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Cancer Research, Mentorship and Confidence in Your Competence With Dr. Khadijah A. Mitchell

Dr. Khadijah A. Mitchell
Credit: Dr. Khadijah A. Mitchell
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Read time: 8 minutes

Dr. Khadijah A. Mitchell graduated with a doctorate in human genetics and molecular biology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, while also completing a graduate certificate in health disparities and health inequality from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

She currently serves as an assistant professor in the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center-Temple Health. Her research investigates population differences in tumor biology to better understand how biological, behavioral and environmental factors drive cancer health disparities. Through basic and translational studies, she explores the mechanisms of lung cancer initiation and progression after cigarette smoking and radon gas exposure. Her lab uses multiomic approaches to advance precision prevention and precision medicine.

Khadijah has also been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peter CS d’Aubermont MD Scholar of Health and Life Sciences Endowment, AACR Minority & MSI Faculty Scholar in Cancer Research Award, NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence, Carl Alden Scholar Award for Cancer Research Excellence and two AACR Scholar-in- Training Awards.

We spoke to Khadijah to learn more about the impact of her research and the importance of mentorship. She also shares some inspiring advice for women and girls in STEMM.

Sarah Whelan (SW): Can you talk me through your current research interests? What kind of projects are you working on?

Khadijah Mitchell (KM): Recently, I’ve focused my energy on lung cancer because it’s the underdog of the cancer community. We talk a lot about breast and prostate cancers, for example, because these have large survivor advocate communities. But we don’t talk about how more people die from lung cancer than those cancers combined, in part because there is a stigma surrounding lung cancer and the leading cause being smoking.

Right now, I’m interested in how the environmental exposome impacts genomics and transcriptomics – how your environment changes your biology. The two environmental exposures I’m studying are smoking – including secondhand smoke – and radon. Radon is an invisible, odorless and tasteless gas that is the second leading cause of lung cancer and the leading cause of lung cancer among never-smokers. I’m hoping that these projects will help us find new smoking-related and radon biomarkers so that we can include them as risk factors and change lung cancer screening guidelines and policies.

SW: What inspired you to begin a career in science? And why cancer research in particular?

KM: When I was 12, a family friend who had sickle cell anemia went into crisis. I asked my mother about it, and she always told me, “Look it up.” There wasn’t internet then, so I called the local hospital and they connected me with the genetic counseling clinic. The genetic counselor I spoke to, who at the time was one of three Black American genetic counselors in the country, asked if I wanted to visit the clinic.

It was inspiring for me to not only see a woman in the genetics field, but also a woman who looked like me.

I joined the volunteer program in the clinic with her, and then I worked in the genetic counseling clinic for four years.

I became fascinated with DNA; I thought it was the coolest thing that one tiny base pair change could change someone’s life. So, I knew at 12 that I wanted to be a human geneticist. I wanted to get my PhD in human genetics from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine – I was very specific. People thought that was crazy, because there’s no way at 12 years old that you know the exact degree program you want to do, but I did. That’s how I got started in science, but I also think of my mom as my first principal investigator. I was never that interested in playing with dolls or anything like that. I was always more interested in science, and my mom would get me science kits during the holidays – she really fostered that love.

I got into cancer research through a brilliant woman in science, Dr. Susanne M. Gollin, who I like to think of as my “science mom.” Although I always wanted to study human genetics, I wasn’t sure which area. I tried cytogenetics, molecular genetics, clinical genetics and even community genetics. When a friend connected me with Dr. Gollin, a world-renowned cancer geneticist, she introduced me to two things: cancer research and health disparities. I worked in her lab for a year after college, and it was such a great experience that afterward I knew cancer research was my calling.

SW: Do have any other mentors that have supported you in your career? How important are mentors in supporting the next generation of scientists?

KM: I’ve had phenomenal mentors who have not just supported me throughout my career, but advocated for me. I’m very specific about that because even when I’m not in the room, they’re cheering for me and highlighting my work – I think that’s critical.

My master’s degree mentor was Dr. Nancy Trun, a microbial geneticist. She was not just a fantastic scientist, but a fantastic mentor. While working on my PhD, there was a large army of women in that space that taught me not only hands-on techniques but also how to approach and navigate certain situations, troubleshoot and be resilient in the face of failure. My postdoctoral fellowship mentor, Dr. Bríd M. Ryan, is an expert lung cancer researcher who believed in me and my dream of having my own laboratory.

When starting my lab and thinking about myself as a mentor, I thought back to my first research project, which some people thought was too challenging for a 22-year-old. Dr. Gollin gave me the tools, space and opportunity, and I try to provide my mentees with the same blueprint for success. I’ve trained many young women scientists in my lab – over the past 5 years I had 34 students, and 75% of them identify as women.

