When Danielle Byrdsong was growing up in Boston, she loved watching science-related TV shows such as "Bill Nye the Science Guy." It didn't matter to her that Bill and the other "mad scientists" she admired were white men.
Today, Byrdsong offers a different model as she comes to work each day in Dana-Farber's NIH-funded Center for Excellence in Genomic Science (CEGS) and engages in cutting-edge cancer research.
She is one of four college graduates enrolled in a program that offers minority "post baccs" (short for "baccalaureate," a bachelor's degree) a two-year, hands-on experience in the sciences, enhancing their chances for admission to graduate school.
The word disparity once meant very little to Byrdsong, whose mother always encouraged her interest in science. She graduated from the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston and earned a degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry, from Simmons College.
In college she began to notice how unusual she was.
"Throughout my various lab experiences there was not one person who looked like me, anywhere," she recalls. "The first black woman scientist I ever met was my mentor through the CURE [Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences] program. Meeting her was a turning point for me."
Through CURE, Byrdsong worked with Kafi Meadows, PhD, a research fellow in vascular biology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The word disparity means a great deal, however, to Karen Burns White, deputy associate director of the Initiative to Eliminate Cancer Disparities (IECD) within the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC). Burns White knew that Byrdsong could one day offer the same inspiration to others that Meadows provided for her.
The post-baccs benefit from a collaboration that includes Dana-Farber and four other Boston institutions: Brigham and Woman's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Northeastern University.
In addition to the post-bacc program, Dana-Farber is engaged in many other initiatives to address cancer health disparities.
Recent examples include an effort to bring cancer education and resources to faith-based communities; a partnership with the University of Massachusetts Boston, New England's most diverse public four-year college, which helps students and faculty obtain cancer research positions and internships; and opportunities for minorities to receive hands-on educational and professional development, mentoring, networking, and access to local and national educational conferences.
Byrdsong is part of a multifaceted effort to build a pipeline of minority scientists choosing cancer research, explains Burns White.
"We believe it will take a cadre of scientists from under-represented ethnic and economic groups to help us reduce disparities and inspire future scientists," she says.
Looking forward, Byrdsong plans to apply to several graduate schools and earn a PhD in molecular genetics and microbiology. And looking back, she intends to serve as a mentor to girls in high school. "I want them to know that if they're interested in science they don't have to become a doctor or a nurse. Many other related careers are open to them."
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