A champion of science and social justice

Big-hearted Dr. Beti Thompson, pioneering public health researcher, retires after 30-plus years of fighting for equity
Dr. Beti Thompson talks with a member of the Somali community here in Seattle.
Dr. Beti Thompson talks with Rahma Ahmed of Seattle's Somali Health Board during a health disparities grant-writing workshop at the Hutch.. Fred Hutch file photo

She’s admired for her mentorship, revered for her ability to get major grants.

But it’s the years-long winter coat drive she spearheaded for the children of the farmworkers in Lower Yakima Valley of eastern Washington — the littlest underdogs — that may truly reflect the big-hearted science of Dr. Beti Thompson.

A longtime public health researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (and health services emeritus professor at the University of Washington), Thompson is retiring after a career spanning more than three decades.

And this time she really means it.

“I know I’ve talked about retiring before, but now I’m putting my condo up for sale,” she said, laughing. “This is really it.”

Thompson leaves behind an incredible scientific legacy: hundreds of research papers and public health mentees; a long-running Fred Hutch satellite office that works directly with the migrant population of the Lower Yakima Valley; and a thriving Hutch health disparities research program poised to expand throughout the state.

More importantly, her collaborative and compassionate research style has become the exemplar for how investigators can connect with underserved communities to not just conduct scientific research but to give back.  

Not bad for someone who never intended to become a scientist in the first place. 

Dr. Beti Thompson rode in the Fred Hutch fundraiser Obliteride in 2014.
Dr. Beti Thompson rode in the Fred Hutch fundraiser Obliteride in 2014. Fred Hutch file photo

A ‘late-blooming’ scientist

A sociologist by training, Thompson worked a variety of jobs before switching gears at the age of 40 to pursue her true passion — research.

“I was a late bloomer,” she explained. “And I was so surprised when the Hutch called me to come in for an interview.”

Now 74, this avid cyclist, grandmother, mentor, multiple award winner and social justice warrior has seen the seeds she planted at the Hutch come to fruition, whether it’s her postdocs going on to establish their own scientific careers or her research programs blossoming into something greater, such as the newly established Office of Community Outreach and Engagement, or OCOE, which grew out of the health disparities program she established in 2011.

Thompson credits her mentor, Dr. Maureen Henderson, founder of the Hutch’s long-standing Cancer Prevention Program, with shaping her early career, particularly with regard to modeling how women can succeed in science.

As for her pragmatic approach to research, she often quotes the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

“My mantra has always been to go in search of people, begin with what they know and build on what they have,” she said. “If you want to change behavior of people who are underserved and oppressed, you need to work with people where they are. You can’t come in and do your typical non-Hispanic white research and hope that it’s going to make a difference.

“You have to work with communities,” she said. “Not on communities. This is very important.”

Thompson’s mantra — and her egalitarian attitude — have served her well from the very beginning of her unexpected scientific career at the Hutch, which began, as she will gleefully tell you, on April Fool’s Day in 1985.

Hired as a staff scientist to assist with a fledgling Fred Hutch project known as COMMIT (Community Intervention Trial for Smoking Cessation), Thompson began referring to herself as a “smokologist” and helped to implement an intervention far different from previous National Cancer Institute-funded cessation studies.

Instead of assigning smokers to one intervention arm or another, Thompson and her colleagues took a multiprong approach, working with schools, students, physicians, employers and religious organizations to get people to quit.

“We even went to taverns and bars because that’s where smokers are,” she said. “We tried to change norms so it became non-normative to smoke in the community.”

The success of COMMIT “made my reputation,” Thompson said. It also cemented her belief in community-based participatory research, or CBPR, a methodology that encourages scientists to treat community members as equal partners in research.

Longtime research collaborator (and nonscientist) Bridgette Hempstead, founder of the African American cancer support group Cierra Sisters, said Thompson’s heart was always “for the community.”

“Beti gets it,” she said. “Her work is life-changing. And she has an incredible amount of integrity. On the paper we wrote about our Community Empowerment Partners program, I’m the senior author and she’s the co-author. That’s a big deal. It’s an honor. And it’s a legacy she gifted to me.”

