Loss of best friend to breast cancer inspires her research for a cure

 

By Barnett Wright

Times staff writer

 

Joy Agee is determined to help find a cure for breast cancer. Her motivation: her best friend, who lost her battle with the disease.

“[My best friend’s death] inspired me to pursue breast cancer research for my dissertation,” said Agee, who graduated this month from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) with a PhD in biotechnology, science, and engineering. “I specifically focused on triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) because it is the most aggressive form of breast cancer, and it has no cure.”

TNBC disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic women, most of whom are typically diagnosed in their 30s, Agee said.

“My dissertation work has focused on using genomics to discover important transcription factors, proteins that switch genes on and off, that are involved in activating the genes that drive TNBC. I am in the process of publishing this work,” she said.

Agee, a Fairfield native and 2004 graduate of Hueytown High School, will be the testimonial speaker for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) Appreciation and Campaign Kickoff on June 9 at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

Agee attended Spelman College, where she majored in biology and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Research was highly encouraged at Spelman, she said.

“I initially planned to attend medical school,” she said. “But my molecular biology professor challenged my thoughts and showed me that researchers find cures for diseases, not doctors.”

That led Agee to consider a career in research, which she embarked on during her junior undergraduate year by studying with her department chair.

“This provided me the opportunity to learn initial, cutting-edge genomics technologies through a summer research program at Princeton University,” she said. “I continued research until I graduated from Spelman in 2008.”

Agee pursued her master’s degree in biological science at UAH. When she finished, she received a training grant from the National Science Foundation to provide funding for her doctoral studies.

Agee has accepted a postdoctoral appointment in the genetics department at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and is enthusiastic about continuing her cancer genetics and genomics training. When she completes her postdoctoral training, Agee plans to pursue a career in academia, where she will have a lab and the opportunity to train and mentor students, particularly African American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and biomedical research.

“I believe its critically important for African American students to be exposed to careers in research,” she said. “These are avenues we often do not know about until after we’ve graduated from college. Spelman gave me that opportunity, and I want to pay it forward and return it to the next generation.”

Agee said she is grateful for support from the Gates Millennium Scholarship and the UNCF.

“These funds allowed me to go to my first-choice college, Spelman, and to receive both a master’s and a PhD,” she said.

Agee currently leads the STEM-outreach initiatives and the One Million Backpacks program for the Epsilon Gamma Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She serves as a mentor to minority undergraduates in STEM subjects, and also volunteers to teach basic biology experiments to students at local high schools.