Mya Roberson '16 on Engaged Health Research and Staying Curious

May 8, 2024

This month, we spotlight Mya Roberson, a Brown alumna (2016), a trustee (2016-2019, 2022-2028) of the Brown Corporation and an engaged faculty member at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

A decade later, Mya Roberson ’16 clearly remembers what started her on a path of engaged scholarship. Speaking at the Royce Fellowship Induction Ceremony last month, Roberson recalled a public health class in which Professor Melissa Clark showcased information about mortality rates from breast cancer over the last several decades. Even as the science had improved, racial disparities persisted — and actually increased: “As we got better at treating breast cancer, not all populations were served by the advances we made in science…. For me, what was especially jarring was seeing that black women, in particular, did not benefit…. So, looking at that chart, I started wondering, how can I contribute to closing that gap?” 

Roberson applied for a Royce Fellowship, with Clark as her faculty mentor, to examine that question. The summer between her junior and senior years, she went to Birmingham, Alabama, to interview primary care providers who had been providing mammography screening and Black women who fell within the screening range about behaviors and perceptions about screening. The responses were “vastly different” and laid the foundation for a scholarly career dedicated to integrating insights from people’s lived experiences along with quantitative data analysis. “The health care providers focused on aspects such as lower screening rates, later stage of diagnosis, more aggressive subtypes found in black women, which isn’t wrong, we know that these things happen.” Yet black women emphasized, “things like we’re not taken seriously, we put the health of others before ourselves, and these more psychosocial aspects.” 

Bridging these perspectives in ways that would contribute to closing the gap in mortality rates became Roberson’s core, consistent purpose as she became a Truman Scholar, a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Research Scholar, a Ph.D. in Epidemiology and now an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “I believe that it is through that synthesis of community engagement, lived experience and narrative in concert with quantitative data, that we can move the needle.” 

She continues her engaged research and mentors students in related work as a faculty member. Asked to provide some advice for the Brown undergraduates being inducted into the Royce Society of Fellows, Roberson urged them to “stay curious…. Some of you may go on to pursue research careers like I have…. But regardless of what direction you ultimately take, that curiosity can be what sustains us, what fulfills us, and helps us reach a better world.” 

Chuck Royce, Mya Roberson and Mary Jo Callan at the Royce Induction Ceremony on April 15, 2024.