The Pivot: Brenda Edwards
Dr. Brenda Edwards shares her expertise in how population-based data systems can improve our understanding of cancer.
What’s your role in public health?
I’m the senior adviser for cancer surveillance in the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences. I work to make the NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results program — a cancer database that covers more than one-third of the United States population — a resource to improve our understanding of cancer and treatment. I earned my Doctor of Philosophy degree in biostatistics from the UNC School of Public Health in 1975, and later established the Brenda K. Edwards fellowship to support graduate education in the field.
I believe that you need to be open to opportunity when and where there’s need. Honestly, I got into cancer surveillance because somebody retired, but I ended up working in that role for many, many years. Now I spend a fair amount of my time advising — some internationally, with people who are trying to develop population-based data systems for cancer. Our job is to figure out who gets cancer and what happens to them when they get it.
Though I got into the field by accident, I think we all are touched by cancer, whether its family, friends or others. In the early days, there was so much stigma, but working in treatment let me see those who are trying to find solutions, which really made it relevant to me.
Can you describe your focus area in one sentence?
Statistics provide a quantitative picture of research that is trying to ask important questions and find an answer — whether you’re setting up clinical trials or other studies. Biostatisticians work with those who know the content area of study but need help with the data. It’s always useful to ask a good question, as Dr. Bernard Greenberg [a former dean of the UNC School of Public Health] used to say.
It’s been my life experience that each person should contribute in whatever way they can; it’s our responsibility. I’ve been inspired by the things Gillings School students have done, and there’s still a need for more good data and skilled biostatisticians. That’s why I wanted to establish a scholarship.
What brought you to public health?
I once heard someone say that their life was not a straight line, but more like a zigzag, and I think that applies to me. Starting out, I had an interest in math and biology; I couldn’t decide, so I majored in both!
One day, when I was looking into graduate schools, I saw a notice about biostatistics on a bulletin board and realized that it combined my interests in biology and mathematics. I ended up going to a master’s degree program at Vanderbilt, which was not so far away from western Kentucky, where I’m from. I said to myself, “I like this field, let me consider going on.”
Later, I accompanied a colleague to a football game in Chapel Hill, and it was just a beautiful fall day! That experience helped me get comfortable with the idea of joining a doctoral program in public health at the University of North Carolina. I was also impressed that, even though Bernard Greenberg was very well-known, he was willing to spend time on the phone with me — and he was very enthusiastic about biostatistics!
How have you pivoted in response to the coronavirus pandemic?
The closest I’m coming to COVID is participating in reviews of funding proposals for COVID research projects. Obviously, the pandemic has restricted many activities, but I’m privileged to work from home and have been having virtual interactions.
Who are you when you’re at home?
I live on my family home-place, which requires a lawn service, and I just focus on adding plants and removing weeds. My family lives in the area and they are a major part of my activities, which include attending school and athletic events. I look forward to the return of in-person musical presentations by the local symphony. For many years, I contributed time and resources to several major social service organizations in the Washington, D.C., area because I was interested in addressing issues related to people who are homeless and in need of wrap-around services. Now that I live in my hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, again, I’ve begun to connect with some local social service agencies.