Making History: Increasing Representation in Cancer Research

[00:00:00] Adam Walker: From Susan G. Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room.

[00:00:14] Adam Walker: As we celebrate Black History Month, it is our honor to be joined today by a woman truly making history and one that I know we will be seeing much more from in the future. Dr. Zainab Shonibare, recently graduated from her PhD in 2022, is a reproductive cancer researcher at Yale University and the first Black postdoctoral researcher in her lab. Her story underscores why representation matters and diversity in research is so important, and Dr. Shonibare is here today to share her story and tell us about the focus of her research. I can’t wait to get started…so let’s get to it.  Zainab, welcome to the show!

[00:00:54] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Such an honor and privilege to be here today. So thank you.

[00:00:59] Adam Walker: This is gonna be a fantastic discussion. I’m excited about it. Tell our listeners a little about yourself and what you’re currently doing. What’s your current day look like? And what’s your journey look like to get here?

[00:01:12] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Oh, absolutely. So I’m Zainab Shonibare. I’m currently a post-doctoral cancer researcher at Yale University School of Medicine, where I’m focused on reproductive cancers. And what this means is just the cancer of the female reproductive system. I’m an immigrant. I’m originally from Nigeria, and that was where I completed my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry before moving to the United States in 2017 to begin my PhD at USC, South Carolina. And in 2019, I moved… I transferred alongside my advisor to the University of Alabama at Birmingham to complete my PhD in 2022. And so, and that is me.

[00:01:54] Adam Walker: Wow, okay. That’s a lot of academic rigor. So congratulations on that. I’m profoundly impressed. And so what do you do right now? What do your days look like?

[00:02:08] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: So right now cause I’m doing a postdoctoral cancer research and that involves a lot of things. Majorly it’s heavily research based and we do translational research, both basic science research in the lab and also I’m involved in some clinical research as well. I, in addition to this, I do a lot of mentoring and mentor young and upcoming junior scientists in the lab, which I’m super excited about and I think that’s like a, a good summary of what my day-to-day looks like.

[00:02:38] Adam Walker: Okay. And so, did you always want to go into the medical field? What drew you toward this?

[00:02:44] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: So my journey to science and medicine is quite interesting. So in the sense that my journey to medicine actually evolved along the line, but my journey to science has been something that has been ongoing for a long time. I think this is because as a little child, I’ve always had this curiosity in me. I’ve always been inquisitive about things around me. I’ve always questioned my surroundings and things that I found to be intriguing. For example, a typical example was this. I remember when I was a little child in high school, I had these curiosity that was not gonna let go… about aspirin. I think about it a lot that when you take aspirin from the mouth, how does a cure an ache in the head? And this is something I found very intriguing, and it was one of the reasons that inspired me to major in biochemistry during my undergraduate degree. And biochemistry is just all about solving mystery, understanding the mechanism, basically just finding answers to why. And that was how my journey to science began before I decided to…

[00:03:48] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: But I take further steps into my understanding of science and then pursue a PhD while I focus on cancer research. And I think the reason why I decided to focus on cancer research, actually also boils down to my society, my surrounding. Where I grew up in Nigeria, I witness women being disproportionately impacted by cancer, especially reproductive cancers. And this really inspired to me and in me to be a part of teams at the cutting edge, working to help find solutions to these problems. And this is why I decided to pursue a PhD in cancer biology.

[00:04:25] Adam Walker: Oh, that’s fantastic. Okay. So you saw the problem and you want to do the research to solve it, which is incredibly, incredibly admirable. So what’s the focus of your research right now?

[00:04:37] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Yeah. So my research right now we’re trying to elicidate or understand the etiology of reproductive cancers, and more specifically, we’re focused on reproductive cancers that have the tumor suppressor imitation. In addition to this, my research is also focused on evaluating novel therapeutics to how combat this disease. And one of the main reproductive cancers that we look at in our lab is ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, because reproductive cancer also includes ovarian, endometrial cancer… vagina cancer as well. But one of the main one that we’re heavily focused on right now, ovarian cancer, this is the fifth leading cause of death in women from cancer. It’s very important that we focus on this cancer. And the most interesting part of it is that despite the advancements in surgery, in chemotherapy, in science and technology, yet about 80% of patients will still experience relapse with this disease and develop, and what we for lack of better word, refer to as incurable disease. And about 10% of the ovarian cancer patients we’ve noticed, or we’ve seen or signs have seen that they have a one imitation in the class and endometrial cancer. And this is why my research is trying to understand how we can identify novel therapeutics to help provide effective therapeutics for this unique patient population. And so, yes, that’s kind of like summarizes what my research is all about.

