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Sterling on Black History Month and Representation in Public Health

Dr. Kymberle Landrum Sterling Q&A on Black Representation in the field of public health.

“Black history month is not just in February, but should be celebrated 365 days, throughout the whole year,” says Kymberle Landrum Sterling, DrPH, associate professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences, as she reflects on a radio personality’s forever-lasting impressionable quotes. “It’s not just one month, but my entire existence. I’m here because there were others who fought and advocated to allow Black people to be here. Black History Month is to recognize those individuals.”

We sat down with Sterling to discuss Black History Month, and learn about her experience as a Black woman in public health, research, and academics.

How has race impacted your academic career, both as a student and as a faculty member?

As humans, our tendency is to gravitate towards others that are similar to us. As a young high school student in a rural Louisiana town, I would look around my honors classes class and no one looked like me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I felt isolated. So when I went to Tulane, I met and befriended other Black students that had a similar upbringing to mine. We understood what it was to be considered “an other’ in all-white spaces. [As students] we relied on each other for academic and personal support.  We understood that we needed to create a supportive community for ourselves and how important that was for our growth. Because of my experiences, as a faculty member, I want to be able to create a supportive academic environment for all of my students, so they won’t have to feel isolated.

Being Black has impacted my research career in so many ways. Mostly, though, I hope all of my research has an impact on minoritized or vulnerable communities; to those who have upbringings like mine. As a researcher, I never want to conduct or publish my research just for the sake of doing so. I conduct research so that it can have a meaningful impact on people who look like me, and have a background like mine. I understand what it's like to grow up in a community where you don’t have a lot. However, there are assets in those communities. I want to ensure that my research can enhance those assets.

What role has race played in your research?

I believe it’s important for youth from underserved communities to see a researcher with a Black face like mine. As it is said, representation matters. I’m hopeful that little Black girls can see me and be inspired to pursue a career in research or public health.

Initially, it was a little daunting to walk into a room with peers or academic colleagues, and be the only one or one of few who looked like me. I had to learn to shift my mindset and recognize my presence as an opportunity to share a different experience. I could learn about different perspectives from my colleagues, and they could learn from mine. As a result of this, I feel an obligation to be the most authentic version of myself that I can be, so when people see me, they see me as a Black woman, recognize my perspective and everything that it represents.

How do you overcome adversity?

With lots of cheetos & coco-cola! But in all seriousness, I am a person of faith. I rely heavily on my faith to see me through difficult times. I understand that this life is not going to be perfect, and we will all experience difficulties as we journey. But, there is always a lesson that comes from adversity. It’s never fun or comfortable to go through it, but there is a lesson to be learned. I find it helpful to also remember and realize that difficult times will eventually pass. 

Who is your biggest inspiration?

There are so many people who inspire me, but my biggest inspirations are my mom and grandmother. My mom had me when she was 21, and raised my brother and me as a single parent, along with support from my grandmother. They and others are strong female influences in my life, and their struggles and accomplishments give me hope. Their experiences are a reminder to me that I can keep going, that it's ok to not be perfect, and I don’t have to be a superwoman. Coming from this strong line of women who were confident and walked with their own sense of purpose - I knew that if they could make it, I can make it too. That’s an important lesson that I hope to impart to my daughters.

What motivates you?

Music! I have a continuous soundtrack to my life. It is a huge motivator for me.

As it relates to work, an important motivator for me is to make sure I'm presenting my most authentic self, in hopes it encourages others. I’m big on [self] purpose. I believe we are all here to figure out what our purpose is. For me, I love kids. I really want to pour into the lives of young girls like me – to train them & mentor them. I want to make sure they know that there are so many more opportunities out there that they might not see in their communities. I hope that they can see me and know this is an option for them.

What can students, faculty, or staff members do to celebrate Black History Month?

“I would love for SPH to recognize the Black historical figures who contributed to medicine and to public health. Especially Henrietta Lacks, Dr. Marilyn Hughes, and Charles Drew.”

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) unknowingly had cells of her cervix removed, and later, those cells were used to develop the HeLa cell line, leading to biomedical breakthroughs including gene mapping, developing the polio vaccine, and a better understanding of HIV/AIDS.

Marilyn Hughes Gaston, MD (1939-present) spent her career working to improve medical access for poor and minority families. She is most notable for her contributions to sickle cell disease, identifying the importance of early detection and interventions. During her time at the NIH (1986), she also published work that led to a congressional legislative-supported-nationwide screening program to test newborns for immediate treatment for sickle cell disease.

Charles Richard Drew, MD (1904-1950) is known as the “father of blood banks”, was a surgeon and medical researcher that studied all things blood related - blood, transfusions, and blood banks. He developed a method to preserve blood plasma for transfusions which was used during World War II. He was the director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank, and contributed to the desegregation of blood donations.

“These, and many more, are the unsung heroes of public health. I hope we can all learn and take inspiration from them. Specifically, how their service and practice contributed to public health."

Can you speak to the importance of having Black representation in the field of Public Health?

It’s important that the people at the table [those involved in public health work] be representative of different walks of life and perspectives. It is important that black researchers, educators, and public health practitioners are participating, so that the communities we serve have a voice. No voice should be left unheard. And if every group can have some sort of representation, then we can ensure that we’re addressing the important challenges and problems that each group faces.

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