Monday, November 27, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || Update: 11/28/17
Featured image: Janis Lynn Curtis, who was born in Maywood, went to Harvard and is now a leading medical research expert at Duke University in North Carolina.
Over the summer, I had a long interview with Janis L. Curtis, a 65-year-old Maywood native who was visiting from out of town. Curtis went from Proviso East to Harvard’s graduate school of public health before eventually becoming the associate director of Clinical Data Research Networks at Duke University in North Carolina, where she currently lives.
If you’ve ever seen a pharmaceutical commercial announcing the recommended dosage of a particular medicine, say Tylenol, then you’ve seen Curtis’ work. She’s responsible for making sure that medical researchers are provided the knowledge base necessary for them to do research.
For over an hour, Curtis talked about her journey from Maywood to become the first in her family to attend college, how she overcame her initial trepidation at Harvard, the difference between a job and a career, and the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.
So you grew up in Maywood?
My family has deep roots in Maywood. My sister is former trustee Audrey Jaycox. My grandparents helped start Rock of Ages Baptist Church in Maywood. We used to live at 641 S. 14th Ave., which is where I grew up. I went to Washington, where some my favorite teachers were Mrs. Frazier and Mrs. White. Mrs. Frazier introduced me to the love of reading.
I went to Proviso East High School, where I graduated in 1970 before going to Macalester College, which is a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. I went there on a scholarship, but I only stayed for two years. This was during the time of the Vietnam War. They cut back on scholarships. I was raised by a single mother, Dorothy Lindsey, so I had to leave and come back home.
I transferred to Western Illinois University, where I majored in biology and minored in psychology. When I graduated, I came back to Maywood and worked at Triton College as a guidance aid. We were the aids to the actual guidance counselors and would help students register for courses.
I did that for two years, but after the first year, I knew I needed to do something else. So, I started researching and found out about public health. I decided I would apply to graduate school in the area and was accepted into Harvard’s graduate school of public health in Boston, where I was for two years.
It was an interesting experience, because I knew nothing about public health and my classmates were intimidating, because their parents were doctors and lawyers and brokers. I was the first person in my family to go to college, so I didn’t have a lot of mentors and people to coach me and tell me what to do. I made it through, though.
I was dating a guy from Chicago, Larry Curtis, who is now my husband (next year we’ll be married for 40 years). We have an 18-year-old daughter who just graduated from high school and getting ready to go to college.
What got you through Harvard?
I partnered with some really good friends and with a few other African-American students who were there. We had a good support group with each other. Another person who became a lifelong friend was a Ph.D. student at the time. She was working on her Ph.D. in public health at Harvard, so she knew how things worked. She already had two master’s degrees in social work and public health and she had an apartment.
One day, during my first year at Harvard, I was so frustrated and it was exam time. I wrote her a note about how I didn’t belong there and all of this. Well, she kept that note, had it laminated and put it on a piece of wood. She gave it to me as a graduation gift when I finished.
The other thing that motivated me was I really believed in public health. My goal was to become director of a neighborhood health center. I wanted to ensure the delivery of services to people in need.
As it turned out, I didn’t do that. I got married and started working at Blue Cross, Blue Shield in Chicago. I did that for five years. I was a social policy analyst before moving up to a director position, but that was a little removed from what I really wanted to do.
I wasn’t happy. I had a good job and a good salary, but I needed something else. So I decided to apply for a policy fellowship at the University of North Carolina. I moved there and did research on teen pregnancy, looking at the factors that contributed to it. While doing research, I worked for the North Carolina state Medicaid program as a policy analyst. This was when Medicaid first started to pay for organ transplants and extended eligibility to children and mothers.
After that, I was recruited to the North Carolina Database Medical Commission. I setup a statewide database comparing hospital charges and utilization in North Carolina. So, while I didn’t do what I set out to do, which was be an administrator at a neighborhood health clinic, my career has always been focused on how do you use data to make decisions to improve the delivery of healthcare services.
I believe that everybody has a right to good healthcare, a good education and good housing. Everybody deserves that, regardless of who they are. For me, public health aligns with that vision.
How have race-based health disparities informed your work?
I recently read a book aboutt Henrietta Lacks [an African American woman whose cancer cells helped lead to many breakthroughs in medical research]. I manage Duke’s Clinical Data Research Networks program, which takes the electronic health record data currently available across the country and helps researchers do their jobs.
Lacks is a good example of how black people and other minorities were used as guinea pigs. They’d give us health services when they needed people to do research on but they wouldn’t allow us to benefit from the fruits of that research. My work helps to ensure that this medical research benefits everyone.
One of the projects I’ve helped to support is looking at how race and ethnicity are coded in these data records, to make sure that researchers who are doing what they call health equity, health disparity research have data they need to be able to easily isolate populations of people, in a good way. So they can say, ‘These are the people being treated compared to other people, these are the outcomes.’
On the difference between a job and a career
When I was growing up, if you were going to be a biology major, you did it because you were going to be a doctor, nurse or dentist. As a matter of fact, I was a biology major, but all the other folks in my class were premed majors. The expectation was that you were going to apply to medical school. And I did apply and had been accepted into Howard, but I didn’t want to be a doctor. That wasn’t my thing and, to be honest, I can’t stand the sight of blood.
I love working at Duke and for an academic medical center, because we don’t just deliver care, we create clinical knowledge. A lot of it has to do with exposure. We just don’t expose black kids to other kinds of careers and we don’t make a distinction for our kids between having a job and having a career.
I have a career. I don’t just have a job. I think that we have to expose our children so they can understand that there are lots of things you can do besides just be in certain obvious careers if you have a particular education. VFP
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