[00:06:18] Adam Walker: Okay. Okay. That sounds important and very complicated. So thank you. Thank you for sharing that. So, it’s Black History Month. And I understand that you are making history as the first black postdoc in your lab. Tell me what’s that like?

[00:06:35] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Absolutely, I think the most phenomenal theme and the most inspiring and unique part of this is that is the fact that while you’re trying to reach a milestone, you are also experiencing a milestone. And the reason why I says this is because that, while it’s true I’m being the first black postdoc in my lab, the reality is that despite the fact that I’ve been to various institutions, I’ve also presented at multiple conferences at the national international level, which are places where you meet people in the field, it took me getting to Yale to see my first black postdoc. So, at the same time while I’m being the first black postdoc in my lab, I’m also witnessing that for the first time, myself, which is very profound. And he just understand it underscore to us as a society where there is so much work that is needed to be done to help increase diversity in science, especially in STEM.

[00:07:35] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: And this is important at multiple level because like especially in a field of cancer, cancer research, there’s a lot of disparity and inequity in cancer research, especially. Also in patient outcome as well. So it’s important for us to have those people at the field, those working at cutting edge researcher to also represent and also be focused on cancers that really represents the diverse patient population we’re hoping to serve. So, and this is something which I think is very important because there’s a lot of like barriers limiting the retention of especially minority black people in academia. And it’s very important to find ways in which, intentional ways that can be I employed to recruit and retain them in academia. And so, yeah. I feel so grateful. I feel so blessed, most of all. I feel very privileged to be in this position to help inspire people and to show them that that this is what a scientists look like. And just kind of like driftING away from traditional view of what a female scientist should look like. And I’m so excited about that.

[00:08:48] Adam Walker: Yeah. Scientists should look like everyone, right? It just now there’s not one look. There’s not one look. So, no that’s fantastic. And as a researcher, like how do you think we address the inequities and disparities in cancer research? How do we find more diversity in that field?

[00:09:07] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Yes. I think this is such a very unique question and a very interesting question because you can answer this question multifaceted from different angles. I think one very important parts in terms of increasing diversity or tackling inequity in cancer research is education. Those are currently, the current researchers that we have, the existing researchers that we have, I think it’s very important to educate them on the importance of having a representative sample. Right from experimentation, testing sample, the population they focus their research on. And also educating them on the importance of making this the science, the scientific process, experimental procedures, making them more representative because the result from these studies.. It’s going to be applied to a patient population, which is not monolithic. Patient population is very diverse.

[00:10:02] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: That and, and so it’s very important to highlight this to those currently at the field. In terms of helping to improve the situation, I think there’s many things that can be done at more, many level, multiple levels. There’s a need for better mentorship for those coming into the program, coming into the field. And the reason why I talk about like need for better mentorship is because when I began my PhD… I actually, I think at the midpoint of my PhD, we were two black students in the lab, we’re both female, not in the lab, sorry, in my class. And we were both female. We were the only black people in my class. And it was very interesting because the second black girl suddenly dropped out of the program. And while she obviously and definitely have her reasons, I think if she had strong mentorship or support, I think it might have changed a story a little bit and that is why I feel so very grateful and so privileged to be surrounded by so many community of mentors that help ensure they guide me.

[00:11:07] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: They advise me to support me at multiple levels and multiple stages of my career. And also it also comes down to the admission process, recruitment, trying to make the graduate school application process more accessible to minority students trying to provide, kind of like, for lack of a better word, I would say like incentive to encourage people into science and STEM. And this makes me think about one program that I was a part of at the early stage of my PhD, which is called the K-12 program. And what we do is that we go to high school or like middle school, elementary school and try some really fancy, cool scientific demonstration to help encourage little kids to build their interest in science. I think this is important. If if this effort have been done more intentionally, it’s been targeted to like communities where there’s a high concentration population of black and brown people, especially black people, and helping them right from like the growing stage from their years. They’re trying to like, make science interesting and exciting to them.

[00:12:14] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: I think those are ways in which graduate programs can be more intentional in ensuring that the applicant pool that apply to their schools are more representative of the people population in our society. Also, like making admission processes less cumbersome, in the sense, I’m not talking about like statistics that has been used to gauge them. But I talk about being cumbersome is just kind providing support, like providing like personal statement writing workshop for minorities students. Things that can help increase the way they navigate through the journey. And this is why I feel super excited and privileged, which is one of the main focus of my Instagram page, trying to demystify this process for people, for those coming up of the next generation of scientists. And I think the reason why I’m super passionate about this is because when I look at my upbringing, my background, I feel uniquely privileged because not only am I not the first PhD in my family, both extended and immediate, I was not the first PhD in my immediate family. And so I had people from my immediate family that I really like walk me through the process, which helped demystify the process for me and made me realize what I need to do when I need to do it. And this is a really important, when you talk about like graduate school, especially navigating through the admission process. And so, yeah, I really hope I answer your question.

