February 11, 2018 at 1:30pm
Katie Liesener ’03 and Margaret Allen Friend

Beyond the Microscope

Rather than peering through a microscope, cancer researcher LeeAnn Swanegan Bailey ’96 now finds herself looking at the big picture — and it’s a really big picture.

As chief of the Integrated Networks Branch of the National Cancer Institute’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD), Bailey views life-and-death drama on a sweeping scale — studying how the incidence and mortality rates of cancer can vary widely by the circumstances of birth. That includes genetics, but also sex, race, age, education and socioeconomic background. At this level, inequality can be fatal.

For example, with regular screening, colorectal cancer can be not only caught but also treated immediately by excising cancerous polyps.

“But among uninsured and underinsured minority populations, there is a pervasive belief that you go to a cancer center to die,” Bailey said. “People don’t show up until the cancer is so advanced, there’s not much room for intervention.”

The barriers to care are as varied as people themselves: Lack of money. Inadequate translation services. Poor nutrition or health education. Culturally inept care. Distrust of a medical establishment that has long neglected research of non-white populations.

Working in her office in our nation’s capital, Bailey is determined to help solve this nationwide problem.

“When you have as many complex factors as there are in the healthcare ecosystem,” she said, “there’s no one bag that contains all the pieces.”

That’s why the CRCHD oversees national networks that provide colorectal cancer screening among ethnically diverse communities, share information and resources among cancer health disparities researchers, and support community health educators in providing culturally appropriate cancer education.

Bailey’s own higher education began when MU talent scouts spotted her performing at Six Flags Over Mid-America. Although she accepted a vocal performance scholarship, her interest in science and research led to a major in chemistry.

And it was Dr. Anne Rammelsberg, associate professor of chemistry, who helped put Bailey on the road to a study-abroad experience in Australia — an experience that led to her rewarding career in medical research.

“She asked me if I would be interested in expanding my horizons and embarking upon a journey and an amazing adventure,” Bailey says. “I’d never been outside the Midwest, so Australia was literally a huge leap of faith for me. Dr. Rammelsberg really believed in me and was confident that the experience would be amazing. She was certainly right.”

Bailey spent part of her senior year in the Australian Outback, learning about Aboriginal poultices, analgesics and herbal medicines — and how those remedies informed the perspective of Western medicine. She stayed on at the University of Adelaide to begin work on an M.B.B.S. (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery — the Australian equivalent of a medical degree) focused on translational studies.    

Upon returning to the U.S., she enrolled at the University of Virginia to earn her master’s degree and doctorate in biochemistry and molecular genetics, focusing on pediatric oncology and the development of cancer therapies. Facing the difficult choice between medicine or academics, she chose research, in part for the more balanced lifestyle (which today allows her to spend time with her husband of 15 years and three boys), and in part because she resisted medical specialization.   

“I was never thrilled with just an organ,” she said. “I could never be a cardiologist. I wanted to understand the whole body.”

That drive to learn holistically, understand and change the “big picture” not only informs Bailey’s work at the National Cancer Institute, but also guides her efforts in mentoring other women of color in their scientific careers. Bailey has found mentoring opportunities through teaching at Morgan State University, through work-related interactions and also through her membership in the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and Minorities in Cancer Research (MICR).

“MICR is a group within the AACR committed to preventing and curing cancer while meeting the professional needs and advancing the careers of minority scientists,” Bailey says. Speaking of those she’s mentored, Bailey says, “I tell them, ‘You are your own best advocate … Don’t limit yourself. If you want to make change, make it.’’’

It’s the same attitude that powered her through quantitative physics and analytical chemistry in college.

“[At Millikin] I was never made to feel ‘less than’ because of my race or gender. For me, that was so empowering. I wanted to be sure I continued the mantra: Your potential is endless.”

It’s an important reminder even now, as Bailey aims to improve health on a dizzying scale, in a politically tumultuous time.

“All you can do is pick an area where you think you can make progress,” she said. “The roots of cancer disparities make people uncomfortable. It’s not a feel-good topic, but illuminating the disparity is what’s required to make a change.” 

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