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Fall 2014 – Scientist Profile: Tiffany Carson, Ph.D., M.P.H.

By Morgan Terry
Published with permission from the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center Magazine

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It wasn’t until Tiffany Carson, Ph.D., M.P.H., returned home to her native Birmingham that she realized her greatest potential. Dr. Carson earned her bachelor’s degree in biology at Florida State University in 2002, and in 2005, she received her master’s degree in public health and epidemiology from UAB.

It was while attending UAB that Dr. Carson earned an internship with CaRES (Cancer Research Experiences for Students). This program provides paid summer cancer research internships for UAB medical students and graduate students on the UAB campus or at institutions affiliated with UAB. The goal of the program is to encourage students to pursue careers in cancer research, and through her internship, Dr. Carson realized that was what she wanted to do.

“That experience really brought to life what I was learning in the classroom. That’s when I knew cancer research was an area I was really interested in and passionate about,” Dr. Carson says. “In particular, I saw that obesity and cancer affect people around me, so this would be a way that I could make a difference in the lives of those I come in contact with every day.”

After receiving her master’s degree, Dr. Carson went on to earn her Ph.D. in epidemiology from UAB in 2010. The next year, she completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Center for Obesity Research. She then returned to UAB, joining the faculty as an assistant professor in the Division of Preventive Medicine.

Finding Support

One aspect that attracted Dr. Carson back to UAB is the strong, supportive environment it provides for young investigators such as herself. As an applied epidemiologist, she conducts little basic science research. However, she explains that the faculty and staff are helpful in meeting each other’s needs. “We all work together, from basic scientists to population-level researchers. I can knock on a basic scientist’s door anytime with a question or idea, and they are eager to help.”

Young scientists such as Dr. Carson can be overwhelmed in their field of research without that type of support. But financial support for research is also critically important. Obtaining federal funding for research is extremely difficult, particularly for those researchers who are early in their careers. Because of this, the Young Supporters Board of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center established and funded a Young Investigators Grant to be awarded annually to a junior faculty member to help jumpstart their research. In 2013, Dr. Carson was one of the grant recipients.

“The funding support given to me by the Young Supporters Board was a great opportunity for me as an early-career investigator because it provides a foundation for me to build my research program,” Dr. Carson says. “Funding at the national level is competitive, so the Young Investigator Grant has really helped me develop my research portfolio. With this grant, I’ve been able to collect pilot data which is going to be very important to help me plan and prepare to write larger grants for my research program and overall career development.”

Dr. Carson’s study, “Exploring Potential Bio-Behavioral Explanations of Cancer Disparities,” is examining how behavior, environment and biology may interact to contribute to differences in cancer risk for African-American and Caucasian women in the Deep South. “This study is exploring how stress and diet affect the naturally occurring bacteria in our body, or the microbiome,” she says. “The microbiome has recently been linked to risks for certain cancers, especially colorectal cancer. This study is exploring the hypothesis that, because black women report higher levels of perceived psychological stress, they may have a less healthy microbiome, which in turn leads to an increased risk for some cancers.”

Dr. Carson enrolled 107 healthy participants in the study, in which they completed questionnaires and provided samples to examine relationships among stress, weight, and the oral and gut bacteria. Her hope is that this research will lay the groundwork for her to be competitive for national-level funding in the near future.

“After answering the questions from the pilot study in healthy populations, we really want to be able to validate our findings by comparing women with and without cancer,” she says. “I am hopeful that the scientific merit of this work will be recognized by national funding agencies so we can continue this important line of research.”

Because Alabama, and the Deep South as a whole, ranks at the bottom of the list for overall health outcomes, Dr. Carson feels she has much to accomplish in her career, and UAB is the place to do it.

“There is a need for research here, and UAB has the two things I need to be able to complete successful and meaningful work: a target population with health challenges to be addressed and a supportive internal atmosphere with common goals,” she says. “UAB is a collaborative place. It provides an exciting and novel opportunity to do interdisciplinary research, which is going to be necessary to address health disparities.”