Faculty Scholar in the News News Center for Community Health Partnership & Research Health Equity

WashU researcher collaborates with community organization to teach Black girls about equitable genomic research

Written by Kim Furlow, communications manager for the Institute for Public Health

Assistant Professor of Genetics at WashU’s McDonnell Genome Institute, Brett Maricque, PhD, is an Institute for Public Health Faculty Scholar and collaborator with our Center for Community Health Partnership and Research. He and Chelsey Carter, PhD, MPH from Yale School of Public Health are leading the Black Genome Project in order to understand how genetic research is affecting Black communities in St. Louis and how these communities value their own genetic data.

We recently caught up with Professor Maricque to discuss his project and engagement with the center to advance project goals.  

Photo courtesy of Black Girls Do STEM

Q: Describe your latest research and collaboration with the St. Louis organization, Black Girls Do Stem, and what you hope to accomplish.

Our collaboration with Black Girls Do STEM, led by Cynthia Chapple, aims to build capacity for equitable genomic research and precision medicine in the St. Louis region. We engage with Black middle and high school girls for community building, research discovery, data analysis and dissemination of research findings. Our goal is to share mutual community-centered philosophies and research practices. Young people are essential to our mission, as they will shape today’s unknowns into advances that improve health for all individuals and communities. 

I am interested in genomic research and its ability to be used in the Black community to improve health outcomes. I say this because health is a very important thing to our everyday lives and I think being able to do the research to help with people’s health is cool.

Student participant

Q: How has working with the Center for Community Health Partnership & Research nurtured this partnership?

The center has enabled our work in important ways. We were fortunate to receive a Partnership Development and Sustainability Support (PDSS) award, which directly supports our foundational work with Black Girls Do STEM. The PDSS award allowed us to work closely with 14 St. Louis middle and high school girls during the last seven months. The center has nurtured our partnership by providing community building support and connecting us with key resources, organizations and individuals. The center’s Partnership Planning & Development Workshop offered valuable perspectives on community-based work and shared useful models for involving community members in research projects.

Some skills that I think I learned were how to organize different things and also different math things like median, range, and mode.

Student participant

Q: How have students from BGDS engaged in hands-on lab activities and interacted with genomic medicine colleagues?  

Last summer, more than 20 Black Girls Do STEM students, their parents and siblings attended a day trip to the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University School of Medicine. Students engaged in discussions about human genomics and received hands-on exposure to cell culture, automation, high-resolution microscopy and machine learning. Fourteen students expressed interest in working with us on the Black Genome Project in one of three areas: 1) community engagement and recruiting 2) ethnography and 3) data analysis. Drs. Maricque and Carter met with each student individually and planned more than 10 small-group sessions designed to educate, engage and mentor students in real-world research practices. The 14 students also joined us for a monthly book club to read and discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

The thing that I enjoyed most about being a research assistant was how we got to play with different graphs and saw which ones work with what types of data.

Student participant

Q: What do you see for the future of this collaboration?

We plan to build on what we’ve started. We will prioritize continued work and mentorship for the involved students and build capacity on our team to support additional students as Black Girls Do STEM grows. We will focus our future efforts in three primary areas: 1) relationship building with St. Louis-area students and their families 2) dissemination of BGP research findings and 3) community education. We are currently working on a partnership agreement to enable a long-term partnership that will cultivate tomorrow’s leaders in the fields of genomics, medicine and public health.

We are so grateful to be working with Cynthia and Black Girls Do STEM. Our sessions with the students have had a deep impact on the ways we envision and execute our work. Thank you, Cynthia and all of our wonderful students!

Brett Maricque, assistant professor of genetics, McDonnell Genome Institute