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Black History Month Spotlight on CURE Scholar Dr. Tiffany Carson: Looking Back and Paying It Forward - Advancing the Science, the Landscape and the System

, by CRCHD Staff

In recognition of Black History Month, we at the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD) are recognizing select Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) scholars on CRCHD’s Dialogue on Disparities blog. In these spotlights, scholars discuss what Black History Month means to them, recognize some of their role models, and describe their research. This spotlight features CURE K01 scholar Tiffany L. Carson, PhD, MPH, who in 2020 earned two NIH R01 grants. Dr. Carson is Associate Member, George Edgecomb Scholar, Department of Health Outcomes and Behavior, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, and Associate Professor, Department of Oncological Sciences, Morsani College of Medicine, University of South Florida.

What does Black History Month mean to you?
Dr. Tiffany Carson

CURE K01 Scholar Dr. Tiffany Carson

Black History Month has always been a great source of pride and inspiration for me because it is the one time of year when the invaluable contributions of Black Americans are unapologetically celebrated. Even though Black history is American history, the accomplishments of Black Americans are not always taught in mainstream education systems. So, Black History Month at least provides a space to highlight Black history. As we continue to work to move toward a more just and inclusive society, it is my hope that the true and complete history of Black people in America will be fully integrated into the American story 365 days a year in addition to being highlighted in the month of February.

As we continue to work to move toward a more just and inclusive society, it is my hope that the true and complete history of Black people in America will be fully integrated into the American story 365 days a year... —Dr. Tiffany Carson
In what ways does this Black History Month feel different to you, given how challenging the past year has been regarding racial and social injustice?

Personally, it feels like Black History Month is of increased importance this year because it is critical that the narrative of Black individuals in America is accurately represented to the masses. Despite the pain presented by the challenges of the past year related to racial and social justice, I do feel that it has allowed us to have a more open dialogue about race in America—for better or worse. Still, we must press beyond conversations and performative acts for the month of February toward an intentional effort to identify and dismantle systems that have oppressed Black Americans for centuries.

...We must press beyond conversations and performative acts for the month of February toward an intentional effort to identify and dismantle systems that have oppressed Black Americans for centuries. —Dr. Tiffany Carson
Are there role models—past or present—who have been an inspiration to you and your work, and whom you would like to recognize this Black History Month?

My most proximal role models who have inspired me in a way that should be recognized are my parents and grandparents who always supported me, instilled in me the importance of education and helping others, and are still my biggest cheerleaders. From an early age, they provided great examples of what was possible with faith, hard work, perseverance and discipline. The achievements that they were able to accomplish in a time when life was, in many ways, more unjust for people of color inspire me daily to keep moving forward. I truly stand on their shoulders.

I also have been fortunate enough to have several Black academic mentors who have served as role models and inspired me tremendously. I consider it an honor to have Drs. Olivia Affuso, Jamy Ard and Monica Baskin on my roster of mentors. They were among the first people of color that I saw as successful faculty members and academic researchers. They all graciously embraced me as a mentee at a very early stage and they continue to provide outstanding mentoring to me at this point in my career. In addition, there are many other academic researchers and scientists of color who have inspired me over the years. I’m too afraid to list names out of fear that I will leave someone out. However, they serve as a consistent reminder that I should continue to do the work that I do because other young scientists from underrepresented groups need to see me—someone who looks like them—advancing science and achieving career success.

Lastly, we all have to have a famous celebrity role model, right? For me, those individuals are President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. They have shown us all what Black excellence looks like and have served as an inspiration to people from all backgrounds. Their intelligence, positive messages, hard work, compassion for others, commitment to parenting, and demonstration of grace, integrity and humility all deserve to be recognized and really make me feel overcome with joy and pride when I think of them.

...They serve as a consistent reminder that I should continue to do the work that I do because other young scientists from underrepresented groups need to see me—someone who looks like them—advancing science and achieving career success. —Dr. Tiffany Carson on the academic researchers and scientists of color who have inspired her.
What inspired your interest in cancer research?

