Christopher Sistrunk, Ph.D., is on a mission â to give back to underserved communities like the one he grew up in in Charlotte, North Carolina.
âI always knew I would come back to the communities of the less fortunate or unrepresented and show them another way,â he said.
His old neighborhood was rough â a place where he needed friends to protect him and make sure he stayed out of trouble. That protection was about more than friendship. They saw something in him that he, at the time, did not see in himself.
âIt was literally a bunch of love in that neighborhood, where they look out for you,â he recalled. âThey always made sure you didnât mess with people who had an opportunity to get out.â
And he always had plans to do just that.
âMy guidance counselor in high school told me to learn a trade, that I wasnât college material,â he said.
Rather than demoralizing him, the counselorâs attitude made him determined to prove her wrong.
âIt didnât bother me, but I can see how it would devastate somebody else,â he said. âI was going to go to college anyway. And I was looking towards science because there were rights and wrongs in science.â
Not only did he prove her wrong, he excelled. As a molecular and cellular toxicologist, he studies the initiation and progression of cancer.
He said he always knew he would land in the science field and settled on cancer research early.
âI wanted to know why â what happened on a molecular level? Why were we getting cancers?â
As a postdoctoral fellow in medical oncology at Duke University, Sistrunk worked on identifying biomarkers for the induction of triple-negative breast cancer in African-American women.
He mentored young people, becoming an academic and career adviser to those interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Sistrunk spends much of his time in the community making the case for cancer screenings to a population that has fallen victim to a health care system that historically has not served their best interests. Communities still living with the mistrust fueled by episodes such as the 86-year-old Tuskegee Study.
Sistrunk wants to engender more trust while making sure communities he works with get the information and screenings necessary to live healthier lives. He said communication with these communities today is as much about tone as anything else.
âIn the African-American community, as black men, weâve always heard the message about health care, about getting this checked and getting that checked. But the tone is different,â he said.
âThe tone is always like how we need to step up, how we need to do better, we should be doing this or we should be getting screenings, and itâs always a tone of treating them like subordinates.â
Sistrunk wants to change that.
Rodney Wallace is a retired police lieutenant who has worked with young people in communities of color for the last 34 years. He met Sistrunk a few years ago at a health conference called âManâs Cave,â and says he is already changing that dynamic.
He remembers the first time he heard him speak.
âHe got up there and started talking to the young people and really just was able to use their language, their lingo, and really just keep them engaged,â said Wallace. âHe came across very passionate, and he left them with, âThis is who I am, this is what I was able to do, and you guys can, too. Iâll be there with you, Iâll be there for you if thatâs what you want to do.ââ
Heâs deeply committed to making sure young black men see in him other options, other paths forward.
âWhat I want to show is that you have a better opportunity to get out with something other than sports,â he said. âI go places and get high-fives and hugs, like Iâm LeBron James or something, because theyâve never seen a black guy in a lab coat that was real.â
Wallace said he doesnât sugarcoat his message, and people in the community are receptive.
âHe starts by talking about understanding that there is distrust with the medical industry because of the things that have happened in the past, like the Tuskegee experiments,â said Wallace. âAnd really just wanted people to understand that yes, those things happened but, as black men, we still have to be aware of our health, we need to do whatever we can to try and take care of ourselves.
âHe is one of those folks who can be a liaison between our fears and getting the health checkups and the health awareness that we need.â
âIâm coming from a place of love, because I love my community and Iâm a part of this community,â said Sistrunk. âSo the message I gave them, the reason why it resonated is because I came with a different tone.â
This educator, cancer researcher, mentor and assistant professor in the Department of Population Sciences at City of Hope has his work cut out for him.
âIf youâre going to do community-based research, youâve got to be a part of the community, and youâve got to be seen as somebody thatâs in the community and not somebody thatâs visiting the community,â he said. âAnd so thatâs the footprint that Iâm trying to make.â
Mayra Serrano is manager of the Center of Community Alliance for Research & Education (CCARE) at City of Hope and works closely with Sistrunk. CCARE works with communities on health education programs aimed at improving access to care, diagnosis, treatment and outcomes.
Serrano said Sistrunk makes science approachable in the community, which makes him invaluable.
âHe was a great addition to the team and heâs very community-minded, and always willing to give his time,â said Serrano, adding that in the three short years heâs been at City of Hope, he is already making a difference.
âMost basic scientists donât even bother to go out into the community, so the fact that heâs able to do that definitely will bring an impact in the community.â
Wallace already sees that impact.
âThere are very few who are actually doing the work, and thatâs the thing â heâs doing the work,â he said. âHeâs right there getting his fingers dirty and heâs doing the work so that young people can see that.
âTo have a black man get out there and say, âHey, these are the things that you can do, this is not a pie-in-the-sky type of thing, it is real.â This is somebody that said, 'I did it, and I can help you if thatâs what you want to do.' Thatâs why heâs important.â
Also important for Sistrunk is to elevate the status of City of Hope in the communities it serves.
âIâve been going to each community and trying to let them understand that the brand of City of Hope is not just a place you go when youâre hopeless, itâs a place where you can go to learn about wellness so you wonât ever have to come here.â
And to make sure children in these communities understand that the sky really is the limit.
âThey can take away your ability to do a lot of things, but they canât take knowledge away from you,â said Sistrunk. âThatâs the one thing I tell the students. Study for knowledge, not grades. Your grades can be taken from you, but they canât take that knowledge away from you.â