[00:13:41] Adam Walker: Yeah. No, no. I think that, I think you did. Yeah, that was great. And to your point Some of those processes seem so overwhelming and they don’t have to be, right? And so I, I think the work that you’re doing there and the way you’re demystifying that is so, so helpful. So you mentioned this I think as a little bit as a part of your answer, but why is it so important to inspire that next generation? Can you talk a little bit more about that?

[00:14:06] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think it’s super important to inspire the next generation of scientists and future physician as well. Especially in field, like my field, biomedical sciences, which involves a lot of collaboration between science and medicine. It’s very important to inspire the next generation. Not only because those trying to help, they, it’s important to be representative of them. Because when you when you represent patient population, you can uniquely relate to certain struggles, certain limitations that they feel can bring unique and diverse perspective to table, to discussion, to decisions being made.

[00:14:47] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: And so, it’s super important to be able to inspire the next generation to help ensure that these, the struggles and challenges that you pass through, the next generation can find it easier. And not only for this when think about, aside from like the academic aspect of it when think about we as a whole society where there’s a lot of socioeconomic gaps. We’ve seen that there seem to be like a correlation between your level of education and kinda like, I don’t wanna say wealth. Wealth is not the right world. Also like with salary gaps, for example, like when you have a PhD, it can increase your chances of getting a better job, and at least on a minimum, you won’t fall into the lower category in terms of socioeconomic skill.

[00:15:28] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: So I think it’s important because, not just for academic reason. I think it’s help the society economically, it’s help bridging the gaps that we have in our society in terms of SES. And so it’s important to like, help ensure that many people know how to go through this process and navigate through this journey. And just to kind give back to your society, give back to a lot of people that paved way for me to get here. There’ve been a lot of women scientists, like the saying goes, “Some people had to walk for me to run.” And so it’s important to pass on the baton and keep this rolling, and keep encouraging people, and keep letting them realize that they could be what they hope to be and making them think beyond the usual stereotype. We can think of other things that they could be, and I think that would really be important for us as a society as we move forward.

[00:16:23] Adam Walker: That’s very well said. Very people walk so you can run. I really like that statement. That was really good. So, so how can our listeners help? I mean, if they’re listening to this episode, is there something that they could do to contribute today?

[00:16:37] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Yeah. When…think about like, what the listeners can do to contribute I think one way they can do that is by encouraging people that they know that are interested in scientific field, trying to encourage them through the process, be a source of support, mentorship for them in cancer field. And moving forward from that perspective of like, coming in the entry point as well. I think what the listeners could do, especially those existing currently in academia, is for them to be more intentional in how they mentor especially minority researchers in science, be more intentional in making themself accessible to become a source of support and mentor to them. You don’t need to be a minority to mentor a fellow minority. You can be a part of the majority group and also be a source of mentor to people. I’ve had very important and meaningful mentors in my life where some of them don’t fall on the traditional minority groups. And it’s important to know that as people, as human, we have this responsibility to ourselves, to our society, to humanity, to help diversify the face of science, the field of science, helping ensure this set of people can get into leadership position, where they make impactful decisions that help impact human health, population health, and just to making sure like we as a society can move forward together and grow together.

[00:18:06] Adam Walker: That’s right. That’s right. You know, diversifying science helps us to do better science. Right? And it helps everyone. So, so we can encourage that and we can mentor people for that. And and the typical people that we think of when we think science, that’s not who scientists are. Scientists are everyone. So, that’s fantastic. Well, Zainab, this is so great. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing, and thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?

[00:18:37] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Oh, what else can I say? If you can dream it, you can be it. The sky is not a limit, it’s just a stepping stone. And I wish you good luck in your journey and keep kicking science in the… for lack of better word, in the box.

[00:18:54] Adam Walker: I love that. I love that. If you could dream it, you can be it. That those are great words to live by. Well thank you so much for joining us today.

[00:19:01] Dr. Zainab Shonibare: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:19:06] Adam Walker: Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit For more on breast cancer, visit Make sure to check out at Susan G Komen on social media. I’m your host, Adam, you can find me on Twitter @AJWalker or on my blog,