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The new vocation of a preacher: diversifying research in neuroscience

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Ohen I pastored a large Baptist church, people often came to me for help. These requests typically related to domestic relationships, grief trauma, or spiritual counseling. But the call from a young woman in my congregation to become a cancer researcher resonates with the new work I have been doing since my last sermon as pastor in August 2021.

At the time, the woman was a student at Hampton University, a historically black school in Hampton, Virginia. She told me that she wanted to become a cancer researcher, but she didn’t know how to get into this field. I connected her with other members of the church who work in biomedical research, as well as leaders at the University of Maryland whom I had come to know through my work with the church. and the community. Today, she works in the cancer research division at Johns Hopkins University.

She shouldn’t have had to come to her pastor for this help. Instead, a clear path and ladder of advancement should have been clearly visible to her and other science students of color. People seeking to work in labs or with patients should not be dependent on who-knows-who favors the most privileged. Instead, finding the path to medical research should be based on a person’s desire to know and help others.

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After leaving my post as pastor of Union Baptist Church of Baltimore in 2021, I have focused on serving my community in a different way: ensuring that the benefits of neuroscience reach more people of color by ensuring that they conduct research and participate in clinical studies. trials and research. This work, which began three years ago, is the fruit of a winding journey, stimulated by a few childhood experiences, my meeting with the young woman who wanted to be a cancer researcher, and events.

I first saw the need for better medical care and a better understanding of brain science in the African American community in the experiences of my older brother, Charles, who was born with a developmental disability that required special care. Throughout his life, our family and community rallied to provide support, but I always wondered if there were any treatments or care that might have helped Charles if the science had been better.

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When I was in seminary, I met Patricia Outlaw, a doctor of ministry and psychologist. She walked into the classroom to teach one day in a tracksuit, explaining that she had just come from the National Institutes of Health, where she was participating in an aging study that tracked the health of a range of participants for decades. She explained that she became involved in this study because there was a critical need for more African American participants. My wife and I signed up to participate and are still participating 20 years later.

Over the years, as I interacted with African American scientists in my church and across Maryland and beyond, I realized that if medical science is to benefit everyone, it is essential to engage a more diverse group of people to participate in and lead the research.

To be clear, despite the fact that humans of all races and backgrounds are approximately 99.9% genetically identical, the 0.1% difference varies by ancestry and may contain responses to patterns that emerge between races, geographies or demographic groups. These slight variations may explain why some people are more likely to suffer from certain diseases and others less likely. When science focuses on the genomes of people of European descent – ​​as it overwhelmingly has – information that benefits everyone is missed.

President Obama launched the Precision Medicine Initiative to recognize that one-size-fits-all approaches to disease and treatment are not suitable for all individuals based on ancestral, social, and cultural differences. It’s not just a scientific question. It is also a matter of social justice.

This reality is what led me to launch the African Ancestry Neuroscience Research Initiative (AANRI), a partnership between community leaders, Morgan State University and the Lieber Institute for Brain Development. The focus on neuroscience stems from two key facts.

The first is that many mental illnesses are more common among people of African descent than among those of European descent. African Americans are 20% more likely to have serious mental health problems than the general population and twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Yet only about 5% of participants in brain disorder research studies belong to underrepresented racial or ethnic groups.

The second fact is that African-American scientists only make up about 4% of neuroscience PhDs, according to the Society for Neuroscience. In the United States, only 3% of neuroscience postdocs and 1% of neuroscience faculty members are African American. Diversity must be part of those who design and conduct medical research, as well as those who participate in it.

In an AANRI collaboration, scientists from the Lieber Institute are working with their existing genomic dataset on people of African descent. One of the team members is a graduate student from Morgan State University who will complete her master’s thesis at Lieber. This is an example of a way to engage more students of African descent in neuroscience while creating more diversity among the populations studied by scientists.

As science leaders work to make this vast enterprise more diverse and inclusive, communities of color need to be involved early in the scientific process and throughout its entirety. Communities most affected by a disease, or those that have been excluded from medical research, must have a central voice in shaping the future of research. This is what makes involving more African Americans in medical research a matter of social justice. Efforts to make science more diverse, inclusive and equitable that do not view science as a participatory process will continue to fail.

As a pastor, I have often preached about the power and potential of individuals and communities. My latest calling, working to ensure that those who shape the future of science are not selected by chance, chance encounters or paths that are only accessible and visible to some, is not so different.

Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., is the executive director of the African Ancestry Neuroscience Research Initiative and pastor emeritus of Union Baptist Church in Baltimore.