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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

March 2023

Scientific Journeys: How equity in research improves health for all

Antonio Baines, Ph.D., leverages dual appointments to advance pancreatic cancer research and diversity in environmental health sciences.

During his Diversity Speaker Series lecture Antonio Baines, Ph.D., called for everyone to have a seat at the table to help find cures and solutions to many environmental health problems. The Feb. 23 lecture was sponsored by the Office of Science Education and Diversity in honor of Black History month.

Baines is an associate professor in the Department of Biological & Biomedical Sciences at North Carolina Central University (NC Central) and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and a member in the Curriculum in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill). He earned his undergraduate degree from Norfolk State University and became the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Arizona.

Antonio Baines, Ph.D.
“Dr. Baines gave a spectacular talk about the work he's done in his lab around treating pancreatic cancer, and notably in his presentation he highlighted the importance of mentoring,” said NIEHS Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of NIEHS)

During his talk, Baines explained his current research efforts to alleviate drug resistance in pancreatic cancer and his passion for encouraging more students of color to take an interest in environmental health sciences. His energy and enthusiasm for teaching were evident as he described his research and the success his former students have achieved — from earning advanced degrees to teaching at top academic universities.

Before the lecture, Baines spoke with Environmental Factor about his academic and professional journey and his efforts to increase diversity among the next generation of environmental health researchers.

EF: Can you tell us about how your scientific journey began?

Baines: I grew up in a small town in rural Virginia. I always loved science, especially biology. What really put me on the path to making science a career was a high school biology teacher. He was like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society.” He once performed a chemistry experiment that blew holes in a light fixture. This and other experiences in that class really connected with my interest in science.

EF: There's nothing like blowing things up to get a teenager's attention.

Baines: Definitely. I was awarded a full STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] scholarship in a competitive honors program at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia, which is an HBCU [historically black college or university]. During my second year, I won a travel award to attend a Society of Toxicology meeting in New Orleans that changed my life. I met graduate students and professors from the University of Arizona. Ultimately, they helped me to decide that I wanted to go into toxicology and pharmacology. I wanted to be the one asking the questions and finding answers when it came to making novel drugs. In the University of Arizona Ph.D. program, I conducted research and wrote my dissertation on the chemoprevention of colon cancer. Then, I did a postdoc fellowship in the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at UNC-Chapel Hill studying pancreatic cancer.

EF: How would you describe your work today?

Baines: I research novel drug targets and drugs that can potentially be used therapeutically against pancreatic cancer, which is the third most common cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. The five-year survival rate is just 12%. There’s also a health disparity issue. African Americans are diagnosed with more aggressive forms of the cancer and succumb to it more. Also, they are not as able to benefit from the limited treatments as other ethnic groups.

EF: What got you interested in trying to attract more young scholars of color to the environmental health sciences?

Baines: There's a disproportionately low number of people of color in the STEM field. I believe when everybody is at the decision table, benefiting from decisions, we will find treatments and cures for diseases, such as cancer, much quicker. Also, minority groups disproportionately live in environmentally hazardous areas. With diversity, folks who do environmental health research can help decrease environmental racism and increase justice.

EF: Tell us about your 21st Century Environmental Health Scholars program?

Baines: With this collaboration, diverse students from NC Central and UNC-Chapel Hill conduct environmental health sciences and toxicology research and participate in professional development opportunities between both universities. Many come to us unfamiliar with what environmental health is and why it matters. Our goal is to expose them to the field with the hope that some will make it their career. Most of the scholars in the program who have completed the program and graduated go on to graduate school, including Ph.D. programs, or medical school.

EF: What led to your joint appointment?

Baines: My goal was to have an academic and scientific career at a small institution, but still be connected to a larger research institution. Although I teach and mentor students at UNC-Chapel Hill, especially minority students, my primary responsibilities of teaching and research are at NC Central, an HBCU. For me, it's the best of both worlds, but I enjoy having an impact on students no matter where they are and who they are.

(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

Ericka Reid, Ph.D. “Dr. Baines made it possible for us to meet with his department faculty and introduce them to the then soon-to-be launched HBCU-Connect Program,” said Reid, who also kicked off the Diversity Speaker Series lecture on Feb. 23. (Photo courtesy of NIEHS)
Jadesola Oladosu NIEHS Postbaccalaureate Fellow Jadesola Oladosu, one of Baines’s mentees, introduced him on Feb. 23. Oladosu graduated from NCCU and will begin doctoral studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in January. (Photo courtesy of NIEHS)
Antonio Baines, Ph.D. “I know that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now as a professor and a scientist without the influence of an HBCU,” Baines said. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Baines)
AZA and Antonio Baines “AZA was my first student in my lab at NCCU, a first year college student. He helped me set up my lab and worked there with me all four years at NC Central,” Baines said. Baines attended AZA’s graduation from Harvard Medical School. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Baines)
Adoma Gyamfi, Antonio Baines, Nia Lee Adoma Gyamfi (left) and Nia Lee, high school students who worked with Baines in his lab during one summer. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Baines)
Antonio White and Antonio Baines Baines poses with Antonio White, his mentee, at the 2017 Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting. After graduating from NCCU, White went on to graduate school in neuroscience at Michigan State University. (Photo courtesy of Antonio Baines)
Antonio Baines, Ph.D. Baines works to develop novel drugs that can be used to treat pancreatic cancer. (Photo courtesy of NCCU)

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