October 12, 2023
5 min read
Shakira J. Grant, MBBS, MSCR, isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo in the field of medicine.
Grant, a geriatric hematologist-oncologist and a recently appointed American Society of Hematology Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives, received the Healio NextGen Disruptor award, which recognizes her work in disrupting the field by making an impact in improving health care for all and especially the underserved.
“Receiving this award felt like a triumph not just for me but all the mentors, mentees and trainees I’ve had the privilege to work alongside. It was a defining moment that signified so much more for those of us who have often been told that our ideas aren’t good or that we shouldn’t pursue certain paths because they go against the mainstream. This award felt like I was bringing visibility to those who are usually not seen,” she told Healio.
“The award acknowledged the work I’m involved in within this field and the collective efforts of the team I’ve had the privilege of leading over the past few years as we strive to advance our understanding of health disparities impacting older Black adults with cancer.”
Grant spoke with Healio about what it means to her to be a NextGen Disruptor, why it is important for women, and specifically women of color, to continue to disrupt the field, and her advice for other women in medicine.
Healio: What helped shape your career path?
Grant: As I reminisce about my journey, including my time as a fellow physician at the University of Washington and my transition into geriatric oncology, I realized that I aspired to pursue a career that did not conform to conventional expectations or neatly defined paths. Those earlier times required some disruptive and innovative thinking as I sought to build a career in geriatric oncology without local institutional mentorship reflective of the field.
I needed to be nimble and think creatively, which ultimately led to crafting a research career at the nexus of cancer, aging, and health disparities. My research qualitatively examines how age and race intersect to impact health care access for patients and caregivers from minoritized backgrounds, particularly those dealing with multiple myeloma.
Doing this work has allowed me to interact with not only clinicians but has brought me closer to community leaders, advocates, and people in spiritual and faith-based organizations. This work is outside what I imagined as a traditional hematologist-oncologist. It has positioned me to build transdisciplinary collaborations and connections and immerse myself in qualitative research that brings me close to people across various disciplines in the health care space.
Healio: What does it mean to be a disruptor to you?
Grant: A disruptor recognizes the existing structure, especially within traditional academic settings, and is guided by the ultimate goal and broader impact — someone who doesn’t think that as an academic physician, they can only move forward at a certain pace according to the current structure.
They maintain a focus on making an impact. In my case, this impact often involves addressing the community’s needs and taking every necessary step to ensure that we reach the individuals who require the greatest support to amplify their voices and help bridge the gaps underlying health care disparities.
Healio: Why is it so important for women and especially women of color to disrupt the field?
Grant: This holds significant importance, particularly when considering the disparities in academic medicine and the attrition rates observed across academic ranks. Typically, physicians start as instructors, progress to their initial academic appointments as assistant professors, and eventually advance to associate and full professors.
Data indicate a pronounced underrepresentation of women, particularly in higher leadership roles. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that data also reveal a scarcity of people of color in oncology leadership positions, such as cancer center directors and associate directors.
Being a disruptor, especially as a Black woman, is an opportunity to show that we are breaking the status quo. Traditional metrics would indicate that we are at higher risk for attrition from our careers because of all the other challenges we face, such as sexism, racism, systemic bias, and discrimination — you name it.
As women, all these things compete for our time, placing additional burdens on us and negatively influencing our ability to continue advancing in our careers. To show that it is possible to be a disrupter, despite it all, is one of the most rewarding things.
Healio: What advice would you offer other women in the field?
Grant: My mantra is when it comes to doing research and pushing boundaries, to not go at it alone. I am constantly reaching my hand back to trainees and graduate students, especially those from minoritized racial and ethnic backgrounds, to ensure they have opportunities that bring them visibility and pave the way for influential and successful careers.
Those of us in leadership positions have the opportunity to help pull others along who are often excluded from gaining access to the proverbial table.
Healio: What’s next for you?
Grant: My next steps in disrupting the field involve leaving my academic position. As a Congressional Science and Engineering fellow sponsored by the American Society of Hematology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I’m embarking on a new journey to work on health care policy in the U.S. Congress.
This role is especially unique, with only one fellow chosen each year through ASH. I am bringing to it my experience as a clinician who has served in various resource settings — from under-sourced to well-resourced health care settings, as well as a qualitative researcher and health care disparities researcher — and translating these experiences into the policy world where I have the opportunity to engage in bidirectional learning and better understand the policy-making process. I hope to convey scientific knowledge to those in my inner and outermost circles and bring my personal experiences to the forefront. This way, I intend to help others grasp the pressing need for policies tackling health disparities, especially for marginalized communities. Simultaneously, I will also seek to emphasize the importance of addressing key issues like workforce diversity, particularly within the health care sector.
As both a clinician and researcher, I see my role as a disruptive innovator as only just beginning. I’m now positioned to substantially influence the field by acquiring invaluable health care policy experience at the highest national level — the U.S. Congress.
Healio: Do you have anything else that you would like to mention?
Grant: Hearing my name called for this award meant so much for me. It went beyond personal achievement; it was a triumph for the diverse facets of my identity and for all the individuals I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with as I’ve advanced in my career, challenging the conventional norms and disrupting the status quo.
Winning such an award as someone who has taken a nontraditional academic path and recently deviated from academia is a celebration and encouragement to embrace uniqueness. Recognizing and celebrating diversity and disruption in medicine, rather than stifling it, is a significant and exceptional step forward.
For more information:
Shakira J. Grant, MBBS, MSCR, can be reached on X (formerly Twitter): @ShakiraG_MBBS.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Congress.