Tonya J. Webb wanted to make an impact on the way cancer was being addressed — particularly how it affected people of color.

The associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who specializes in microbiology and immunology, gravitated to the field after several members of her family battled the disease. Now, she combats cancer while helping to inspire future cancer fighters.

The Diversity In Cancer Research Internship Program, which Webb leads, is an 11-week internship targeting underrepresented undergraduates. Students conduct research, shadow physicians in the clinic and participate in translational research seminars, career development workshops and health disparity journal clubs. They also meet with cancer survivors.

Tonya Webb (left) is an associate professor specializing in microbiology and immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She also heads up the Diversity In Cancer Research Internship Program.

“When the [American Cancer Society] offered the prospect to develop a cancer research training opportunity for college students in 2021, I immediately jumped at the opportunity,” said Webb, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Prairie View A&M University and a PhD in microbiology and immunology from Indiana University. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the Indiana University School of Medicine and in cancer immunology at Johns Hopkins.

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“They provided a path for me to promote things that I am passionate about — expanding the pipeline to increase diversity in the cancer research community and inspiring and creating opportunities for the next generation of scientists,” she said.

Black Americans account for 6.3% of cancer researchers in the United States, according to Zippia, a career and jobs website. By comparison, white people represent 53.4%, Asian Americans comprise 26.4% and Hispanic or Latino Americans make up 9.6%.

In the past, Webb’s students have worked to develop diagnostic tests to help detect cancer earlier, develop 3D cancer models that are more reflective of what happens in humans and would require fewer animals to be used in research, and to develop methods of enhancing or boosting immune responses so that the body can detect and kill cancer cells.

Webb described the students in the program as “brilliant minds creating innovative solutions to our current health care problems. The interns are not aware of many limitations that have hampered developments in the field, and so they are able to use current technology to develop tools that can address many of the challenges that slowed our progress.”

Webb’s students will unveil their work Wednesday at the University of Maryland during a poster presentation. The Baltimore Banner spoke with Webb, a leading immunologist and research scientist, about this year’s class and about the need to increase representation in the field.

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Why is it important that diverse youths start pursuing cancer research?

I believe that the earlier that you are aware of potential career paths and opportunities, the better you are able to prepare yourself and the more you feel a sense of belonging within that community. Within each field, there are certain expectations, a way of communicating, a certain type of behavior that is learned and expected. The earlier that one familiarizes oneself within that group, the easier it is to figure out those expectations and acclimate oneself.

Are there certain areas of cancer treatment that have more of a need for diverse people?

There are many areas that have disparities: prostate, breast, ovarian, head and neck cancers, to name a few.

Any forms of cancer that disproportionately affect diverse populations?

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Yes, for example, compared to white women, Black women are much less likely to develop breast cancer, but are more likely to have an aggressive form of breast cancer and die from the cancer.

Where are some of the places that participants of this program have wound up?

One former trainee is currently working for the Department of Defense. Another was recently accepted into a master’s in public health program. Others are currently applying to medical school and graduate programs.

How do you motivate and inspire youths to pursue this work?

By leading by example, I hope to show the students that since I have been able to have some success in the field, they are talented, creative and highly intelligent individuals capable of transforming the field — which is what we urgently need.

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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