Kimberly M. Jackson is studying novel therapeutic agents for prostate cancer. She is also studying the role of minority-serving institutions and the inclusion of more women of color in diversifying the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) pipeline. She has mentored more than 40 students in her research group and is coauthor of the publication “Realigning the Crooked Room: Spelman Claims a Space for African American Women in STEM.” Kolade Olayiwola Adebowale spoke with Jackson about her motivations for studying prostate cancer and her work in advancing equity in STEM. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hometown: LaGrange, Georgia
Education: BS, Alabama State University, 1992; PhD, Clark Atlanta University, 1999
Current position: Chair and associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Spelman College
Work that made an impact on her: The Museum Series, by Carrie Mae Weems, an African American woman artist. Weems intentionally photographs herself facing famous museums like the Louvre or the Tate Modern in a long black dress (representative of a 19th-century funeral dress). These museums are places where she has not been invited to show her work. . . . As a Black woman in the natural sciences, there are many academic spaces (including museums) that question our legitimacy as scholars and academics and do not recognize our validity as leaders in the field.
Favorite lab tool: A timer. I am meeting with students and faculty nonstop between experiments. A timer allows me to stay on task.
Kolade Olayiwola Adebowale: Did you always know you were going to be a scientist?
Kimberly M. Jackson: No. Actually, I went to college to become a musician. I went to a few classes, and it was challenging. So I ran from the music building to the science building because I always liked science, too. I became a chemistry major because it was easier than music.
Some friends urged me to become a doctor, so the summer after my freshman year I went to the University of Oklahoma through the Health Careers Opportunity Program with a cohort of Black students. I shadowed a family physician, and I tell you—whenever someone would be sick in the office, I would become sick as well. I realized then, after that program, I did not want to become a medical doctor. But that experience was my first lesson in becoming what I call a compassionate scholar. It taught me to be thoughtful about my research and who my research may impact. Sometimes we get so caught up thinking, “Oh my god, I didn’t get 10 papers out. I didn’t get that grant.” But in the grand scheme of things, what matters? Are we telling our stories to effect change? Are we being good citizens? Are we being that compassionate scholar?
KA: What got you interested in cancer, specifically prostate cancer?
KJ: I finished up my PhD work in cellular immunology. I went on to do a postdoc in the etiology of ovarian and prostate cancers. But then I got hooked on understanding prostate carcinogenesis because it was impacting Black men. Around that time, my parents were diagnosed with cancer—my mother with stage 1 breast cancer and my father with stage 1 prostate cancer—so I had an even greater desire to work on prostate cancer. I would say that was the biggest reason for moving toward prostate cancer—I had a family connection. Also, there was a lot of funding back then for prostate cancer.
KA: You were the first person to identify that DBM, dibenzoylmethane, a minor constituent of licorice, inhibits prostate cancer growth. What led you to that discovery?
KJ: I learned about dibenzoylmethane when I was a postdoc at Emory, about 20 years ago. I met a dermatologist who was working with curcumin when curcumin was really coming out on the market. And he was like, “Kimberly, you know what curcumin is?” And I said, “Yeah. It’s from turmeric.” He said, “Well, I have something that I’ve heard of that looks very similar to curcumin. Why don’t you just test it out?” I said, “Oh, OK. Well, let me see if it works.” So I started by trial and error testing different concentrations of DBM on standard prostate cancer cell lines. After about 6 months I started to notice there was a suppression in growth. I found there was some deregulation of the cell cycle.
KA: What are some of the things you’ve found, in terms of the mechanism?
KJ: We’ve been working to try to unpack what’s happening with DBM’s molecular mechanism of action and its involvement with the androgen-receptor signaling pathway for some time. First, we did some proteomics work and gene expression profiling, and we saw that one particular actor, the heat shock protein 70, is involved in chaperoning androgen to bind to the androgen receptor. We thought maybe if that particular family of chaperones is downregulated, they’re not able to move the androgen to the receptor. So perhaps DBM is inhibiting activation of the androgen receptor.
More recently, I had a student who started doing computational studies, docking DBM into the androgen receptor. She then looked at the binding energies and changes to the receptor’s active site. We have some fascinating data where we think that DBM is binding to an alternate site and changing the pocket of the androgen receptor. We are trying to publish that work at the moment.
KA: Prostate cancer is one of those cancers that involve excess deposition of extracellular matrix proteins. Have you looked into that?
KJ: Yeah. There is evidence that suggests that cancer development and progression may be influenced by the interplay between cancer cells and the surrounding tumor microenvironment, which includes extracellular matrix components [like collagen, laminin, and actin]. That’s an area we’re excited about now, because there are just so many proteins you can look at. I’ve also enlisted the help of an engineer and surface chemist to help create new matrices for cancer cell growth and DBM studies that better represent 3-D models of the microenvironment.
KA: Is there anything else that we didn’t touch on that you would like to share or discuss?
KJ: I am mission driven to see that the STEM pathway is transformed. Therefore, I create networks and empower Black women in STEM fields to attain doctorate degrees in the biochemical and chemical sciences. I see my work as critical to research-intensive institutions receiving my students and further developing them into junior investigators. We have to work in tandem to expand the STEM pathway. Through me, my students develop the fundamentals of research, experience effective mentoring, and learn to facilitate their scientific thought processes. My work in advancing equity in STEM is essential work: I examine cohorts, networks, and structures that acknowledge and foster positive interactions to increase entry in and persistence in the field and launch successful scientific careers of Black women scientists. Because of my work and that of others, Spelman College is ranked by the National Science Foundation as the number 1 undergraduate institution of origin of Black women PhDs in science and engineering. Twenty-eight of my former research students have earned advanced degrees in the STEM pathway.
Education: BSc, Illinois Institute of Technology; MSc, Columbia University
Current position: PhD candidate, chemical engineering, Stanford University, working in Ovijit Chaudhuri’s lab
Fun project he’s been working on: I’ve been cooking dishes from Serious Eats and trying out some new cuisines like Moroccan vegetable tagine.
Best professional advice he’s received: Seek mentors often.