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Discovering the causes of cancer and the means of prevention

Q&A with DCEG Fellows: Minority Health Research

Postdoctoral fellows Brittny Davis Lynn, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Tracy Layne, Ph.D., M.P.H., discuss their research on cancer health disparities and the experiences that led them to pursue this field.

Brittny Davis Lynn

Tell us about your research on health disparities.

Davis Lynn: My current research projects are focused on understanding racial disparities in breast cancer incidence. For one, I am investigating whether DNA methylation profiles in breast milk vary between white and African American women and whether these profiles are associated with known breast cancer risk factors. DNA methylation plays a significant role in breast carcinogenesis, and the analysis of milk during the postpartum period may help us understand mechanisms underlying breast cancer risk factors at a unique time in a woman’s reproductive life stage.

Layne: Currently, my research involves etiologic studies of prostate cancer. I am particularly interested in the interplay between race, vitamin D status, and cancer risk. Black men are an understudied population, especially in terms of prospective research; they are more likely to experience low vitamin D status, and more likely to develop prostate cancer, compared to men of other races or ethnicities. To investigate these relationships, I am evaluating nutrient status as measured by reported dietary intake, blood concentrations, and genetic variation, and race.

Dr. Tracy Layne, award winner

Tracy Layne

How did you get interested in this field?

Davis Lynn: As an African American woman, I am aware that there are certain diseases that I am at risk for, not only because of family history, but because race is a risk factor. As a scientist, I want to understand the interaction between the biological and social/environmental factors that make race a risk factor.

Layne: I developed a passion for and commitment to racial/ethnic cancer health disparities research during my MPH training at Boston University School of Public Health. I first learned of the extensive and pervasive nature of racial/ethnic health disparities in one of my core introductory courses. I subsequently became interested in the race-vitamin D-cancer relationship while looking for a final project for a course in cancer epidemiology.  


Who or what has supported you the most in your career?

Davis Lynn: Of course, my family. But also, government (NIH and National Science Foundation) funding programs aimed to support underrepresented persons. I have participated in several throughout my undergraduate and graduate career that have helped me to succeed, including the NIH Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate – Student Training in Academic Research (MARC U-STAR) program and the Initiative to Maximize Student Development (IMSD) Meyerhoff Graduate Fellows Program. The staff associated with these programs are committed to the success of their students.

Layne: I would have to say faith and family have been the most consistent sources of support, and continue to sustain me in my journey. I’ve also benefited from tremendous formal and informal mentorship throughout my academic training and now here in DCEG as a postdoctoral fellow.

What are your goals for the future?

Davis Lynn: I’d like to lead a cross-disciplinary research team focused on understanding how biology and the environment interact and impact cancer risk and survival.

Layne: In the short term, my goal is to come up with a cohesive set of research objectives that incorporate my training, and that are responsive to the research needs for addressing health disparities. In line with this, one of my long-term goals as an independent investigator is to build the interdisciplinary network necessary to develop racially and ethnically diverse cohorts to facilitate prospective research of under-studied populations in the future.

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