Creativity has always been a part of Dr. Vida Henderson’s DNA.
Not literally, perhaps, but it has repeatedly shown up in her many endeavors. There were the years of dance lessons — ballet, tap and jazz — before she went on to college to become a pharmacist; the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing she earned while toying with the idea of leaving pharmacy work to teach poetry. There’s her love for Cajun cooking — not surprising, she hails from Louisiana — and creating low-carb versions of her favorite desserts.
And then there’s her science.
“I’m really interested in learning more creative ways to disseminate and use science,” said the public health researcher who came to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center from Chicago, where she earned a Ph.D. in community health services. “I’m not interested in science that just sits on a shelf. In whatever I do — the programs and interventions — I want it to be of use and usable and actually help somebody in some way.”
The former pharmacist discovered the importance of public health when Hurricane Katrina hit her home, New Orleans. Henderson lost everything — her home, her clothes, her neighbors.
“I literally had a car, a pair of jeans and shoes and two tank tops,” she said. “I went to live with my parents and worked remotely. But when I came back to New Orleans, it opened my eyes.”
Henderson worked with community groups to create makeshift pharmacies out of trailers amid the destruction. It was this collaboration that inspired her to go back to school.
“I don’t think I even knew then what public health was,” she said. “But I saw that the social environment impacts everything — mental health and physical health. I decided to go into health communications research and community-based participatory research.”
There, her artistic predisposition played a role, as well.
“The writer and creative person in me had an affinity for qualitative methods,” she said. (“Qualitative” refers to research that gathers non-numerical data via first-hand observation, interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, etc.). “I basically get to ask people questions and learn about them. One of the reasons I love health communication research is because you get to be creative — to write scripts and videos and narratives.”
Much of Henderson’s work involves listening and learning about peoples’ experiences, trying to discover what’s meaningful to them and then tailoring scientific programs and interventions that address these issues.
“That’s pretty much the motivation for everything I do,” she said. “I want to design interventions that are meaningful and address whatever came out of their mouths during our conversations. And then to communicate those findings in a way that’s meaningful and relatable to people.”
One of her studies, funded by the National Cancer Institute, is aimed at increasing genetic counseling and screening among African American women with a hereditary risk for breast cancer. According to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Black women have a 41% higher death rate from breast cancer than white women. The death rate in young Black women is even higher — double that of young white women.
Hereditary breast cancers only make up about 5% to 10% of all breast cancers, but without knowledge about a potential risk, most people won’t seek out genetic counseling or preventive screening. Henderson is trying to change that.
“The whole goal was to develop a narrative intervention to educate Black women with a family history of breast cancer about what genetic counseling is and how it could help them,” she said. “We interviewed Black women, met with providers and community-based organizations and did several interviews and focus groups.”
After compiling that information, the team developed a video, using a mix of live actors and animation, and created a script that included actual quotes from the interviews.
“We’re hoping to increase their intention to get a genetic counseling appointment,” she said. “After four weeks, we’ll follow up and see if the women who were referred for genetic counseling made the appointment or talked about their breast cancer risk with others. We want to see how the information is disseminated.”
The researchers hope to follow up with an additional study involving “cascade testing,” that is, identifying people with a genetic variant and then making sure their family members, who may also be at higher risk, have information on genetic counseling and testing.
“If a woman with a known genetic variant for breast cancer — say, BRCA1 — has a daughter, she might also be at increased risk,” Henderson said. “So the genetic counselor might recommend that the woman talk to her daughter about getting genetic counseling or testing. I would like to develop an intervention to help families communicate about that risk. You can imagine how hard that would be trying to explain why you should do this.”
“I’m not interested in science that just sits on a shelf. In whatever I do — the programs and interventions — I want it to be of use and usable and actually help somebody in some way.”
Henderson is also passionate about helping people who’ve been marginalized — socially, economically or otherwise.
“For the past few years, I’ve served low-income people and it’s important to me to continue to work with people who may not have the same resources as everybody else,” she said.
Toward that end, she works with researchers within the Fred Hutch/University of Washington Cancer Consortium’s Office of Community Outreach and Engagement, OCOE, as well as the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research, or HICOR. Henderson also partners with community-based organizations in the area to help to improve outcomes for those most in need.
“I’m a population health scientist,” she said. “And I’m unapologetic about wanting to improve the lives of minority people in this country. I hope to hit the ground running.”
Since arriving in Seattle, she’s been pleased to see that diversity, equity and inclusion are major Fred Hutch initiatives.
“Here at the Hutch, people don’t want to make me do or be anything else,” she said. “One of the reasons I came here was because there was a structure to career development and a dedication to increasing DEI.”
The Pacific Northwest’s gray, rainy weather has been less impressive.
Henderson said a recent ten-day stretch of steady rain almost made her “lose it,” so she invited her sister for a visit. The two went sightseeing, which was very helpful, she said.
Also helpful, finding out that creativity is valued at her new workplace.
“A lot of the people I’ve talked to at Fred Hutch have a creative side,” she said. “I’ve talked to quite a few people who do dancing or paint or write, as well. It’s nice to meet people who see the importance of nurturing that side of your brain.”
— By Diane Mapes, March 9, 2022