EDI Spotlight: Tammara Watts, MD, PhD


Frequently finding herself the only Black woman surgeon in certain spaces, Tammara Watts MD, PhD, has recognized the importance of making workplaces more inclusive for some time. However, it wasn’t until two years ago that she began working in equity, diversity, and inclusion in an official capacity.

Both in her roles as a head and neck cancer researcher and associate director of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for Duke Cancer Institute, Watts has made it her mission to address cancer disparities and diversify the oncology workforce. In this month’s EDI Spotlight, she shares how a nearly $2 million grant she recently received from the National Institutes of Health will help her do just that. She also gives us a glimpse into some of the work her DCI colleagues are doing to advance health equity and reveals her love of riding horses. 

What is your official EDI-related title within the Duke Cancer Institute? What does this role entail, and how does it complement your other responsibilities as associate professor of head and neck surgery and communication sciences? 

In the DCI, I am the associate director of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. As an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center, I am charged with strategic planning and implementation of the DCI’s Plan to Enhance Diversity (PED). The PED is a new component for all NCI-designated cancer centers with the goal to design programs to support recruitment, retention, and career development of women and individuals underrepresented in the scientific workforce.

Tell us about some of the work DCI is doing to eliminate cancer disparities and advance health equity. 

There is a lot of work being done in this space. We can't be in an era of personalized cancer care if we don't take care of all of the patients and all of our communities. Advancing health equity is one of the pillars in the 2022-2027 DCI Strategic Plan. There are several DCI investigators whose work, both in the lab and at the bedside, is focused on eliminating cancer disparities.

Our Community Outreach, Equity, and Engagement Office did a community scientific round table where community members met with DCI scientists who are working in cancer disparities. My takeaway from that was how the community wants to know how their samples are being used and how their tissues are helping further science.

In addition to research in gastric, breast, endometrial, and prostate cancer focused on understanding the biology of cancer disparities, and evaluating outcomes from clinical trials, DCI created a program called Just Ask, which has been adopted nationally to raise awareness of how implicit basis affects patients of color in even being asked if they would like to participate in a clinical trial.

You recently were awarded a five-year, $1.9 million grant aimed at improving head and neck cancer outcomes and diversity in the oncology workforce. Can you tell us a little about the grant and who will benefit from this research?

I was fortunate to be one of the inaugural recipients of the NIH R01 called ReWARD. It was a new mechanism put in place by the NIH because a lot of investigators spend time working in the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but they don't get any funding or support.

The grant [titled Disparate Outcomes, Disparate Workforce: An Integrated Approach to Improving Head and Neck Cancer Outcomes and Diversity in the Oncology Workforce] has four aims. The first two aims are scientific. Black patients do very poorly with head and neck cancer, even if you control for socioeconomic factors. We want to use a genomics approach and see if we can understand if there are gene-related differences between Black and White patients with head and neck cancer that can inform additional studies to test whether these genetic differences are indeed impactful when it comes to outcomes, and then begin to design treatments around that.

The third aim supports a high school student coming from City of Medicine Academy in Durham to spend time in my lab or any of the labs of the co-investigators to learn about what it is like to conduct oncology-based research. They will come in the summer before they start their junior year and earn high school credit during the spring semester, with the goal of having them participate as a member of the research team to showcase in their college applications.

Fourth, we are partnering with Howard University to send one of their surgery residents for one to two years to do oncology-based research at Duke. The grant provides support for their training. They're not required to do head and neck cancer research. If they want to learn about breast, pancreatic, or gastric cancer, it doesn't matter. The grant is there to support them and help them with their interests. And if they stay for two years, we'll even help support their tuition if they want to get an advanced degree, like a master's degree.

We will also provide mentorship and incubator space for a junior faculty member who wants to start their own translational lab.

What inspired you to begin working to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion within Duke?

I wasn't really working in the cancer disparity space initially. As a Black woman, an MD-PhD surgeon, you're usually a party-of-one in these spaces. And so, you are always thinking about how to include people.

But I didn't get truly inspired with that conscious thought until I started working on the cancer disparities research two years ago. My colleague Dr. Nosa Osazuwa-Peters encouraged me to use my science background to explore head and neck cancer disparities. I became curious and with support with pilot funding from the DCI P20 Disparities SPORE and Dr. Steve Patierno, who's very passionate in this space, thus ignited my own passion. My role in the DCI has become one of my favorite jobs.

I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to get exposure to research early on. I don't know that a lot of our young folks see what research is like. So, one of the things I wanted to make sure on this NIH grant was to have a lot of mentors doing different kinds of research.

About 85% of the students at City of Medicine Academy are students of color. They're interested in the health professions, but I don't know if they know about the non-obvious ones, like molecular epidemiology, bioinformatics, and medical physics as examples of science disciplines that work within the context of cancer. Having that exposure early on as a means to help increase our workforce diversity is vital. I wanted these students to have a much earlier exposure, while in high school which they could carry with them as they enter college. I wanted there to be a broad group of mentors to draw on. And the same thing for the Howard University surgical resident who comes here; they'll get mentorship from surgeons here and develop their research skills with the hope that they choose Duke for their surgical oncology fellowship.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of work?

I love to ride horses. I have been riding for over 30 years. I have fallen off, broken bones and always get back on the horse. The pandemic brought me the joy of Pilates and I'm an aspiring new golfer.