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#STEMStories: Adana, Molecular and Cancer Epidemiologist and Assistant Professor, USA

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

Hi! My name is Adana Llanos Wilson, although professionally I go by Adana Llanos. I am a molecular and cancer epidemiologist and Assistant Professor at Rutgers School of Public Health. My research focuses on cancers that disproportionately affect minorities and medically underserved populations. The objective of my research program is to understand the molecular and sociobiological mechanisms that cause poorer cancer outcomes among these groups.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

I was always good in math and science and figured that I would ultimately pursue a medical degree to become the first doctor in my family. While I eventually did become the first doctor in my family, I realized along the way that medical school was not the right path for me. As an undergraduate student at Howard University, I majored in biology (and minored in chemistry). After graduating, I applied to medical school unsuccessfully and thought I would take a gap year to study for the MCAT and reapply. During the summer after my graduation, I was offered a fellowship to pursue a PhD and couldn’t pass up the offer. So I applied to the doctoral program in genetics and human genetics, which the fellowship covered, allowing me to pursue my doctoral studies. This led me to my interests in cancer research. During my doctoral program, my advisor, the late Dr. Verle Headings, suggested I reach out to Dr. Peter Shields at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown. Upon meeting him and discussing my research interests, Dr. Shields invited me to join his lab for my dissertation research.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

Knowing that my research might help someone, especially someone that looks like me, is what gets me out of bed every morning. I also really enjoy mentoring and advising students interested in pursuing careers in STEM and/or in biomedical fields.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

My personal cure for stress is meditation, massages, traveling, and talking to my therapist. I think mental health is wealth! I can’t think of one particular story, but there are times when I experience “impostor syndrome” but I keep reminding myself that God has given me a particular set of gifts that require me to work hard and use those gifts to make a difference. I believe that I am able to do that through my research and by mentoring aspiring scientists and public health professionals. I would also add that it is important to always believe in yourself. “No one is you and that is your superpower!”

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I have many role models, including my mother and grandmothers, who inspire me to keep working hard even in difficult times. Professionally, my role model is Dr. Lucile Adams-Campbell, who is a world renowned epidemiologist and has been my mentor for over 10 years. Dr. Adams-Campbell was one of my mentors during my postdoctoral fellowship years and is someone whose career I admire. And she truly gives excellent advice. It’s also worth noting, Dr. Adams-Campbell was the first mentor I ever had that is a Black woman. And she is one of a kind!

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

The one thing I would say to a younger me is that you are stronger than you know and your work will speak for itself.

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

  1. Never doubt yourself, your intelligence and talents, or your place in STEM.
  2. Find yourself a good mentor that can relate to you on both professional AND personal levels.
  3. Keeping working hard and your work will speak for itself.

8. How do you measure your success?

My main measure of success is in my ability to set goals and achieve them. Once a goal has been achieved, I work on achieving the next one.

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

Here is a link to my current faculty profile:
https://sph.rutgers.edu/concentrations/biostatistics-epidemiology/faculty-member.php?id=61231

You can also find me on Twitter, where I try to post updates about my research: @AdanaLlanos

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

Twitter: @AdanaLlanos
LinkedIn: Adana Llanos, PhD, MPH