By Corrie Pellegrino - February 01, 2023
SPECIAL SERIES: WOMEN IN ONCOLOGY
Women faculty at Moffitt Cancer Center come from different backgrounds and cultures around the globe. Their areas of research and clinical care span the entire cancer continuum, including clinical science and trials, basic science, epidemiology, health outcomes, medical physics and more. Community involvement, mentorship and inclusion among faculty are foundational, and we celebrate the essential roles women play in making a difference at the cancer center and in society.
Meet Doratha A. Byrd, PhD
Doratha A. Byrd, PhD, focuses her research on the interrelationships among modifiable dietary and lifestyle exposures, the microbiome, and cancer risk and progression. Byrd completed her PhD in epidemiology at Emory University, where her research focused on the development and validation of novel, inflammation biomarker panel-weighted dietary and lifestyle inflammation scores and their associations with colorectal neoplasms. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Metabolic Epidemiology Branch of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, where she was involved in studies to establish the best standard methods for collecting fecal samples for 16S rRNA and shotgun metagenomic microbiome studies. In January 2021, she joined Moffitt Cancer Center as an assistant member in the Cancer Epidemiology Program, where she is continuing her methodological and etiological microbiome research.
What made you want to go into medicine/research as a career?
I have always been inspired by my grandmothers, who were passionate about eating well and being physically active. When I began to learn about the higher incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases that plague the Black and African American community, I became interested in how healthy lifestyle behaviors can potentially reduce disparities. I believe that by eating healthy and exercising, we not only reduce our risk for cancer but also improve our overall quality of life.
What are your research interests?
My research focuses on understanding the interrelationships among modifiable dietary and lifestyle exposures, the gastrointestinal microbiome, and cancer risk and progression. Ultimately, my goal is to use multilevel approaches to address cancer disparities with my etiological microbiome research.
What are you working on right now that you are most excited about?
I have several studies ongoing that I hope will address worse outcomes among Black and African American populations, who are more likely to develop and die from certain cancers. I am also interested in understanding why more individuals are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer at younger ages. Race- and age-related differences in cancer development and outcomes could be related to the trillions of microbes living in the gut (the gut microbiome), which may be modified such as through diet. Therefore, I am measuring the gut microbiome in large study populations including in diverse community clinic populations, among Black and African American breast cancer patients and in a cohort of newly diagnosed colorectal cancer patients, many of whom were diagnosed before age 50. I hope these studies will shed light on how to better prevent and treat cancer, particularly among disproportionately affected populations.
What is one of the biggest challenges in your field?
There are multiple challenges in the field that hinder progress toward understanding the associations of the microbiome with health and health disparities. First, availability of pre-diagnostic fecal specimens is limited among diverse populations to study how the microbiome is involved in the development of disease. Second, it is critical to collect detailed data, especially on potentially modifiable exposures — but doing so is often challenging. Finally, many existing microbiome studies lack representation of historically underrepresented individuals. I am hoping to address these challenges by developing large, population-based prospective studies with microbiome samples, identifying exposures that may be driving microbiome-related disparities by collecting detailed participant data, and recruiting diverse participants, such as from community health centers.
What do you see as the future of cancer care?
I hope that across the cancer continuum, we will be able to integrate established cancer biomarkers, such as the gut microbiome, into standard clinical practice. I also think it will be critical to develop evidence-based diet and lifestyle recommendations that reduce cancer burden across diverse populations.
What comes to mind when you hear the term “Superwoman Syndrome”?
I think of women in the workplace like myself, who find it difficult to balance both career and life responsibilities.
Have you ever experienced the pressures of Superwoman Syndrome?
I have. I became a mom in September 2021, which has been a roller coaster experience of learning how to work toward achieving my career goals while being the best mom that I can to my little girl.
How have you overcome those pressures?
I am working to overcome these pressures by learning to ask for help and learning to prioritize my time to focus on the things that matter most. I am also working to develop and utilize an extensive support system. This support system includes an incredible research team comprising stellar individuals, such as Stephanie Hogue, a dedicated research project specialist who has been instrumental in helping to move my projects forward. I have also learned to adjust the expectations that I have for myself and give myself grace. I also created habits and routines that help me to manage my time, such as meal prepping on Sundays and waking up early to fit in writing and reading.
What advice would you give a colleague about balancing work responsibilities, personal responsibilities and self-care?
Don’t be ashamed to ask for help, and it is OK to say “no” sometimes. Also, to take the best care of those around you, it is important to first take the time to take care of yourself.
Who is the person who encouraged you the most in your career and how did they impact you?
I have been incredibly lucky to have mentors who took the time to foster my career development. My PhD mentor, Dr. Roberd “Robin” Bostick, was instrumental in encouraging my career trajectory. He taught me how to work in interdisciplinary teams, conduct careful science, write competitive grants and lead a team. His encouragement motivated me to continue in my mission to study diet and cancer as a principal investigator. I went on to have mentors in the microbiome at NCI (Drs. Rashmi Sinha and Emily Vogtmann) and here at Moffitt (for example, Drs. Kathleen Egan and Tiffany Carson). These mentors were critical in helping me to learn how to implement methodologically sound microbiome and molecular epidemiology studies as a principal investigator. I am grateful to have been able to learn from these incredible individuals.