"If you want to change behavior of people who are underserved and oppressed, you need to work with people where they are. ... You have to work with communities. Not on communities. This is very important.”

Dr. Beti Thompson

‘She always listens to the community’

This approach not only led to better, healthier lives for research participants, it helped Thompson – and the Hutch – produce internationally recognized science.

Thompson’s success ultimately led to the opening of a Hutch satellite office in the Lower Yakima Valley in 1995; the Center for Community Health Promotion, based in Sunnyside, has since focused on health interventions that benefit the area’s rural, primarily Latino population.

“Beti is an international leader on conducting CBPR,” said Dr. Rachel Ceballos, a Hutch biobehavioral researcher who’s worked with Thompson for 10 years. “She was doing before it was a methodology. She was one of the people who led the way and helped shift the science in how we do research.”

Before CBPR, scientists were prone to “helicopter research,” Ceballos said, swooping into a community with a predesigned intervention, gathering enough data for a scientific paper or three, then swooping out, never to be seen or heard from again.

“They might change that behavior but once they’re gone, the resources are gone and there’s no sustainability,” she said. “All that did was contribute to our bad reputation as researchers and build mistrust.”

Thompson’s style was different.

When she initially became interested in the migrant Latino population in eastern Washington, her first move was to conduct a community needs assessment and establish a community advisory board, which has continued to work with Hutch researchers for more than two decades.

Dr. Jason Mendoza, director of the newly formed OCOE, said Thompson’s ability to connect with people is almost uncanny.

“She just really connects, especially groups that are usually neglected,” he said. “She’s able to earn their trust and support and provide support for them. She’s tackled some of the hardest issues — cancer disparities, inequities that have stood for decades — and has made real progress.”

OCOE Program Administrator Kathy Briant, who began working with Thompson in 2010, said Thompson’s willingness to listen to non-scientists is one of her greatest strengths.

“She always listens to the community,” Briant said. “She wants to know ‘What are the needs? What do you want?’ And then she builds the intervention, the research project, around that. They may not have a Ph.D., but Beti still values what they say and takes the time to listen to them. That goes a long way.”

Thompson readily acknowledges that community members’ suggestions have led to some of her most successful research efforts.

“We were trying to find ways to improve screening for colorectal cancer and it came to light that many people didn’t actually know what a colon looked like. So I bought a giant inflatable colon,” she said. “We brought it to a health fair and handed out fecal occult blood test kits and we got 76 percent of the cards back, a phenomenal return rate.”

Fred Hutch's Dr. Beti Thompson is retiring after 35 years. In this touching video, she talks about her research — and how the loss of her son to colorectal cancer has inspired her to improve screening for this cancer. Video by Fred Hutch News Service

‘For Healthy Children’

Input from community members in the Lower Yakima Valley also led her to pursue investigations into diabetes prevention (the disease is prevalent in Hispanic populations) and pesticide exposure.

“We’d been out there for about three or four years and one of our community advisory board members said, ‘You know what’s a real problem in this Valley? Pesticide exposure. People are getting sick and kids are getting exposed and we need to do something.’”

That conversation led Thompson to connect with researchers at UW’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences program and a new investigation was soon in the works. Thompson knew from her needs assessment that pesticides were a fractious issue in the Valley — growers felt people were overreacting; farm workers were worried about exposures — so she designed the study around the safety of children, naming it “Para Niños Saludables — For Healthy Children.”

“We made it about children because nobody is against children,” she said. “And the project went on for 17 years. We demonstrated that the farm workers were being exposed to pesticides that are known to be carcinogenic.”

Thompson’s ties with the community meant study participants kept in touch with the researchers — “We never lost more than 7 or 8 percent of our cohort, and this is in a very mobile population” — and also helped her gain traction with growers.

“At first the growers wouldn’t even talk to us,” she said. “But by the end of the project, they were willing to have us come into their fields and talk to the workers about things they could do to protect themselves and their families from pesticide exposure.”

The years-long investigation into pesticides resulted in a large body of research, a less toxic environment for workers in the Valley and Thompson receiving the Civil Rights and Environmental Justice award from the Environmental Protection Agency.

There have been many other awards.

