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CURE Scholar Dr. Jelani Zarif on a Time to Celebrate African Americans’ Contributions and Reflect on Past Plights

, 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 K22 scholar Jelani C. Zarif, PhD. Dr. Zarif is Assistant Professor of Oncology, Prostate Cancer Program, Member, Bloomberg-Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Dr. Jelani Zarif

CURE Scholar Dr. Jelani Zarif

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Firstly, Black history is American history. Black History Month is a time of year when I, other Africans Americans and many other groups take time to revisit what Black Americans fought for to make America and the world better for the next generation. It’s a time of reflection—when past contributions of African Americans are celebrated and when the past plights are highlighted.

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?

The past year has really highlighted that we still have a lot of progress to make to achieve Dr. King’s dream and to have a sense of equality for all.

It's a time of reflection—when past contributions of African Americans are celebrated and when the past plights are highlighted. —Dr. Jelani Zarif on Black History Month.
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?

While in undergraduate at a Historically Black College, Jackson State University, I was fortunate to have had a number of excellent role models in scientific research. I was first mentored in a summer program by cardiologist Rashad Belin MD, PhD, in the lab of Dr. Pieter De Tombe. He was a graduate student back then and, while working with him in the laboratory, I learned a lot about how bench research is conducted. Thereafter, I began conducting prostate cancer research under the late Dr. Stephen Ekunwe at Jackson State University. He was a fantastic mentor and role model who taught us how to really break down and read papers and to analyze data. He also taught us to be mindful of every step in our experiments.

As a graduate student, Dr. Cindy Miranti was an outstanding mentor and provided a very nurturing environment where I received excellent cell and molecular biology training. As a postdoctoral fellow and now faculty, I have continued to have great role models near and far that I would like to also recognize: Dr. Drew Pardoll, Johns Hopkins, Dr. Namandje Bumpus, Johns Hopkins, Dr. Clayton Yates, Tuskegee University, Dr. John Carpten, University of Southern California, Dr. Kunle Odunsi, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Cato Laurencin, University of Connecticut, and Dr. Miriam Merad, Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. I am also inspired by the tenacity of my graduate students and trainees.

The past year has really highlighted that we still have a lot of progress to make to achieve Dr. King’s dream and to have a sense of equality for all. —Dr. Jelani Zarif
What inspired your interest in cancer research?

At an early age, I had an interest in science and participated in the annual school science fair. I wondered how (and why) many things around us worked. My interest in cancer and cancer research was really sparked in high school, when I began working as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing and rehabilitation center in Chicago, IL. Some patients recovered from therapies without relapse of disease, and some unfortunately did not. These experiences inspired me to want to understand cancer and how we can treat cancer better. This interest was further bolstered by working in the laboratory of Dr. Stephen Ekunwe at Jackson State University (undergraduate - Masters) and during my PhD studies with Dr. Cindy Miranti at Michigan State University.

Would you briefly describe your current research?

The goal of our research is to identify novel immunotherapeutic targets and approaches for treating metastatic prostate cancer, specifically bone metastatic prostate cancer for improving patient survival.

Our K22-funded research will identify ways to circumvent cancer immune evasion and to activate anti-tumor immune responses in metastatic disease. —Dr. Jelani Zarif
Can you describe how you and your research have been impacted by receiving a CURE K22?

Prostate cancer metastasis is the deadliest aspect of the disease, and therapeutic options remain dismal. In primary and secondary tissue sites, cancer cells hijack the normal immune cells and their cellular processes through several mechanisms, which results in tumor progression and inhibition of anti-tumoral immune responses. Our K22-funded research will identify ways to circumvent cancer immune evasion and to activate anti-tumor immune responses in metastatic disease.

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