In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Cancer Act, Dr. Nicole Deziel shares her motivation for pursuing a career in cancer research:
What brought you to work in cancer research?
Growing up on Long Island, NY in the 1980s and 1990s, there were suspected cancer clusters, including high rates of breast cancer. My community wondered if it had to do with pesticides used on farmland, above-ground power lines, or other environmental issues. The lack of knowledge motivated me to want to better understand the connections between the environment and cancer. In college at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, I became familiar with environmental health and epidemiology. I learned that one of the most important and difficult pieces of this research is getting accurate, high-quality measurements of what people are exposed to. That’s now the focal area of my research and where I hope to make a significant impact.
Where do you see the future of cancer research?
Studying occupational and environmental carcinogens in population-based studies is challenging. Cancer has a long latency period, requiring exposures to be assessed over years or decades. People are concurrently exposed to numerous environmental stressors in and around their homes, schools, and workplaces. We must improve and expand the monitoring infrastructure for carcinogens in our environment. In addition, environmental and public health policies need to prioritize primary prevention to reduce or avoid exposures to toxic chemicals. An important component of this is health equity, because in the US and globally populations of lower income or greater racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately exposed to many environmental carcinogens.
What are some of the advances you have seen during your career?
Traditional epidemiologic studies examined chemicals one at a time. This does not represent the real-world situation in which people are exposed to multiple chemicals concurrently. There have been major laboratory advances to be able to quantify millions of molecules in very small quantities of blood or urine as one tool for assessing concurrent exposures to multiple environmental chemicals. In addition, there have been statistical advances in informatics to be able to analyze the complex mixtures of numerous environmental agents, trying to disentangle which may be the most harmful.
Why is it so important to encourage younger and diverse groups to pursue a career in cancer research?
I think younger people are less encumbered by existing paradigms and structures and can re-envision the possibilities and solutions for addressing cancer. In addition, interventions and mitigation strategies likely differ for different populations, geographic regions, and communities and therefore representation matters to ensure we are asking the right questions and developing equitable and effective solutions for cancer mitigation.