Updated: Nov 20
There are few circumstances in life where failure to recognize the importance of diversity and equity can lead to death, and the medical field is one of them. In the health care world, the basis of research medicine is fundamentally flawed due to continuous bias against including sex differences in medicine analysis. Professor Cerrone Foster of East Tennessee State University understands the power of studying race and gender when it comes to human biology. Foster was listed among “100 more inspiring Black scientists in America” last year by the science blog CrossTalk.
“My work is really driven by my passion, and burden, for equity and inclusion,” Foster said.
Foster, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, became interested in biology at 12 years old. Twenty years of research later, Foster finds herself as a scientist at ETSU after earning her Ph.D. Her research grant, funded by the American Heart Association, focuses on studying the role of estrogen loss in the aging hearts of women. Foster grew up witnessing the burden of healthcare in her family and through her diabetic grandmother. This began to spark her interest in medicine.
After studying the role of antibiotic effects on bacterial infections as a graduate student, Foster worked with the Faith-Based Initiative Organization out of the Tennessee Department of Health that strived to decrease cardiovascular disease. The initiative used local churches in the area to educate the public. This gave her a wider view of the adversity in the rural regions. The mortality rate in rural areas is 70 percent higher than urban areas. Foster saw the impact of these programs in the community.
The cultural aspects involved in science force researchers to recognize that social issues matter. In her classroom, Foster ensures all her students understand that diversity is needed to make scientific decisions through discussion of current topics of race and ethics. She encourages her students to see their role as young scientists in making a difference. Foster reminds them that they are next in line to make that difference in dealing with biases in healthcare.
“It’s a running joke that I say to all my students that one day you will be taking care of me and I need you to know what you’re doing,” Foster laughed. “I don’t wanna die.”
Michelle Hurley has known Foster for 20 years. Hurley met Foster as a student through the McNair Program and saw that she was an outstanding learner. As a result of her observations, Hurley asked Foster to teach. Foster uses her learning environment to enable students to interact and move out of their comfort zones.
Hurley praised Foster’s ability to hold her students to high standards and guide them to seek out opportunities for education on diversity.
“She’s willing to help students reach those expectations,” said Hurley.
When pursuing their passions and careers, many students tell her they want to find mentors that they can identify with. Foster knows this feeling all too well.
“I have a lot of young women who want to work with me in my lab,” Foster said. “I think that says something about the importance of women in science.”
Pamela Avendaño found Foster in fall 2018 as her professor for intro biology, and quickly became inspired by her evident passion for analytics. Today, Avendaño studies alongside Foster who became her research mentor for Avendaño’s thesis.
“I look up to her so much,” Avendaño said. “She devotes her time to everything and gives it 120 percent. She puts her heart into it.”
Foster said she knows that her students look to her as an example in science beyond the traditional or stereotypical image of an "older white male". The current disparities in medicinal science are present in Appalachia, and also on a national level. Foster has not been shielded from negative perspectives that exist and microaggressions in the form of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination. Foster said she is affected by global racism as a whole. She feels blessed to have grown in a space that gave her good training on dealing with these issues and the opportunity to change the narrative.
“I didn’t have examples of scientists growing up,” Foster said.
Everyone has their role in solving the ethical issues faced in society, and Foster found hers in her research on the human heart. Without studying the biology of differences and how it impacts medicinal treatment, there would be no solution to diseases. The distinction between gender and biology of races is required if there is to be a true representation of this world in healthcare. This diversity does not mean to divide, but to include everyone in medical research. Foster said that in society many people don’t have an accurate reflection of both women and men in medicine. The lack of understanding can lead to someone potentially dying if differences are not acknowledged by understanding how biology affects each person.
“Truth matters and the truth of who we are in being diverse is how we get it right,” Foster said.
Foster continues her current research on the effects of estrogen loss in women’s health at ETSU, and she is also teaching her students the role of equity in biology. Her mentorship has inspired many students to persist through adversities and move forward to create a better environment for people of all backgrounds.