‘I use my platform to shake the stereotype of what a scientist looks like’

19 Aug 2020

Danielle Twum, cancer immunologist. Image: Danielle Twum

As well as working as a cancer immunologist, Danielle Twum wants to ignite a spark in young people who may not have considered a career in STEM before.

Cancer continues to be one of the most prevalent disease groups. In fact, figures from the World Health Organization show cancer to be the second leading cause of death globally, accounting for an estimated 9.6m deaths in 2018. In Ireland, a report from that same year showed that cancer had surpassed heart disease as the most common cause of death in the country.

With this in mind, scientists all around the world are working tirelessly towards healthcare solutions to treat various forms of cancer. One such scientist is Danielle Twum, who studied cancer immunology in graduate school in the US. “I was trying to understand whether I could flip switches in immune cells and convince them to fight cancer cells instead of helping the cancer grow,” she said.

Twum also works as a translational science liaison, which means she uses her scientific expertise to help explain the uniqueness of each person’s tumour and how that information can be used to get a personalised cure.

‘STEM is exciting and colourful. There is no mould. We all belong here’

She is also an If/Then ambassador with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This is a programme that highlights women in STEM, showing girls the different career pathways they can pursue and how STEM impacts their lives every day.

“I use my platform to shake the stereotype of what a scientist looks like. I actively try to encourage anyone, especially black students and students of colour, who want to go into STEM to not be scared as there is a network of us ready to support them and help them succeed.”

Breaking the mould

Twum believes that effective science communication is important because it shines a light on concepts that might seem confusing at first. This, she said, leads to a better-informed public, which results in people making more informed decisions. She also said there is a need for diverse role models in STEM for children from a young age.

“These role models will serve as mentors and dream further for these young children. It is hard to see so far ahead when you have not been exposed to all that is out there,” she said.

“By having these mentors and role models in their lives, young students will have a network that they can tap into for resources, like internships and scholarships that these students can apply to. It’s not enough to be a role model, we also have to be able to financially help young children reach their dreams.”

She added that gatekeeping with STEM careers need to stop, especially when it implies that you have to fit a certain mould to be successful in the field. “STEM is exciting and colourful. There is no mould. We all belong here.”

Twum said the best part of her job as a translational science liaison is knowing that she’s helping patients get personalised care. “As an ambassador, my favourite part is having teachers and parents tell me that I have inspired their students and children respectively to pursue a career in STEM.”

When asked what she wished she knew at the start of her career, she said: “I wish someone had told me that everyone is freestyling out here and to not compare my path to that of others. I picked up that lesson late in graduate school and it has definitely given me a freedom to be myself and to enjoy my path. I am alright with where I am now and wherever I may go.”

For those considering a career in STEM, Twum said they should go for it. “Pursuing a career in STEM opens up the world for you,” she added.

“This is because so much what you will study, whether it be in biology, physics, chemistry, computer science and many other STEM fields, is transferable to many other fields. Pursuing a career in STEM gives you critical thinking skills, which are valuable everywhere.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic