Lucile Adams-Campbell started her October 12 guest lecture with a surprising definition of a cancer survivor: anyone who’s been diagnosed with a cancer, starting with the moment of diagnosis and extending to end of life. This can mean duration from a single day to a span of many years. She went on to say that it is a lack of resources—access to care and treatment—that determines much of a survivor’s longevity. What happens after diagnosis matters, and in this regard there are consistent disparities in cancer survival that should be a concern to us all.
Adams-Campbell pointed out that as our population ages, the percentage of survivors will naturally increase. But while translational and cross-disciplinary research ushers in new understandings in causes, strategies, treatments, and adherence, there has been distressingly little research taking place within minority populations. “The whole idea that research never focused on minority populations or minority issues, although those populations tend to have the worst prognosis and outcome, always was an enigma to me,” she said. “We know that the understudied group will become the biggest burden in our social system, and we therefore must include all classifications of people in our research studies in order to understand a disease.” That’s what has motivated her trajectory of researching health disparities and addressing cancers that disproportionately impact African Americans.
Early in her academic career, Adams-Campbell became frustrated with research projects that dismissed the importance of studying the health of underrepresented groups. She noted that clinical trials often excluded patients with a history of diabetes, stroke, or smoking, leaving many minorities out of studies. As a result, the research failed to reflect disease as it actually occurs in the population. She determined to become a scientist in the field of epidemiology, making sure she always had adequate sample sizes of underrepresented populations.
Since then, one of her primary goals has been to export prevention-based clinical trials from the laboratory setting into the community, and she has successfully led several large cohort studies of African American women. Research funding is often difficult to secure, and being able to recruit participants and consistently track them with a high follow-up rate is also a challenge, but as a primary investigator, she has defied the odds through community-based outreach and follow-up measures. “As a researcher, you can’t be a helicopter (dropping into a neighborhood from the outside and then speeding out again) or vampire (just there for blood samples),” she said. “Community-based research takes time and energy and a longterm commitment.”
Prior to delving into the world of health disparities, Adams-Campbell studied chemical engineering at Drexel University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and her master’s degree in biomedical science. But then “I decided I did not want to pursue pipes and fluid dynamics any further—I wanted to get involved on the human side of research,” she said. So she became the first African American female in the nation to receive a PhD in epidemiology. After her academic studies, she completed a National Institutes of Health funded postdoctoral fellowship at Pitt before joining the Pitt Public Health faculty.
From her time here, she fondly recalls Lewis Kuller, emeritus professor and former chair of the department. “Lewis Kuller played a major role in my success. He was supportive of my research area of focus—African Americans—at a time when there was, to my knowledge, virtually no research being conducted on this population at the Graduate School of Public Health. He also supported me financially and academically to conduct hypertension research in Benin City, Nigeria, among schoolchildren. This work resulted in my receipt of the New Investigator award, the first grant I ever received from the National Institutes of Health, with Dr. Kuller serving as my mentor.” Kuller says Adams-Campbell stood out among her peers and was a major contributor to Pitt’s epidemiology program, both as a student and faculty member.
Adams-Campbell was in town to receive a University of Pittsburgh African American Alumni Council Distinguished Alumni Award during 2012 homecoming festivities. She can now add this to her long list of honors, including Pitt Public Health’s Distinguished Alumni Award (1995) and a University of Pittsburgh Legacy Laureate award (2010). She has also been elected to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine and inducted into the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame. She served as director of Howard University Cancer Center for 13 years and is currently the associate director for minority health and health disparities research, associate dean for community health and outreach, and professor of oncology at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University Medical Center.