When Dr. Rachel Ceballos was nine, she dreamt of giants — not the kind who live in fairy tales but the ones that play professional baseball.
“I wanted to be the first female Giant,” said the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center biobehavioral researcher, who grew up in San Francisco. “I actually didn’t find my career in science until my senior year of college.”
When her baseball dreams dissipated at age 11, Ceballos looked to the military as a career — “and a way out of where I was.” She believed in defending the country; she also liked the military’s structure.
College called as well, and when a school counselor gave her a brochure for a community college “that really changed everything for me,” she said. “I saw opportunity. I started taking classes I was really interested in and was doing well. Community college can be an important step, especially if you're a first generation college student unfamiliar with academia.”
It was enough to set her on an ambitious path of academic and military service.
Ceballos spent eight years serving in the Coast Guard Reserve doing search and rescue, while simultaneously working full time and carrying a full college load. The plan was to go on to become an officer, but just as she was finishing her bachelor’s in psychology at the age of 25, two things happened that changed her life forever.
First, she was accepted into Air Force ROTC — officer training — at the same time that she was coming out as gay. The two realities abruptly collided.
“I’d joined right before ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but being gay in the military remained illegal until 2011,” she said. “During military downsizing in the late 1990s, there were witch hunts; people turning others in to save their own career. I decided, ‘I can’t live this way.’ It was affecting my health. I was getting sick. It was a nightmare.”
At the same time, she’d just begun to study the effects of stress on the body and became intrigued by the connection between people’s social environment and the way their bodies respond to stress.
“I was taking a class in physiological psychology and for the first time, I saw another career I might be able to do.”
Ceballos did some soul-searching and decided to apply to a master’s program. Once she got in, she knew she’d found her calling.
As a lab scientist, Ceballos studied the effect of stress response on immune and neuroendocrine function in humans and in animal models. But she was also interested in health equity; she wanted to find a way to reduce the disparities she’d witnessed growing up in a Latino neighborhood.
After graduating with her doctorate in biobehavioral health, she began to look for an academic home. After meeting health disparities researcher Dr. Beti Thompson, now a professor emeritus in the Hutch’s Cancer Prevention Program, she had another moment of career clarity.
“It was my first exposure to health equity in the unique way she studied it,” she said. “It was more of a social justice perspective.”
That approach spoke to her.
In 2005, Ceballos signed on as a postdoc and then staff scientist with Fred Hutch, the only cancer center in the world named for a baseball player. Here, she began working with Thompson and others in the Health Disparities Research Program, now the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement. She joined the Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division as a faculty member in 2011.
“Fred Hutch is where I found my real passion for biobehavioral health,” she said. “Biobehavioral health in the context of underrepresented communities makes all the difference for me with regard to the importance of the work. What drives me as a scientist — and on a very personal level — is the idea of social justice and empowering the community.”
Ceballos’ research involves the development of culturally adapted interventions to fight stress and fend off diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancers and COVID-19, which strike Black, Latinx and Indigenous populations harder than communities with better access to care and resources. She’s learned that Black and Latinx women are seldom asked to share their cancer experiences and that misinformation about cancer, and now COVID-19, are rife in the migrant communities of Washington state.
Her ability to build trust with underserved communities has been recognized with a Beti Thompson Health Equity Researcher Award as well as an award from the American Public Health Association.
She remains a devout proponent for diversity and inclusion, especially within academia.
“Diversity is important for both sides of the science,” she said. “Diversity contributes to increased creativity and opportunity for innovation that emerge from differences in life experience and ways of thinking. And, when we work to include members of marginalized communities in research it gives them an opportunity to improve health equity.”
But diversity in how we do research, is also key, she said. Community-engaged research, she said, not only brings in community members early on the process to ensure studies are culturally appropriate, it stays engaged with them throughout the intervention — and beyond.
“Potential for sustainability is a critical step in addressing cancer inequities that’s often overlooked,” she said.
As health, social and racial inequities have marched into the mainstream, Ceballos is starting to investigate the biological impact of another American epidemic: racism.
Her inspiration was a recent analysis of stress and quality of life in Spanish-speaking cancer survivors which revealed it wasn’t cancer or treatment that was causing them stress, it was racism.
“A lot of their stress was about not speaking English,” she said. “People treated them differently, perceived them as ‘other.’ It wasn’t the impact of the cancer but their everyday lived experiences.”
Ceballos and colleagues are working to develop interventions to help these communities. They’re also digging into biological data from study participants — levels of stress hormones and inflammation — to measure the physical impact of intolerance and racial injustice.
“We’re looking at how the everyday stress of racism affects our bodies,” she said.
To manage her own stress, Ceballos reads (her favorite book is Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler) and – when not sheltering at home mid-pandemic – goes dancing. And she remains a San Francisco baseball fan — she’s even got the branded face mask to prove it.
She may not be playing baseball, but this researcher’s dreams remain giant.
— By Diane Mapes, August 13, 2020