Featured Investigator: Sarah S. Jackson, PhD, MPH

Sarah Jackson HeadshotSeptember 2021: Sarah S. Jackson, PhD, MPH (she/her)
Research Fellow, Independent Research Scholar
Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics
National Cancer Institute

Dr. Sarah S. Jackson has been a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG) since May 2018. She has a background in public health, with experiences in the DC Department of Health, Whitman-Walker Health, and AIDS Clinical Trials Group. She earned her PhD in epidemiology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. In DCEG, Dr. Jackson’s research focuses on methods for enumerating gender minority populations to describe health disparities in cancer burden in this population.

Q: What are your current research interests?
Within DCEG, I have two areas of research. My primary research program focuses on the cancer continuum among gender minority adults. Secondarily, I’m interested in examining sex differences (e.g., differences in hormones, chromosomes, and immune response) in cancer incidence of non-sex-specific cancers. Within my primary research program, I am interested in how cancer risk and outcomes differ among transgender adults compared to cisgender adults. I’m particularly interested in how the use of hormone therapy may impact cancer risk in this population. Additionally, I investigate the prevalence of cancer risk factors (e.g., smoking, obesity, and viral infections) and cancer screening adherence among transgender adults. Further, because the data on gender minority adults are lacking, I also work to increase gender identity data collection in research. The US transgender population is growing and aging. Therefore, national surveys, research studies, and electronic medical records must start collecting gender identity as well as sex assigned at birth if we are to have accurate estimates of cancer incidence in the coming decades.

Q: Tell us about your career path – how did you end up where you are now?
It took me a while to find my way. I always knew that I wanted a career in public health I just didn’t know in what form. My father is gay, so I grew up in this wonderful LGBTQ+ community and participated in a lot of activism around the HIV crisis at a young age. When I was a kid my dad volunteered at the Whitman Walker Clinic (an HIV clinic in DC). It was always my dream to work there, so when I moved back to DC after college, I got a job at Whitman Walker as a volunteer coordinator. In addition, on nights and weekends, I held two volunteer positions, one as an HIV counselor and tester and another as an interviewer for the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study. I really enjoyed being involved in research, so I left to get my MPH from The George Washington University. There, I was a part-time interviewer for the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance System where I interviewed individuals about sex and drug use and then administered an HIV test. After my MPH, I went in a completely different direction and worked as a data manager for vaccine clinical trials for a few years before moving on to work with the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG). I had been toying with the idea of getting a PhD and inspired by the scientists working with ACTG, I finally decided to go back to school in 2014. After receiving a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 2018, I started a postdoc in the Infections and Immunoepidemiology Branch in DCEG, where I am now. I was attracted to this branch because of its long history of research on HIV and cancer, though I realized not as much work had been done on the LGBTQ+ community outside of HIV. Cancer among transgender individuals was even more of an unexplored area. I brought these topics up to my mentors at NCI who were all very supportive and encouraged me to explore this area of research. This past spring, I was inducted into the Independent Research Scholars Program through NIH’s Office of Intramural Research to continue working on cancer among gender minority adults as a Research Fellow.

Q: What organizational challenges have you faced?
NIH as a whole, and my Division, in particular, has been very supportive of my work. Not many people at NIH are conducting SGM research, and of those few, none are researching cancer among transgender adults. Therefore, I collaborate with many extramural researchers. I am hoping to grow my research program at NIH so there are more of us working on these topics. There is a lot of research that needs to be done!

Q: What advice do you have for trainees and researchers who want to work in this area or are interested in applying for NIH funding? 
First, if you have never worked with the LGBTQ+ community before, start volunteering with a community organization. It’s a great way to help out, get to know the community, and even narrow your research interests. Second, if you want to do this research reach out to us! We are a very friendly bunch and there is a lot of work to be done. Don’t be afraid to email someone after you’ve read their paper or seen their talk at a conference. You never know, they may have a fellowship position, know someone who is looking for a fellow, or they may need a collaborator. I’ve found collaborators from conferences, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Q: Do you have any specific advice for working with and involving SGM populations in research?
 Include the community in every step of your research. Your collaborators and coauthors should be from the community you are studying. Consider organizing a community advisory board made up of community leaders and members during the study design phase through publication so that you can get feedback at every step in the research project. Our research is meaningful when it has community buy-in and fits the needs of the community members.

Q: Who inspires you?
A: So many people inspire me. My father for starters – I owe my career to him. The members of ACT UP, who combined activism with art and theater and taught themselves immunology and epidemiology to bring awareness to the AIDS crisis. They worked with scientists to change how clinical research was conducted in this country and mainstreamed the idea that patients should be involved in the design of research. Also, the individuals I’ve had the privilege to mentor inspire me to push myself to be the best mentor I can be. They also give me hope for the future. Finally, the LGBTQ+ community inspires me. It’s a beautiful and radical act to live your truth in the face of discrimination and injustice.

Q: Any final words of wisdom?
There is no one way to be a scientist and we need more diverse voices in science. We need people who think differently, utilize non-traditional approaches, and offer unique perspectives. If you are reading this and any of it excites you, you belong in science.



This page last reviewed on August 31, 2021