Older Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2020 report. It points to issues including missed diagnoses, lack of data, and contributions of social determinants of health as affecting the ability to correct these disparities.
But another way to correct them is to foster more innovation and create more opportunities for Black people and people of color in cognitive research, leadership, and academic positions.
A study published in April in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed data from three decades and found U.S. PhD recipients in underrepresented or minority groups innovate at higher rates than those in the majority demographics.
Yet despite this, the study found, their innovative and original contributions are discounted and are less likely to earn them academic positions.
Clearly, it’s untenable to continue to discount such contributions—particularly in fields of vital importance such as brain science—and it’s equally clear that intentional efforts to include and encourage these contributions would be beneficial.
The reasons for developing and supporting spaces for women, Black people, and people of color in neuroscience abound. With its complexity, widespread effects, and human and economic costs, cognitive decline is one of the greatest challenges humans face; the world literally can’t afford not to have full research involvement.
Dr. Kacie Deters is one such researcher. As a postdoctoral research fellow in neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, she studies ethnic and racial disparities of Alzheimer’s-specific risk factors on cognitive performance in older adults. Dr. Deters received her PhD in medical neuroscience from Indiana University, where she researched using neuroimaging and genetics to advance understanding of tau proteins, which are involved in brain disorders including Alzheimer’s disease.
This interview is excerpted from a longer conversation.
Q. Can you tell us about your current work and your path there?
A. My research is focused on ethnic disparities and Alzheimer’s disease predominantly using genetics and neuro imaging. Oftentimes in research, white people are treated as the standard, because most of the cohorts we study are non-Hispanic white individuals. So risk factors identified for Alzheimer’s disease are specific to white people…and some of the differences in risk factors for non-white people seem to be attributed to health disparities, such as differences in education or lack of access to health care.
My interest started in undergrad—I got really curious about memory and forgetting things—forgetting where I put my keys, for instance. I found it astounding how a memory could be there and be lost so quickly.
I decided to do a master’s in biology first, to give me a bit more field work. And I chose a research topic in memory, because of that interest. Once I started doing my master’s degree research, I became fascinated with all things Alzheimer’s.
In the middle of working on my PhD in medical neuroscience, I started learning about health disparity. The dataset I was working with didn’t have a large black population. In interviewing for a postdoctoral position, I expressed this interest to my current postdoc mentor. She was immediately interested.
That’s how I ended up in disparities research: I had a great postdoc mentor who let me follow something I was interested in personally.
Q. How important is such mentorship? Was it difficult to find a mentor—either a mentor who is a person of color or to find a mentor as a person of color?
A. Obviously, trying to find a mentor who is a person of color is near to impossible in the current STEM field, so I couldn’t base it on that, but more on how fruitful the research relationship would be for both of us. I contacted people I had already worked with, to tell them I was looking for a postdoc, and they connected me with my current mentor.
Q. What can potential mentors do to support in fields where there aren’t a lot of Black women or women of color?
A. I think my best mentors are willing to have open conversations about diversity, whether it be as a woman or as a person of color. Those have been some of my best memories, in the sense that these are people who don’t feel closed off, who make it feel like a warm and open environment.
Being at a predominantly white institution can be stressful, especially in the beginning, because there aren’t a lot of people who look like you around campus. So it’s good when you’re in the lab to have a mentor who does recognize these things, and who makes sure that you feel comfortable in your environment.
Q. In addition to your research, you work to continue to improve the environment for Black postdocs. Can you share some information about that?
A. The Stanford Black Postdoc Association started in 2015, a few years before I arrived. Kasey Davis, the founder of SBPA, started the association as a way to find other black postdocs—the Stanford campus is really big, and it’s hard to just run into people. It was the first Black postdoc association; Harvard became the second, and now there are about five others.
We do activities such as helping people with homelessness and families in shelters, to give back to the community. We hold events exclusive to SBPA members, to create that safe environment for people of color, and we have events where we work with other organizations who stand in solidarity with us, to create bonding experiences.
We also participate in mentoring, both mentoring to grad students and peer-to-peer.
Q. What are some factors that could help progress against Alzheimer’s disease, particularly among older Black adults?
A. There are many people trying very hard to build relationships with Black elderly communities to get volunteers.
It is very important, as we all know from the great research and the findings that are coming out.
Black In Neuro is a vibrant community of over 500 members whose profiles can be found on BlackInNeuro.com, along with a wealth of other resources. The website includes a searchable database of Black neuroscientists who are available as speakers, writers, or mentors. The website’s research section includes a wealth of articles on Black and people of color in STEM to help toward creating research-based best practices for outreach and mentorship. You can follow @BlackInNeuro on Twitter and Instagram and can find all of their content archived on the Black In Neuro YouTube channel.