By Steve Blanchard - February 15, 2021
While growing up in Valrico, Dr. Jasmine Graham remembers being one of two or three Black girls in her advanced placement and honors courses. The pressure to do well was very prevalent, but not different than any other time in her life.
“I’ve always recognized that I was part of the minority. Recognizing that early on allowed me to better adapt to these situations and environments over time,” said Graham, who, at 31 is now a medical physicist in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Department of Radiation Oncology. “Being a Black female in this field does add a certain level of pressure to succeed.”
But that pressure didn’t slow her down. Graham knew at a young age that she wanted to work in the medical field. In fact, she distinctly recalls making that decision at the age of 7.
“My mother was pregnant, and I was soon to become an older sister,” Graham said. “I decided that I was going to be an OB/GYN.”
That medical pursuit changed for her over the years, particularly when she learned about medical physicists during her freshman year of college at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.
“Starting out I was a biology major, but at freshman orientation one of the physics professors, Dr. Daniel Smith, spoke on the need for medical physicists and handed out pamphlets about the field. I knew instantly that I was interested,” Graham said. “I planned to enter medical school with a physics degree and spent my undergraduate summers participating in research programs to weigh my career options.”
She ended up near her family in graduate school studying physics at the University of South Florida. She was the first African American woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in physics at USF. Then she completed her medical physics residency in Orlando. In September 2019 she started her role at Moffitt as a medical physicist.
“I liken my role to that of a pharmacist,” she said. “When a physician prescribes medicine, a pharmacist draws the meds and provides them to the patient. I’m like a pharmacist for radiation treatments. Physicists work behind the scenes to ensure patients have radiation treatments that are safe, personalized and of the highest quality.”
In her role, Graham said she spends about 15% of her time with patients and the other 85% working behind the scenes. It’s a role she loves and one her family, including her husband, fully supports.
“I’m the first one in my family to go into the medical field,” Graham said. “But both of my parents work in STEM. My father majored in biology and is a chemist and my mother is a chemical engineer who is now working in environmental engineering. So, they were very supportive of me pursuing a career in medical physics.”
Graham adds that the medical community is becoming more diverse, but there are still strides to be made.
“Although I didn’t see a large number of Black female doctors growing up, it strengthened my cultural perspective when I did,” she said. “To see someone like you in that type of role, or in a political position like President Barack Obama, gives you a much broader vision of what you can achieve.”
Growing up Graham admired well-known Americans like Michelle Obama and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson. But she said it was her mother who most inspired her to continue her education and pursue her dream of working in medicine.
“She is the most hard-working woman I know,” Graham said. “The way she thinks of others before herself and leads a life of quiet diligence, consistency and self-sacrifice, I admire all of those qualities. It was my mother that I’ve tried to most be like.”
Now that she is an adult and working in the field of medicine, Graham has fully accepted her responsibility as a role model for young children, particularly Black girls. When Graham isn’t working, she can be found speaking to groups, tutoring, presenting and participating in a host of other activities to show future science, technology, engineering and math leaders what is possible.
“It’s truly a blessing to be in this position and a wonderful feeling to know that I can be a role model for aspiring young girls,” she said. “My part is to give back through community service and inspire more and more young women to pursue a career in the STEM field.”