All my mentors let me be my authentic self, and that also led to my success. I try to create that feeling in my lab. I think we can learn from business colleagues because they say to fail soon, fail often and fail forward. I try to fail forward so that I can learn something from the experience. Early in my career, I was denied several research opportunities. They tended to be men and women who didn’t look like me. For whatever reason, in their unconscious minds, I probably didn’t look like a scientist. As a mentor, I don’t focus heavily on grades or a lot of prior experience and check my own unconscious biases. I think that if someone has shown talent, interest and the desire to pursue science, then I can give them the tools, space and opportunity. Dr. Gollin gave me that and look at where I am today.

SW: Have you encountered any significant challenges or obstacles in your STEMM career so far? How did you navigate these?

KM: I’ve experienced a lot of sexism and racism, and maybe some classism. I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class family in a predominantly working-class city. So yes, I’ve had individuals tell me because of these little social boxes that I can’t do it.

When I told my mom that I wanted to be a scientist, she used to say, “Because of who you are, there are going to be people in the world who think you can’t do it – but I’m telling you that you can. One day this is going to happen, but I just want you to remember that they’re not telling the truth.” It’s funny, because one day somebody did say, “Girls can’t do that,” and, “I don’t know any Black geneticists.” I think about how I navigated those situations. I have a very strong sense of my own identity – this has greatly contributed to my STEMM confidence.

There are always challenges in life, even if your STEMM career is successful. That’s why I don’t compare myself to others. That is very hard in the age of LinkedIn and Instagram. I don’t use social media a lot, and I’m very mindful when I do use it. I’ve seen brilliant people get lost in invisible competition. I only compare my current self to my past self.


SW: What do you enjoy most about your career in science? What are some of your proudest achievements?

KM: What I enjoy most is the creativity and innovation in science. I know that independent research is my calling. I didn’t want to go into industry because then I wouldn’t have the freedom to create and innovate how I want to.

There are challenges and stressors in research, like funding, but I get to be my whole self, do the work that I want to do and help the people I want to help.

I know most people would say their discoveries, but my proudest achievement has honestly been my mentorship legacy. The students and the trainees who have come through my lab are the next generation of brilliant scientists in government, academia and industry.

Getting into Johns Hopkins was a dream come true and walking the same halls as my heroes since childhood was a very proud moment. I have a picture from my graduation day with me and my mom, and a similar picture of me when I was around 10. I have these two pictures side by side because it just means so much that my mom let me dream big and in color.

SW: Do you have any more advice that you would give to women and girls considering a career in STEMM? And what support do you think needs to be given?

KM: In my office, I put a quote of the week on my whiteboard. I have some specific quotes that I think are great advice, and I’d like to share them. These quotes are special because of the people who said them.

First, in the 1940s and 50s, there was a fantastic scientist named Dr. Roger Arliner Young. She was the first Black American woman to have a solo-author Science paper, but she ended up passing away in obscurity and very few people know about how impactful her work is. There is one surviving quote of hers: “Not failure, but low aim, is a crime.” This came at a time when women and people of color weren’t welcomed in science. So, I love that she persisted and continued to aim high.

There was also a wonderful US politician and supporter of research and programs to get youth into science named Representative Elijah E. Cummings. He said, “You must have confidence in your competence,” and I say that to my trainees all the time. You have to know you can do this, nobody else can give you that confidence.

Next, Barbara McClintock is one of the few women to win a Nobel Prize, but her discoveries weren’t widely accepted initially, and she defied society’s conventions as she wasn’t married. After she got the Nobel Prize people would ask, what do you say to all those people who said you couldn’t do it? She said: “If you know you’re on the right track, and if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off no matter what they say.” And I thought, how fierce is Barbara? After she got that Nobel Prize, the only thing she wanted was to buy herself a Volkswagen Beetle, and she used to drive it around Cold Spring Harbor.

The last one is from Marie Curie. Not only did she win a Nobel Prize on her own, but she has two in two different fields. She is the first person to do this, not just the first woman. I think what she said about challenges could resonate with many women and girls. She said, “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing must be attained.”

Dr. Khadijah A. Mitchell was speaking to Dr. Sarah Whelan, Science Writer for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee:

Dr. Khadijah Mitchell is an assistant professor in the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at Fox Chase Cancer-Temple Health. Her research uses multiomic approaches to better understand how biological, behavioral and environmental factors drive cancer health disparities. She holds a PhD in human genetics and molecular biology from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and has won numerous awards throughout her career, including two AACR-Scholar-in-Training Awards and the NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence.