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A Conversation with Dr. Joyce Balls-Berry and Silas Buchanan

Our Healthy Community CEO Silas Buchanan had a great conversation with one of our featured black scientists, Dr. Joyce Balls-Berry, a fierce advocate for health equity through science. Watch the video above to hear her share an inspirational story about her journey and the challenges she has faced to get to where she is today.

(Read the full transcription of this video below)

Introduction to Dr. Joy

Silas: For those of you that don't know, my name is Silas Buchanan. I'm the founder and CEO of Our Healthy Community. That's, by the way. We're a community engagement, social impact, and social innovation firm. We're based in Cleveland, Ohio. And we build platform ecosystems designed specifically to push and keep the leaders of underserved faith and community-based organizations together all the time. Because there is truly strength in numbers. 

We then work with these leaders in close collaboration to design and launch culturally appropriate community engagement programs, campaigns, resources, all designed to address health disparities and improve health equity in communities of color, and frankly, underserved communities of any color. So tonight, Our Healthy Community, or OHC, has the pleasure of hosting this webinar. 

We're hosting it in collaboration with our very good friends at Health Literacy Media. We recently partnered with Health Literacy Media, or HLM, as we call them. We’re OHC and they’re HLM. To host a series of focus groups to listen and learn from a group of community leaders in Georgia and Louisiana. 

As a result of those listening sessions, we were calling them learning sessions as well, because that's what they really were. We created several materials focused on pertinent health topics that are important to the Black community specifically, one of the things that we created based on those learning sessions is the Black Scientist Series. The Black Scientist Series is a series of one-page profiles that emerged as a result of community leaders we engage requesting to see more information about scientists and physicians of color, folks that look like them. There's a dearth, a lack of physicians and researchers of color. And we believe that many times people do not, as an example, participate in clinical research because they don't see enough people that look like them. 

So, we created the Black Scientist Series, and we released one every Monday this month to highlight and celebrate outstanding scientists. And we're gonna continue to do this because it's not just a Black History Month thing. 

So tonight, we get to be in conversation with one of those outstanding Black scientists. Dr. Joy Joyce and some folks call her Joy. But Dr. Joy or Joyce Balls-Berry. So, I would like to introduce her. She's one of the Black scientists that we featured on our Engage platform. 

Dr. Balls-Berry is an Associate Professor of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine and coordinator for the newly established health disparities and equity core. In the Knight Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. Dr. Balls-Berry's work as a scientist centers around increasing awareness of the importance of community and patient engagement in research. And she also has a goal to increase health equity in minority and increase health equity in minority and under-resourced communities. For full transparency, Dr. Balls-Berry is also on the board of Health Literacy Media. So, with all of that, let me say welcome, Dr. Balls-Berry, thank you for joining me this evening.

Joy: Thank you so much Silas. And you're welcome to call me Joy, as well. So thank you so much for having me.

Growing up in St. Louis

Silas: It's my esteemed pleasure, Joy. Thanks, again for being here. So to start, let's get to know you just a little bit, I want the audience to get to know you a little bit. And I'm sure, by the time we're done, there'll be Googling you and learning much more about you than will then gleaned in the conversation just this evening. But let's learn about your work as a scientist. And then we're going to end with a little Q&A from the audience, to give you an opportunity to answer any questions that they might have. So, I'm going to ask the audience to just insert any questions that they have into the chat. And we can get started. So, Joy, I should just stop talking so much. And just ask you to broadly and with some specificity, tell us about yourself, where are you from? 

Joy: I'm originally from St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up here. So, I'm back in my hometown. So, I am a multi-generation St. Louis person. And, you know, the big question that everyone asked from St. Louis is what high school did you go to? And I went to Health Careers. So, that's the St. Louis thing. And so I grew up in a family where education was pivotal. My mom was a high school teacher. She taught at the oldest high school west of the Mississippi, which is Charles Sumner High School. If most people know from the high school that Tina Turner graduated from,   the high school Arthur Ashe graduated from a list of other African Americans, Ethel Hedgeman Lyle was the founder of my sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated also graduated from Sumner. And so you know, so it was like a really big deal that our family my mother still had that connection to Sumner Even though she didn't go there, she or my dad, but both sides of our families graduated from there. 

And I ended up over time, we learned that I am neurodiverse. So I live every day with dyslexia, and also almost as much ADHD. And so, my educational background has been very diverse in terms of going to really elite private schools, to public school to Catholic school to a magnet public school for high school. After high school I ventured on to New Orleans, Louisiana, I graduated from high school in three years, despite the fact that everyone told me that I would never be able to get a degree because of my dyslexia. So I'm thankful that my parents fought for my education, and fought for me to have the right resources in order to be able to graduate high school even you know, it's, but because they were my dad was also an educator and in a public in public health. And so I think because of that, that changed my trajectory. And I recognize that that is a privilege, right?

Silas: Let me ask real quick. How old were you when you discovered you had dyslexia?

Joy: I was eight. So at that point, I was in the third grade. And I couldn't read. So what I was doing is I have an older brother, who is eight years, my senior I would have him read, you know, the, those little golden books? I do. Okay, so we're aging ourselves? Yes. So you remember those books. So what I would do is, I would have him read them to me like three or four times, and I would memorize what he was reading based on the pictures. And so my parents thought I was reading which, I guess in some way, and you know, now that I think about it, you know, I mean, it's, it's very interesting. So I even do things like I don't write my B's and D’s backward, I either eliminate words, or I read backward, which sounds really weird for those who are neurotypical. So like, for instance, my husband and I just went and got an eye exam. And if I'm really tired, then I forget to convert for my neurotypical colleagues.

Silas: So you're reading the chart backward?

Joy: I was reading the eye chart backward out loud. And my husband and the guy doing the exam, they looked at me like I was like, wait. And he's been with me a long time. But he's never seen me do that. He's also an educator. So he was like, what just happened? I was like, I told you, I got dyslexia

Silas: But you could see, but you could see those.

Joy: Like, what just happened?

Silas: Coming up, were there STEM programs, because, you know, what, in those days was STEM even a thing? 

How did you become interested in Epidemiology?

Joy: I, again, I was lucky, right? Because my dad was a public health guy. So I grew up around people that were physicians and scientists and, and then the grade school that I went to, had a big focus on math and reading the one that I ended up being diagnosed at and then they ended up closing it, which kind of was a hard pill to swallow. Because there were so many kids that were there that were able to get the resources that they needed for either dyscalculia or dyslexia or, you know, at the time, you know, ADHD wasn't really a thing, because we're talking in the 80s and early 90s. 

Well really ‘80 to ‘89 was when I finished elementary school, and I liked the second grade so much, I did it twice. So, but there was and then it did cost because it was a Catholic school. But the class sizes were small. The tutoring was great. And then they fostered because we were so close to St. Louis U, in terms of proximity, that a lot of student teachers would come over and do science projects with us. They would do other things with us that I think gave us a level of exposure. 

And then in high school, I went to a school called Health Careers. So, my anatomy and physiology classes in high school used the same textbooks that were used in medical school. So, it was, and even in undergraduate schools, it was very different. It was heavily focused on science, because we all had to choose a specialty, like a major for high school. Mine was, so I did EMT training in high school, and never did take the state exam but was trained, and became a phlebotomist. 

So we had to, you know, work at the hospitals and all of that. And so my senior year, which would have been my junior year, I only went to school three days a week, and the other two days I worked at the hospital now that I'm now on faculty.

Silas: So it sounds like you made up your mind. You know, really, really early, that you were going to be on this path to be a physician, scientist, or researcher. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you ever think I made me do something different?

Joy: So I used to tell people, I was either going to be a quarterback. And you've met me in person, or a physician. I never knew the term epidemiology. And now I'm an epidemiologist. So I didn't do either. But I love science, right? And then I was one of those kids that asked a ton of questions. And so, I think that over the years when I got to undergrad, I went to Xavier in New Orleans.

And Xavier is well known for being the number one place the number one university of getting African Americans accepted into medical school. But what few people know is that 95 to 98% of Xavier graduates and my numbers might be a little bit off that don't go to med school, finish grad school, or law school. So it was like, you know, so you knew you had to do something, when you got down there, you knew that your undergraduate degree was not enough. And in fact, at freshman orientation, they were like, ‘Okay, do what you want to do in undergrad, but make sure your grades are good enough to get into med school, law school, or graduate school.’ And it was pushed. And so I was pre-med. And then I slowly realized I wasn't taking any of my pre-med requirements to go to med school. And so I finished with a degree in psychology with a minor in African American Studies. And I started off as a biology major, and my dad had a degree in PE and biology. And he was like, I don't understand why you're not getting the biology stuff. So if anyone is a biologist, if you ever heard of the Krebs Cycle, it killed me. The Krebs Cycle, and now they don't even teach it.

Silas: Well, now tell us what that is. Because our people our audience may not know that is, a brief description.

Joy: The test, I made an F on. No, I’ll mess it up because I made an F on that test three times. So, that sealed my fate a bit in biology.

Silas: So now tell us how you how your trajectory to get to neurology how you decided this was your spot.

Joy: So, what ended up happening is Dr. Catina O'Leary is here, as well, she and I trained together we were both finishing our masters and she was finishing hers in social work and I was finishing mine in psychiatric epidemiology and then eventually did a Ph.D. in health ed. All of the work that I was doing leading up to where I am now really dealt with sexually transmitted, sexually transmitted infections, substance use, from tobacco to alcohol to other drugs. And it was when, after I did my masters at Wash U PhD at the University of Toledo, and then did a postdoc at the University of Florida, which led to a faculty position for eight and a half years at Mayo Clinic. 

Silas: You've been getting all over this country. 

Joy: Yeah. 

And then I worked at California at one point. Well, that's another story. But anyway, when I was at Mayo, the chair of Epidemiology at the time, was a Black woman who was a neurologist. And she kept telling me, she was like, ‘You should start doing research with me.’ And I was like, you know, I study sex, drugs, and hip hop. And she was like, ‘No, I'm telling you, you should start doing some research with me.’ And so I started doing research with her husband, on hepatitis, which was a really good fit. She retired right when she retired Mayo got a training grant, which are these big grants to train either junior investigators, early-stage career scientists, or people that are trying to transition into research careers. 

And so I was approached by one of her good friends and he said, ‘Hey, we are we've got this grant, and it's to train people in Alzheimer's Disease Research.’ And I was like, they were like Joy, we think you'd be a good fit. So, I did the training, and I was probably yea seven into my faculty appointment. Seven almost going into year eight. And I hadn't really thought about it. And then my dad's best friend passed from Alzheimer's disease. And my dad had also just passed. So I was like, well, you know, maybe, you know,

Silas: So, maybe now is getting personal a little bit.

Joy: Exactly. So I was invited to do a talk for a group called Us Against Alzheimer's. So at this point, they're putting me on committees, I'm doing stuff for Mayo, I'm doing all these other things. And they were like, ‘Yeah, we want you to give a talk about your research in Alzheimer's disease.’ 

And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I haven't done anything yet.’ And so I said, but I can talk to ya’ll about how, you know, to recruit people to clinical trials, because that's what I'm known for.’ So, I go and give this talk. I talked him into not letting the scientists have slides. You know, scientists, we like those slides, right? And everybody else on the panel was freaking out because some of the folks were really junior. And I was like, you just need to tell your story. 

From that. The folks at Wash U, where I am now Washington University School of Medicine, some of them were in the audience. And they invited me to give a named lecture named after a guy named Norman Say, Norman Seay was a civil rights leader and activist here in St. Louis, Missouri. He founded along with a woman named Ida Woolfolk, who was my godmother, she was one of my mother's best friends. They founded the African American Advisory Board with a guy named John Morris, who was now my mentor. And Dr. Morris, he invited me to give this talk, I gave the talk a year later, they asked me to move to St. Louis, and be in the Department of Neurology, and the rest is history,

Silas: Well, of all places. So, you know, a lot of this is showing up, right? To, you know, just kind of show up when you're invited. Don't be intimidated by systems. So, we may have some young or aspiring scientists or researchers listening to this. And I just want to make sure that they're, getting that and they're hearing that you showed up. You had some things to overcome on your journey to get to exactly where you are now, but you just kind of kept showing up. And as you show up, right, good things begin to happen. Not that challenges didn't continue, but you just kind of kept moving forward. Talk to me a little bit about disparities in Alzheimer's, right, what you're working on now that excites you. And touch on disparities a little bit if you if you would, and the importance of being a researcher of color. 

The importance of showing up with vulnerability

Joy: So, for me, the first time I ever noticed disparities, really existing, like I knew, like I will hear stories of my dad, he was a health commissioner in East St. Louis, Illinois at one point. And you know, East St. Louis is not a high-income area. And parts of it aren't, parts of it are, so you know, but the part you hear on the news is not that, right. And when I graduated from college and moved back here, I started doing medical record abstraction for the state of Missouri, for moms that were that were pregnant, who were diagnosed with HIV, to see if their baby zero converted to an HIV seropositive status. So basically it is mother-to-child transmission. 

It was the first time that I actually, it clicked that disparities were real. Because the hospitals, some of them in my hometown, that were saying they were the best hospitals during that time period, to have babies. Were not giving Black mothers and Brown moms the treatment that they need to prevent their babies from becoming, from transitioning to an HIV-positive status. And that was real. And my job as a 20 to 23-year-old was to find out that data. 

And so I look at it like this, there are disparities around social determinants of health. Those determinants of health relate to the wealth gap and relates to, which directly links to education. It directly links to what schools are in your area, it directly links to do you have transportation to get to work, it directly links to our ability to access care, and the quality of the care that we have. That we have access to.

It relates to excuse me, all of those things.

Silas: Take your time, because this is this is so compelling. And I just really do want folks to hear what you're saying. One of the notes in the chat is pointing out, you know, opportunities that emerge and availability of opportunities, but you being there to take advantage of it is significant. There are so many times that, folks, regardless of your social status, or your race or ethnicity, we don't think certain opportunities are for us. And so it becomes a little bit self-defeating, and we walk away from them. And what I'm hearing from you are, you know, I wasn't always confident, wasn’t always 100% sure, it was for me. But you were, you know, bent on at least showing up and finding out for sure.

Joy: Exactly. And so, when we think about, you know, you asked me about, you know, this overall time of disparities. So everything in my career is I have to, I show up with several things when I come to the table. I show up with my Blackness, and I don't apologize for it. I show up with all of my womaness, and I know that's not a word, and I don't apologize for it. I show up with the fact that I am neurodivergent. I tell people that I have dyslexia, and I show up with all of those things. 

I show up with the fact that I've stood on the front lines with others who haven't had anybody to be their voice from the LGBTQIA community as an ally. And I show up with someone who's even experienced racism, sexism, and even sexual harassment in my career, and in my educational journey. And so I think that showing a level of vulnerability and owning it changes things.

So, I mentioned that I trained with Dr. O'Leary. I don't think Catina knew that I had, she knew something was wrong, but she didn't know what it was when we were working in the same lab. But I never said to her that I had dyslexia. And we have a mutual mentor, who was a woman. And I can remember the times when she would get on me about my writing. But what I didn't know is that my dad and Linda, I knew that they were friends, because they both worked in the public health sector. But what I didn't know was that my dad had told her I had dyslexia. You see what I'm saying? And so she fought for me not to have to take the GRE. 

Silas: That's right. You owned everything that you are you owned it, and you owned it publicly in a way that can be disarming, but it really is honest. And because it's so honest, it's empowering. 

The importance of having a mentor

Joy: It's weird. Because I think it was 2015 or 2016. I can't remember what year it was, I did a TED Talk, a TEDx. And when I did that, when I was applying, you had to apply and audition. And before I applied and auditioned, I had also applied for the main TED stage, and this was local for Rochester. I applied for both at the same time. The one I submitted to the big TED was about science, like why it's important for diversity and research and they thought that was boring. So I didn't get in. The one I applied for locally, I got in but instead, I decided to tell my story with dyslexia. And my husband was like, ‘You need to do it.’ My dad was like, ‘You need to tell the story.’ My mother was like ‘Hell no, you don't need to tell that story.’ And I mean, seriously, and this was a three-way call with my, well really, two way, they were in the same house they were both on other phones. So, I guess it's not really a three-way call, but they were both in different rooms of the house. And this is exactly so I'm talking to them on the landline and my mother's like, ‘She doesn't need to do this. It's gonna hurt her career.’ And ‘I remember all the crying because she was bullied’ and my dad was like, ‘You need to own it.’ And so, I thought about it almost every piece of advice is gonna sound terrible, but my women, my female mentors have given me vastly different advice than my male mentors. 

Silas: What is that? 

Joy: The one difference that I've noticed, at least in my career is they told me ‘To just do it. Just apply, you don't know unless you go and try.’ And then some of my women mentors who have seen the other side of my pain and the tears and things like that. They're like, ‘Well, maybe you should wait, maybe you should do this. Maybe you shouldn't ask for that.’ And so now I just kind of show up and just tell them what I want. 

And but the the one question that was asked here in the chat is, if ‘I was speaking to the next generation of Black scientists, what would I say about the importance of having a mentor throughout the journey,’ I think you need a board of directors. And what I mean by that is multiple mentors in different sectors. Someone that can who can guide you as a scientist in the space where you want expertise. And then your job is to get expertise beyond your mentor in a certain specific area. Then also other people on your team that are peers. So, at that peer-to-peer mentoring, which means someone who is at the same career level, or they're about they might be associate, and you’re assistant professor, or they might have might be an instructor in your city, but someone else that can that you can talk to about what we call the hidden curriculum. And then I also think that there's this thing with having people outside of your academic home if you're a scientist in academia, or if you're working in the industry, someone else that's not in that same space that can also be a sounding board to help advise you. 

Silas: We used to call that the kitchen cabinet. Right? Okay, we used to call that our cabinet. We wouldn't call it a board of directors, it was a cabinet, okay, and it will be in the kitchen. And we used to call it the kitchen cabinet. And you have a diverse group of folks that know you well, from the various aspects of your life that will tell you the truth, and encourage you most of the time. So yeah, I completely get that. 

Got one more question, because I'm going to get to get you off of here pretty quickly and get you to dinner.

What are you hoping to achieve professionally in the future? Because you're still a young physician, you're a young woman.

Joy: Well, I'm not a physician.

Silas: You're still a young researcher, right? Who's at the top of her game? And so what are you hoping to do, you've achieved so many things. And you've shared many of those with us today. But what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Joy: First of all, thank you for calling me young, because I'll be 50 in June. And I own it, I own all the things that go.

Silas: Listen, when you look 35 You can own it, okay? 

Joy: I own all the things that go along with perimenopause and all of that. But in my career, I really hope that I can shed light on the importance of having a diversity of voice and perspective when science is being decided upon. This means from the funding levels, this means from the advisory boards that universities and Big Pharma are creating. This means listening to the voices of those around us and those who came before us to hear their stories so that we don't make the same mistakes that were done in the past. 

