In the second group of profiles, we’re talking to Nnenna Kanu from the Crick and UCL, and hearing about Samantha Tross, the UK's first black female orthopaedic surgeon, and Henrietta Lacks.
These biographies will eventually be used in engagement projects with schools and communities in Camden and beyond to help young people to learn about and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and related fields.
To find out more about the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nnenna Kanu, principal research associate, the Crick and UCL Cancer Institute
What's your current role at the Crick?
I am a principal research associate working between the Francis Crick Institute and the UCL Cancer Institute with Professor Charles Swanton. My research objective is to understand how tumour heterogeneity impacts individual patients’ outcomes. Working within a multidisciplinary functional genomics team, my daily work involves meeting with bioinformaticians, clinicians and basic cell biologists to discover how genetic and epigenetic changes impact cancer evolution and drug development.
How do you feel that your background benefits your work?
I was brought up in the multicultural area of Tottenham, North London before moving to the West Indies. Living in the West Indies I became aware of the shortage of clinical research and access to funded medical and healthcare services. This motivated me to pursue a research career from a young age. I have both studied and worked with people from a variety of backgrounds which has also prepared me to work within a multicultural environment.
What motivated you to study and work in STEM?
At school, college and university I was fully aware of the lack of black role models in STEM. This motivated me all the more to pursue a scientific career. I have a strong belief in transforming the next generation of scientists through research-led teaching and I have the privilege of delivering lectures on several MSc degrees. I also actively participate in outreach events promoting science as a career choice in schools across London to encourage young students to pursue careers in science.
As it’s Black History Month, who is your Black Hero?
My black hero has always been Harriet Tubman. Her inspirational story of risking her life to win the freedom of others is a wonderful testimony of persistence, courage and true leadership.
Samantha was born in Georgetown, Guyana, where she spent her early childhood before her family relocated to the UK. From an early age she had a keen interest in medicine, and after finishing her BSc at UCL she decided to specialise in the male-dominated field of orthopaedic surgery.
Samantha obtained surgical training from a number of renowned institutions including The Royal London and Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital. In 2005 she made history as the first black female orthopaedic surgeon, and would later become the first black female orthopaedic consultant. Samantha continues to be a pioneer, having recently become the first woman in the UK to perform a robotic-assisted hip replacement.
Alongside her surgical work, Samantha is the associate editor for the Journal of Medical Case Reports. She is also heavily involved in training the next generation of surgeons as the director of core surgical training at Ealing Hospital and an examiner for Imperial College Medical School’s final surgical examinations. She is also a mentor to young surgeons, particularly young women and BAME individuals.
It's unsurprising that Samantha has been featured on the Black Powerlist of 100 influential black Britons for almost ten years running.
Although not a scientist, Henrietta Lacks has made a huge contribution to biomedical science and continues to do so today. Born in 1920, Henrietta lead an unassuming life in rural Virginia, USA, where she worked alongside her family as a tobacco farmer. In 1941, Henrietta moved to Maryland with her husband, where she raised five children.
After feeling a “knot” in her womb, which would later be diagnosed as cervical cancer, Henrietta sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Henrietta underwent radium treatment, a standard procedure at the time. However, it was unsuccessful and she passed away soon after at the age of 31.
During her treatment, surgeons took tissue samples from Henrietta’s cervix which were studied by researcher Dr George Gey. He noticed that unlike other samples, cells from Henrietta’s tumour thrived in laboratory tissue culture and grew at a very high rate. As a result, these cells, dubbed HeLa cells, became a popular cell line in biomedical research and have been used to develop numerous drugs, including Jonas Salk's polio vaccine.
Unfortunately, the use of HeLa cells has been marred with controversy. The cervical samples were taken from Henrietta without her knowledge. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Henrietta’s family became aware of the origin of HeLa cells.
Since then, Henrietta’s case has become instrumental to the discussion around informed consent by patients. Fortunately, Henrietta is now beginning to get the recognition she deserves. In 2018 Johns Hopkins University announced it is building a new multidisciplinary research facility that will honour the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.