From the time I decided to pursue public health, I was interested in cancer research because cancer is a disease that has touched essentially every person’s life either through a personal diagnosis or the diagnosis of a relative or friend. I personally know and love multiple cancer survivors as well as several individuals who unfortunately died from cancer. Still, it took me a while to actually commit to cancer research because I had a graduate school advisor tell me, “Tiffany, a lot of really smart people have been doing cancer research for over 25 years and still have not found a cure. So, I wouldn’t encourage you to go into cancer research if you really want to make a difference with your work.”

However, as I learned more about racial disparities in cancer across the cancer continuum, it became clear to me that there was a space for me in this area. Whether or not I ever contributed to finding a cure, I realized that there were ways that I could help reduce suffering from cancer, especially in underserved communities, by conducting research that could contribute to cancer prevention and control as well as by identifying ways to improve cancer survivorship experiences and outcomes.

Receiving a CURE K01 was a career-changing accomplishment that greatly impacted me and my research... —Dr. Tiffany Carson
Can you describe how you and your research have been impacted by receiving a CURE K01?

Receiving a CURE K01 was a career-changing accomplishment that greatly impacted me and my research in several ways. On a personal level, the K01 provided me with vital protected time to really receive training, mentoring and to fully develop as a scientist. It allowed me to focus on many aspects of career development, including grant writing, networking and team science, which would prove to be very beneficial. The award also helped me to connect with other K scholars for peer support and with many NIH officials (e.g., Program Officers), especially at CRCHD, who were committed to being a part of my career development. Lastly, the K01 award really gave me some much-needed confidence at an early stage in my career by confirming that others truly saw potential in me and my area of research interest.

My research has also benefited tremendously from my K01 award. At the time that I applied for the K01 award, there was an emerging interest in the role of the microbiome in cancer etiology and pathology. This area was new to me, but of great interest. So, my K01 application was centered around gaining training on this innovative topic and collecting preliminary data to inform my future research directions. The research that I was able to conduct as a result of my K01 award really helped me to emerge as a leader in microbiome research by allowing me to be on the forefront of this growing area of interest.

In 2020 you earned two R01 grants from NIH. Congratulations! Would you briefly describe your current research?

Thank you! My current research continues to explore behavioral and biological factors associated with cancer risk. My NCI-funded R01 study is focused on understanding how different dietary patterns affect the composition of gut bacteria (microbiota) among racially diverse populations. We are conducting a randomized feeding study to test whether the DASH dietary pattern leads to changes in the gut microbiota that are associated with reduced risk for colorectal cancer compared to the standard American diet.

My second R01 is funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and provides support for a randomized trial examining whether a culturally tailored, stress management-enhanced behavioral weight loss program leads to more weight loss than a standard behavioral weight loss program among Black women with elevated stress levels. Data indicate that Black women have a higher prevalence of obesity and lose less weight when attempting weight loss compared to White women for reasons that are not fully understood. This study will allow us to examine the role of stress management in weight loss. This has implications related to cancer prevention because we now know that obesity is a risk factor for at least 13 different cancer types.

...I believe it is important to highlight that no one can do this alone. A lot of what I have been able to accomplish is the result of having outstanding mentors early in my career who were committed to helping me achieve my full potential. —Dr. Tiffany Carson
Is there anything else that would be helpful to know about you or your career path thus far?

We’ve talked a lot about me and my career, but I believe it is important to highlight that no one can do this alone. A lot of what I have been able to accomplish is the result of having outstanding mentors early in my career who were committed to helping me achieve my full potential. I fully recognize the impact that a mentor can have on a young investigator, and because of that, I take mentoring very seriously. I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to pay forward some of the mentoring that I was fortunate enough to receive. Strong team members and collaborators have also been instrumental in developing my research program. Often times, the study PI or the first or senior author of a manuscript gets all of the accolades. However, without the support of a strong, committed, competent team, much of the work that I have done would not have been possible.

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