You know, naturally, I'd love to get full professor and all of those things. I'm an associate professor now. So, I've got a lot more work to do to get to that level. But I'm hoping that that will happen. I'm also hoping that I'll eventually be able to have a research center devoted to eliminating health disparities and increasing health equity in my hometown, that has a global focus, not just focused on St. Louis, I've done work in Uganda and other things like that as well. But the one thing that I really hope that I achieve is the fact that we need to really start having deeper levels of conversations about literacy, from functional literacy to health literacy, to health research literacy, so that our communities understand the ask, and then they can come back to us and say, ‘These are the things that’ and prioritize what they want, not just what we want as scientists. 

Silas: I love it. That's a perfect way to end this and maybe just segue into maybe a few questions in the chat. I want to look at those but you are, you're really compelling. And we're so appreciative of you spending some time and telling your story letting us learn about you and hear from you directly. I want to pop over to that. chat. Real quick before I let you go. And let's see if we've got a question or two that we can glean. 

Here's one: ‘Part of your stories about grit and perseverance. But another part seems to be speaking about serendipity. And what would you say about that.’

 We talked a little bit about that already. But I want to hear a little bit more about it. That serendipity part of it, the opportunities that come to you, because you are open to receiving it. And being open to failure, maybe that's a way to think about this.

The importance of being open to failure

Joy: One of my former mentors, who I miss working with, greatly used to tell me to fail forward. And I wish I knew that at 20. Because I didn't hear that until I was like 40. And what he meant by that is accepting the learning lessons, the lessons that you get from failure, right? 

Because if an experiment doesn't go well, and you have a negative finding, then you have to shift, right? But then also, my faith tells me that I'm supposed to ask questions and be open to the answers that will come from those questions. Right. 

And I don't lie about my walk as a Christian and I also am a spiritualist. So, every morning, I get up, I pray, I read, I read the Bible or the word as they call it. And then I meditate and I do some other things as well. And, then I just kind of sit and be and I'm a talker. 

So from I even went to, in my 20s, I went to a Buddhist retreat to learn how to meditate. And I think that all of those things have helped ground me. And then I also am not a ‘No person.’ My parents weren't ‘No people.’ So I was raised by people who always say yes, to most things. And if I'm unsure, then I will say, ‘Well, let me think about it,’ which is not a hard no. Right? Which has also gotten me in trouble sometimes. 

You know, I went to a conference in New Orleans. So that's another store that we can share online here.

Silas: Over a bowl of gumbo, we'll share that.

Joy: Exactly, exactly. And so I think that by being open to the ‘Yes,’ of trying different things and not fearing, or not even worrying about whether or not it was going to succeed, but knowing that it was going to succeed the way that it should. Then, so it be, right, like, amen. Thank God, you know, which might sound crazy. But you know, it's like. 

I also own a consulting business and I haven't done a great job with that. And I was telling someone that I was trying to determine if I want them to be on my personal board of directors, or at my kitchen cabinet, that I need mentoring in this space. And I don't know who I want to be my mentor in that space. And I was like, I'm not doing this, right. I don't know what this what I should be doing. I don't know how to do these things. And they were like, Oh, you just need to do X, Y, and Z. And I'm like, I still don't understand. But being open also enough to say, to put ego aside, to ask what is it that I need to learn for myself to grow, and being open to being a student every day. 

Silas: That's it. That's it right there. So we're gonna, we're gonna end it, there's a perfect, perfect way to end this. I heard so many wonderful things from you today. And show up if I count up the number of times I heard you say show up, right? You're going to have me repeating it to young people as I interact with them and chat with them about their professional aspirations, right? Show up start by showing up. Right. 

My dad used to say, you know, you show intelligence two ways, right? He said, first of all, first by showing up, but it's the things that you say, it's also the questions you ask. So make sure you have a few good questions to ask. And with that, I'm going to say thank you so much for spending time we reached the end of our conversation. We are grateful and appreciative that you took time out of your day to speak with us tonight. I enjoyed the conversation, I know our audience did as well, and have a wonderful night. I will see you soon for a bowl of gumbo.

Joy: I would most definitely, and I make a mean bowl of gumbo.

Silas: I know you do, I believe it. Thank you so much, have a good night.

Joy: Good night.


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