Finding Myself in Research

I’m a black, first-generation college graduate from a low-income Appalachian community in Pennsylvania. It was statistically unlikely that I would complete a four-year bachelor’s degree. It was even less likely that I would further my education beyond that.

Now, as a graduate student in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, I spend my time studying health disparities, the variation in rates of disease between socioeconomic and racial groups. Probability — as well as my lived experience — says I’m an anomaly. People with Ph.D.’s do not look like me, and do not come from where I come from.

I was drawn to study cancer because of the unknown. It is not like diabetes, a disease about which much is known on treatment and prevention. I also wanted to make the United States a healthier place for groups like black women, who suffer disproportionately from diseases like breast cancer.

As a child, I witnessed the reality of health disparities in my own family. My maternal white grandmother received dialysis for diabetes that extended her life, so she could witness the birth of my niece, her great-granddaughter. My paternal black grandmother had a leg amputated because of diabetes and ultimately died of it, when I was just a young girl. Both of my grandmothers lived in cities in Florida, yet had vastly different outcomes for the same disease.

Last fall, I flew to Atlanta to present my work at a conference called the Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved, held by the American Association for Cancer Research. This conference is a big deal in my field. Once a year, the most notable names in this research are in attendance. This was my first conference as a graduate student. Needless to say, I was nervous.

As I stood next to the poster detailing my work down to the level of molecular characteristics of breast cancer, researchers from all over the country stopped to question me. I took copious notes, eager to capture a fraction of the ideas and inspiration in the room. I even met some of my academic idols. I felt like a real scientist, engaged in the process of scientific inquiry.

Later in the session, a black woman with silver hair and no institutional affiliation listed on her name tag approached me. Before I could begin my standard elevator pitch, she said she’d prefer to read my entire poster first. I studied her face as she read. A few minutes passed. The concentration in her face gradually shifted to raw emotion.

After she finished reading, she introduced herself as a survivor advocate, someone who is not a scientist but interacts with them to give the patient and survivor perspective. She shared her medical history — her diagnosis of severe endometriosis in her early 30s, the removal of her ovaries and uterus in an attempt to allay the symptoms, and her more recent diagnosis of breast cancer, which led to her advocacy in the cancer research community.

Then, she reached out and touched my poster and said, “I see myself in this research. This was a study meant for women like me.”

Her personal revelations stood in stark contrast to my previous interactions with fellow scientists, which were mechanical and formulaic. This was different. It was two black women talking about our resilience.

Graduate school is a notoriously isolating experience. Ph.D. candidates at American research institutions have six times as much anxiety and depression as the general population, according to a study published earlier this year. For people like me, the already stressful experience takes a different shape. When you don’t fit the mold of a traditional graduate student, there exists an intricate interplay between impostor syndrome, social support, sense of purpose and mental health. Out of self-preservation, I immersed myself in the scientific process in an earnest attempt to avoid the isolation that too often accompanies graduate school.

Instead, I spent my first year of graduate school in front of a computer screen with de-identified subject identification numbers. A screen full of numbers indicated whether a woman smoked or not, had children or not, had a family history of breast cancer or not, and whether she had succumbed to breast cancer or not. Women’s entire lives were distilled into data; their health care life cycles and eventual deaths now were 0s and 1s on my screen. Despite my deep sense of purpose, emotionally, I felt removed from the work.

This made my experience with that woman at the poster session all the more meaningful. Now, when I present my analyses of the binary numbers representing women who gave part of themselves for the advancement of cancer research, I include her story. To me, her interaction with the humanity of science is just as important as the output of my statistical models.

In graduate school, we are urged to publish in the most prominent journals and pursue prestigious fellowships. The number of peer citations or research dollars measures success. What is often absent is the consideration of how research affects everyday individuals. My experience with the woman at the poster session reminded me that I am not just doing research to become a known scholar in my field. I research for the sake of humanity. All researchers could use that reminder.

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