Thompson was given the U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell Women of Valor Award for her efforts to improve lives in Washington state; she received the Joseph F. Fraumeni Jr. Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Society of Preventive Oncology for her outstanding contributions in preventive oncology, cancer control and prevention; and she’s been elected to the Washington State Academy of Sciences. As a testament to her wisdom and leadership, her staff presented her with a “Yoda Award.” Most recently, Thompson was honored this June at a Seattle Mariners game as a “Hutch Hero.”

She’s also had two public health awards named in her honor, the Beti Thompson Community Health Trailblazer Award and the Beti Thompson Cancer Health Equity Research Award, prompting one of her signature deadpan remarks at the symposium where they were last awarded.

“I’d just like to mention,” she said, taking the podium. “I’m not dead yet.”

Dr. Beti Thompson is honored at a Seattle Mariners baseball game
Dr. Beti Thompson was honored as a Hutch Hero during a recent Seattle Mariners game, Photo courtesy of Seattle Mariners

Humor and heart

Thompson’s passion for helping the underserved comes from her own modest beginnings.

The family emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands in 1949 —
her mother was pregnant with Thompson during the infamous Dutch Famine of 1944-45 — and their new life in a new country was not an easy one.

“There were many times when we were hungry and all the clothes we had were hand-me-downs,” she said. “I think from that experience, I always had this soft spot for the underdog because I was one of them. I wanted to do what I could to help people who grew up in similar situations.”

This commitment led to her creation of the Health Disparities Research Center; her involvement with the Hutch’s health disparities partnership with New Mexico State University and her work with Somalian refugees in Seattle; rural Native youth in Alaska and low-income women and adolescents in Chile, among many other underserved groups.

This soft spot for underdogs may also be what’s behind the lifelong interest she takes in her students and postdocs. One former student, Dr. India Ornelas, said she was so impressed with Thompson as a teacher she “stalked” her at conferences, attending every lecture she possibly could.

“She was doing exactly the kind of work I hoped to be doing someday,” said Ornelas, now an associate professor of health services at UW’s School of Public Health. “She’s made an incredible contribution to the field of Latino health.”

Ornelas said Thompson is especially good at translating what the communities’ needs are into language the National Institutes of Health requires for funding grants.

“She’s just a very precise, logical thinker,” she said. “And she’s masterful at getting grants.”

Others mention her sense of humor, her work ethic, her wisdom and, most of all, that big heart.

“Beti’s contributions go beyond the research,” said Ceballos, pointing to the coat drives for Valley residents and cupcake drives to raise money for high school students interested in science. “Doing good and recognizing the value of people — that’s what Beti’s all about. And once you come into her sphere, she’s just there for you forever.”

Thompson, ever humble, is hesitant to acknowledge her incredible legacy. But she’s getting there.

“I used to say I just want a job where every morning I can look in the mirror and say, ‘Today I’m not going to hurt anyone and I might even help someone,’” she said. “And I feel like I really accomplished that in my life. When I hear myself talking now, I think, ‘Yeah, I have made a difference.’”  

Lea la versión en español aqui.

Dr. Beti Thompson with Bridgette Hempstead and Dr. Rachel Ceballos (right)
Dr. Beti Thompson with Bridgette Hempstead (left) and Dr. Rachel Ceballos (right), who both received awards for their work in health disparities research. The awards were named in Thompson's honor.

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at dmapes@fredhutch.org. Just diagnosed and need information and resources? Visit our Patient Care page.

Are you interested in reprinting or republishing this story? Be our guest! We want to help connect people with the information they need. We just ask that you link back to the original article, preserve the author’s byline and refrain from making edits that alter the original context. Questions? Email us at communications@fredhutch.org

Related News

All news
How do we bridge gaps in health equity? Researchers and community members discuss outreach, relationship building at 2018 Pathways to Equity Symposium April 30, 2018
Understanding and addressing cancer health disparities Researchers and community advocates discuss causes, countermeasures at annual Science of Community Equity Symposium May 22, 2017
Health disparities in breast cancer and beyond A Q & A with Dr. Beti Thompson and patient advocate Bridgette Hempstead about the science of equity and how to empower the underserved October 20, 2017

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.