and she was awarded prestigious fellowships. The Ford Foundation bestowed Hoover with a pre-doctoral fellowship.
During Hoover’s Ph.D. studies at Stanford, the National Institute of Health (NIH) presented her with a doctoral fellowship, of which she is particularly proud.
“Only 1% of people applying get this NIH grant,” Hoover said. “I worked on it for several years.”
As if all of Hoover’s accomplishments aren’t impressive enough, she also enjoys a well-balanced life outside of Stanford and her stem cell research. Hoover is married with two young children, ages one and three.
The kids from the Hannah Project are never far from Hoover’s thoughts. She still makes time to visit the Marin City nonprofit and speak with children about her experiences growing up in Marin City, committing to her education and her love of all things science.
In her spare time, which she somehow finds, Hoover loves baking, likening trying out a new recipe with following a protocol in the lab. Then there’s her secret “bad addiction.”
“I am addicted to reality TV,” Hoover confessed. “Everything on Bravo. All the Housewives. The Bachelor, too.”
I’m tired just thinking about Hoover’s schedule. She’s inspiring—a true force filled with boundless energy and optimism.
“It’s impossible not to be proud of Melli because I’ve seen her journey,” Hodges said. “There was never a question that she could be whatever she wanted to be. Melli’s beautiful, humble and giving, as well as an intellectually strong person.”
By March, Hoover will turn in her written dissertation to Stanford and then walk across the stage in the springtime to pick up her hard-earned doctorate degree. Dr. Malachia Hoover. It certainly has a nice ring, doesn’t it?