When most people think of a physicist, they think of Albert Einstein, not a beautiful young Black woman. But Hadiyah-Nicole Green is about to change that–and, in fact, she wants to.
Green was recently awarded a $1.1 million cancer research grant through the Veterans Affairs Historically Black Colleges and Universities Research Scientist Training Program to help her continue the groundbreaking work she has started to battle the disease. The physicist is working to advance a cancer treatment involving lasers and nanoparticles and developing a way to target cancer cells. And she has proven success with the process in lab mice.
Of course, winning a $1.1 million grant is a major accomplishment, but the journey of how Green came to be one of the country’s top scientists as well as a Morehouse School of Medicine Assistant Professor is one of inspiration. The 35 year old, you see, is the first in her family to ever go to college. And not only did the St. Louis native make it to graduation, in 2012 Green became the second African American woman to receive a PhD in physics from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), an accolade she takes in stride. More than that, Green is one of less than 100 Black women physicists in the entire United States.
After graduation, Green immediately got 12 job offers. She first took a short-term offer in Singapore, after which she accepted an assistant professorship at Tuskegee University. But the science star’s road to success hasn’t been easy, though you’d never know it from her cheery disposition. Green lost her mother due to an accident when she was 18 months old. Raised by her aunt and uncle since the age of four, Green’s aunt later succumbed to the very disease she studies every day. After her uncle developed cancer and went through chemotherapy and radiation, Green realized her calling. Seeing the pain and suffering cancer treatment causes, a young Green decided she wanted to find a more humane way of attacking cancer cells. Thus her work, which adapts modern technology to pinpoint cancerous cells and attack them directly without having to affect the rest of the body. And Green has now established the Ora Lee Smith Cancer Research Foundation in memory of her aunt.
We spoke with Green about her accomplishments and her aspirations to transform cancer treatment as we know it. See what the fun, optimistic, innovative physicist had to say during our chat below.
MadameNoire (MN): What gave you the determination to attend college when no one in your family had done so before?
Hadiyah-Nicole Green (HNG): That’s a good question. Even though I didn’t have the examples around me of people going to college, I knew I wanted something different out of life from what I saw in my immediate surroundings. I wanted to give myself the best chance to have the kind of life where I would not have to worry about financial struggles.
I looked at people who were not struggling as much and the common denominator was that they had college degrees. One of my best friends, both her parents went to college and they just had a better quality of life. They also waited until they were older to have children. I saw a lot of women in my family have children early and they were single mothers, and I didn’t want to have that struggle.
My friend’s mother was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She and other members of the sorority started mentoring me when I was in the 8th grade and eventually helped me get a scholarship to attend Alabama A&M University. I was a member of Del-teens which exposed me to women who were college educated and successful.
MN: So having mentors made a big difference in your life?
HG: Without their impact it would have been a different story. I was already on the right path, I did well in school, but they really made the crooked path straight. All of the young ladies who were mentored by the Deltas have done really well; what they did for us was valuable. What they did for me changed my life.
MN: You are also only the second African American woman to receive a PhD in physics from UAB. What does that feel like?
HG: I don’t think about it; the only time I think about it is when I am doing an interview and someone asks me. (laughs)
It’s one of those things where people make a big deal about it, but I wish there were more of us and I think soon we will cross over the mark of more than 100! I think Black women have been amazing throughout history and when my mentors expect greatness from me it’s just part of the everyday business of being a Black women. I don’t think I am doing anything special.
I do think Black women in science should be celebrated more. Someone asked me if I was going to be on Black Girls Rock. Maybe one day I will get invited because Black girls in science rock too!
MN: Why physics?
HG: Why is how I started. Why is the sky blue? Why is the grass green? I was always asking why, and at one point my family couldn’t answer my questions any more so it came to “God made the grass green.” So of course, I asked “Why did God pick the color green.” Eventually they gave me a set of encyclopedias so I could look up the answers.
Also, one of my older brothers would have me do his homework, especially his math homework. And when I would get the answer right he would get so excited, so he made it fun. He thought he was just getting out of doing his homework in the 4th grade, but I was enjoying it.
My freshman year of college, I met the woman who went on to become the 50th Black woman to get her PhD in physics and a conversation with her made me change my major to physics. I was taking calculus as a freshman. She challenged me to take physics to see if I could do as well as I was doing in calculus. I graduated with a 4.0 as a physics major and that was my entry into science.
MN: Once you began your career, why did you decide to focus on curing cancer?
HG: My aunt who raised me since age 4 told me right after I graduated from college that she had women’s cancer. She never specified what type of cancer, so probably cervical or ovarian, but she did say refused to go through treatment. I was her caregiver and I got to see firsthand how cancer destroys your body.
Then three months later my uncle got diagnosed with cancer but he went through treatment and I saw all the effects. It was awful and I saw why my aunt opted out of it. My uncle did go on to live for 10 years more, but both of those experiences made me think there had to be a better way to deal with cancer. Thinking about how a satellite from space can look down to the Earth and see if a dime is faced up or face down, I thought, why can’t we use that specific location technique to narrow in on cancer tumors? And that was my motivation to go to grad school; I went on a mission.
MN: And your mission has been successful so far.
HG: I knew this [cancer treatment idea] was huge. There was a comprehensive cancer center
on UAB’s campus and I met one person who allowed me to come work in his lab. It took me seven years to get my PhD and to develop this treatment. I demonstrated a way to shrink tumors in a living mouse using nanotechnology (the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of electrons). Now I just have to get money to use this for humans . Yes, I did get $1.1 million and I am very humbled by it. It is a five-year award to further develop the technology and enhance my professional development.
I have actually developed two treatments–one focusing on tumor shrinkage/tumor regression; the second is monotherapy, an enhancement of immunotherapy and an interface with personalized medicine, which is the subject of the grant I received. But I still need more money to move ahead. We’re talking upwards of $20 million. I still need to gather support by a fundraising effort. If people want to make a donation, they can visit my website: www.physics2cancer.org .
MN: What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your field?
HG: I feel like David and Goliath in dealing with the pharmaceutical companies. I do believe this is my mission and my calling in life and that God didn’t bring me this far to give up. Also, because of the media exposure I have been getting, people who have cancer have been contacting me to take part in trials but I have to turn them away. I am still far away from clinical trials. I need more money for that, and approval. But it makes me feel bad to turn away people who are looking for their last hope.
MN: What do you like to do outside of work?
HG: Outside of work, I love to travel. I may go to a conference and if I go to someplace really cool I take vacation time. I will do this in Puerto Rico when I go for a course on cancer stem cells next week. I love traveling. If I can get the time. I have to work on work-life balance. I have been accused of being a workaholic.
I really like the concept of letting food be your medicine, natural remedies. It is more of my hobby, finding foods that help when you are ill. And the other thing I love doing is taking photos. When I travel I like to do photo shoots of the flowers–which may become a fundraiser for my research. I may auction off a collection of my flower photos.
MN: What do you enjoy most about your work?
HG: At first I wasn’t too excited about the media attention, but when little girls send me letters saying they want to be like Dr. Green when they grow up, then it’s all worth it.
When I was growing up I didn’t see an example of a Black female scientist, I didn’t see images of people like me in the lab doing research. And when I thought of a physicist, I thought of Albert Einstein. I hope in the future people will also think of me, a Black female physicist.
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