Mya Roberson talks epidemiology, health equity and life during a pandemic.
What’s your role in public health?
I’m currently a doctoral candidate in UNC Gillings’ epidemiology department. This fall, I will be joining the Department of Health Policy in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine as an assistant professor.
I came to Gillings right from undergrad at Brown University, where I studied public health. Getting that degree, I developed an interest in breast cancer disparities — I came here to study that subject in greater depth.
My dissertation focuses on cancer care delivery for black women with breast cancer in North Carolina. I began my Master of Science in Public Health work using the Carolina Breast Cancer Study (CBCS), which is one of the most foundational studies of all time for breast cancer disparities. I learned about it in undergrad and thought it would be a great opportunity to come to the institution where that study was based. After building my master’s thesis around the CBCS, I realized how many more resources are available here for cancer disparities work through UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and I branched out.
Can you describe your focus area in one sentence?
I study cancer care delivery for Black people in the United States.
[Editor: It takes most people a lot more words to summarize their work!]
Well, as a Health Policy Research Scholar with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I spent an entire academic year learning how to communicate research in simple language. That program has been tremendously formative for me as a scientist; it made me immensely better at talking about my work, including how to share findings with different groups like media and policy makers.
What brought you to public health?
I was fortunate to take a class on cancer epidemiology as a sophomore. There was one specific guest lecture from a faculty member who later became my thesis adviser — it changed everything. She put up a graph showing the gap in mortality between Black and white women with breast cancer. From that moment, I wanted to do something about that gap. I still share that graph in every presentation I give.
We have made so many strides in breast cancer care delivery, especially over the last 20 years. We have targeted therapies and women living longer after diagnosis, but those advances have not reached Black patients in the same way. There are notable disparities in mortality as well as longer term outcomes, because among cancer survivors, there are negative effects from the treatments that appear to occur more frequently or severely in Black women. These disparities usually play out across race despite income level.
My work examines the whole cancer care continuum from screening onward. I think less about head-to-head Black/white disparities and more about disparities within subgroups. There is so much underacknowledged variation in cancer care and outcomes within groups typically affected by health disparities, like Black women. Right now, my dissertation is looking at urban versus rural care experiences.
How have you pivoted in response to the coronavirus pandemic?
That’s an interesting question because, functionally, nothing has changed about my research. I do secondary data analysis on large datasets, so I’m not out in the field and my work has not been disrupted.
What’s really changed for me is trying to write a dissertation while managing immense feelings of isolation. I used to see people at the Gillings School every day. Now, I’m set to finish in spring and I’m desperately missing the human connection I’ve relied on during the slog of grad school — especially the ability to drop into the Office of Student Affairs and be greeted with such warmth. I’ve had to get creative in maintaining my community.
A specific example is that last May, one of my peers in the Health Policy Research Scholars program was graduating from N.C. State. When her commencement was cancelled, I surprised her by dropping off flowers and gifts when she wasn’t home and then a group of friends held a celebration over Zoom. She thought we’d just briefly toast her, but we actually made a program, played “Pomp and Circumstance” and even had her husband do a hooding ceremony. As a silver lining, we were able to include her family in Kenya who wouldn’t have been involved otherwise. I will carry with me the joy on her face when she saw them– that’s one of my favorite pandemic memories.
[Editor: Dean Rimer talks about a parallel pandemic of racism in America that’s playing out alongside the coronavirus. You published an article in Nature about supporting early-career Black scholars, and you often post about systemic racism on Twitter.]
Yes. To avoid hemorrhaging Black scholars — especially as they’re starting their careers — we need to double down on supporting both students and faculty. I wrote that article from a place of recognizing the mentorship and sponsorship that I’ve received at Carolina and elsewhere. I wanted to provide tangible examples; those things were not abstract for me. I experienced them and they were deeply consequential to how successful I’ve been.
I got overwhelmingly positive responses to that piece, and people expressed a slight sense of relief that there were concrete suggestions they could follow. I think I had taken for granted that things like inviting Black scholars to speaker series and proactively supporting grant submissions were obvious for me, but apparently, they aren’t obvious to everyone. I want to point out that the vast majority of the examples I included are free. It’s not expensive to begin to change culture and invest in Black scholars. You can start with small improvements while we tackle larger structural issues. Just ask yourself: “What can I do tomorrow?”
Who are you when you’re at home?
I have a black Lab who is a frequent guest on my Zoom calls. I adopted him four days after I started grad school. That was during the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, and the Alamance County shelter was giving all the animals Olympic-themed names. My dog’s name was Rio de Janeiro — that’s entirely too long, so now his name is Malcolm.
I enjoy cooking spicy food. I cannot bake even though I wish I could. I recently did a podcast episode about how, pre-COVID, I had started contortion training and aerial arts for fun. I’ve been doing online classes, but it’s not the same — I can’t rig up an aerial hoop in my apartment! Anyway, you can learn more about me and lots of brilliant epidemiologists on Shiny Epi People, hosted by Gillings alum Lisa Bodnar.
Read more interviews in The Pivot series.