The Need For More Black Women in Science
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center acknowledges that we need more Black women in the field of science and medicine. It is a field systemically lacking underrepresented communities like LGBTQIA, women, and scientists of color. This is why the Pathways Research Explorers Program, funded by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health, was created for sophomores and juniors who tend to be systematically excluded from biomedical research.
“Fred Hutch’s Pathways Research Explorers Program has made this summer the most memorable summer of my life,” says Seattle Academy Student Olivia Griffin (Grade 10) who interned as part of this program last summer. She says Fred Hutch introduced her to areas of biomedical research including cancer prevention, public health, epidemiology, and biostatistics.
A large portion of the internship centered around a woman named Kristin. Kristin is a former patient at Fred Hutch who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). She was amongst 93% of participants with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. B-cell ALL is not the most common cancer; when Kristin was diagnosed, it raised significant alarms for her and her family, considering it was cancer that takes your B cells (a type of white blood cell that makes antibodies) and turns them into leukemia which can live longer than your normal cells and reproduce fast.
Kristin was referred to Dr. David Maloney at Fred Hutch for another possibility: finding a clinical trial of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, an experimental immunotherapy strategy in which patients’ immune cells are engineered with a specialized receptor that allows them to selectively destroy cancer cells.
Olivia participated in Kristin’s case study, and she didn’t just observe from the sidelines. “I worked in the lab,” Olivia says as she explains what she was doing. “Healthy cells of the immune system that receive chemical signals and release antibodies can recognize those cancer cells as abnormal and kill them, but sometimes, like in Kristen’s case, the immune system might not be just strong enough to get rid of cancer altogether. Treatments like CAR T-cell therapy, guide the immune system to fight cancer.”
Fred Hutch brought many student mentors from the University of Washington, who are working on receiving their PhDs, into the program. “There is a possibility that I want to major in premed or any medical science,” says Olivia, “and we had UW students with us to access info on those science and medical programs, which was helpful.”
“I have always been interested in science. In kindergarten, I did a project on future jobs in science, and my family has a bit of background in science: my dad works for the Veteran Affairs Puget Sound Hospital, and my mom for a company that develops medical devices for hospitals and private clinics. I have always been very attached to science.”
A family friend introduced Olivia to the Pathways Program, which accepted about 30 students over two sessions of 15 students each. Olivia participated from August 1-12. Olivia was introduced to Fred Hutch’s mission and background, and then quickly dove into CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats a.k.a. DNA splicing and sequencing), CAR T-cell therapy, bioethics, and what it means to become a resilient scientist.
In the lab, Olivia was given the opportunity to use a gNRA strand to attempt to split a DNA strand. “I can’t believe I separated DNA using CRISPR,” says Olivia.
Olivia says the program was a “reassurance moment for her”:
“While in the program, we had a special speaker one day. Dr. Anthony Fauci was in town that day and he talked to us about how it is very, very important that people who look like me, and the person next to me, are engaged in science. Science is always growing. He had said that and it really really stuck with me — and that he acknowledged my background as a Black woman was really warming to me. It was a big reason why I want to engage in science and with the Fred Hutch program, as well.”
The explorer’s program highlighted what science had already accomplished, how the data was collected, and how scientific discoveries were used to conclude bioethical statements and decisions.
“To truly understand bioethics and how it applies to our skin color, you must fully commit to comprehending the significantly drastic dissimilarity between race and racism and how racism is a social construct, not a biological one,” Olivia says.
“And I gained so many connections at Fred Hutch, and so many resources. The teachers they bring in stay connected to the interns and value our determination and dedication to science.”
Not only that, but interns also received compensation for their time to be used specifically towards their education. “The point was to strengthen our ideals around education and where our spending goes. We each received a thousand dollars to put towards school supplies or SAT testing,” says Olivia. “Getting this amount of money is pretty big.”
“To be a part of explorers was genuinely eye-opening and encouraged me, even more, to pursue medicine; and if I get to that point, I can proudly say Fred Hutch got me there,” says Olivia.