Op-Ed: My journey through mentorship

by Dwayne Tucker, PhD student in Reproductive and Developmental Sciences

Meaningful mentorship has been critical in my academic and professional progression, especially on my health research journey. As a Black Jamaican now studying in Canada, I am even keener on the importance of mentorship opportunities for Black students in the research sphere. Race and ethnicity are determining factors in the epidemiology of several diseases, many of which disproportionately impact Black people. Consequently, I deem it equally crucial for Black researchers to invest their “Black” perspectives and values into their respective research areas as much as it is to have Black representation in research. The mentorship of Black trainees creates platforms for these two standards to manifest and thrive! For Black History Month 2021, I briefly reflect on vital mentorship experiences in my health research journey as a UBC graduate student. 

Working as a clinical laboratory scientist in Jamaica, I worked with diseases daily and witnessed a developing country’s struggle to manage its people’s health demands. Eager to influence change, I pursued an MSc in Oncology in the UK as the first from my field to receive the highly prestigious British government’s Chevening scholarship. During this degree, my goal was to delve into the underpinnings of cancer and explore the possibilities for research in oncology.  In the end, the experience amplified my drive as a healthcare provider and further fuelled my desire for research. But despite my mounting passion, research in Jamaica is poorly funded, and opportunities for research trainees are meagre at best. 

The African-Caribbean Cancer Consortium

However, a rare opportunity fostered interactions with two key persons, Dr. Marshall Tulloch-Reid of the Caribbean Institute of Health Research and Dr. Camille Ragin of Fox Chase Cancer Centre (FCCC). These two individuals would become contributing impetuses for pivoting my core research direction. They were lead investigators who encouraged my research evolution by fostering development in critical areas such as scientific writing, project coordination and management, and molecular techniques. Moreover, I felt proud that these were Jamaican-born Black researchers who were movers and shakers in global health research. Beyond that, their work focused on morbidities that disproportionately affect people of African-ancestry worldwide. They introduced me to an international network of equally passionate Black researchers called the African-Caribbean Cancer Consortium (AC3). This esteemed group was established by Dr. Ragin and focuses on tackling the racial disparities in cancer through a multilevel interdisciplinary approach. Their vision is to be a “broad-based resource for education, training and research on etiology, screening, prevention, treatment and survivorship related to cancer in populations of African descent.” Through mentorship with the AC3, I had the humbling experience of working on a project that required daily engagement with prostate cancer survivors, which reminded me of why research is essential- it speaks to the core of our humanity to serve. Through the AC3, I also completed a brief fellowship at Dr. Ragin’s lab at the FCCC in which I explored genetic variants linked to morbidities in Blacks.

Furthermore, I enjoyed witnessing thriving Black representation in science in America through Dr. Ragin’s lab. Over the years, the opportunities I received through Dr. Ragin and Dr. Tulloch-Reid have helped to shape my core research values and personal mission. I was enamoured with their drive, humility, and sheer responsibility to raise the next generation of Black researchers and honoured that they made time to contribute to my growth. I am consequently inspired to use research to empower and benefit members of the Black community.

The Endometriosis & Pelvic Pain lab at UBC

I’ve continued to experience meaningful mentorship during my time at UBC through my PhD supervisor, Dr. Paul Yong, and the Endometriosis and Pelvic Pain research team. My research focuses on adverse outcomes in women with endometriosis to better build capacity for clinical management. Endometriosis is a chronic condition that affects roughly one million Canadian women of reproductive age and accrues approximately $1.8 billion in annual cost in Canada. Racial disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of endometriosis contribute to a disproportioned impact on Black women. These disparities are driven by several factors, including socioeconomic differences, access to care, and lack of education and awareness. Another important contributing factor is medical racism, including the perpetuation of myths and stereotypes of endometriosis as “an upper-white woman’s disease” or “Black women are less sensitive to pain than White women.” Consequently, Black women’s pain is often dismissed, contributing to further diagnosis delay in Black women. My PhD project’s primary focus isn’t based on specifically solving these issues on a large scale. Still, I feel blessed to be a part of a research group that focuses on racial diversity and equity in research. My interests and perspectives as a Black trainee are encouraged, and the inclusion of these elements in my training are stapling conversation topics.

Continuing, my supervisor and program emphasize trainee mentorship over mere supervision. To this end, my exchanges with my supervisor include discussions regarding professional development and tailoring my PhD experience towards the prerequisite skills for a successful post-PhD career transition. Over the last ten months, I have developed an affinity to a field relatively new to me - health analytics and clinical prediction modelling. I won’t deny the occasional “imposter syndrome” that most grad students experience. But, I also cannot imagine fostering my growth and interest in this field in any other research team than the Yong research team. 

In summary, I am grateful for the mentorship opportunities that continue to shape my health research journey. The budding researcher I am today is due to it all, and I am excited for the growth to be had over the next few years as I complete my PhD on Dr. Yong’s research team. I want to remind current researchers and professors that they are in unique positions to influence long-term racial diversity in research. It is their responsibility to ensure this through the continued provision of mentorship opportunities to Black trainees.

For more information about the work of the African-Caribbean Cancer Consortium and the Endometriosis Pelvic Pain Lab, see the respective websites:

Tuesday, 23 February 2021