A Woman of Many Passions Lucile Adams-Campbell dedicates her career to eliminating health disparities

Issue Date: 
February 9, 2009


Growing up, Lucile Adams-Campbell had an extraordinary number of passions. She was a one-person quartet, playing the piano, clarinet, saxophone, and guitar. She was a star athlete in track and field, and a budding mathematician and scientist.

Today, not much has changed. She still possesses a great love for music and continues to be a runner. She fits those passions into her hectic schedule of balancing responsibilities as a mother and an internationally recognized expert on health disparities.

Adams-Campbell received her PhD in epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1983 and completed a National Institutes of Health-funded postdoctoral fellowship at Pitt as well. She then joined Pitt’s Department of Epidemiology as an adjunct professor.

While studying epidemiology at Pitt, Adams-Campbell was the only Black doctoral student in her program.

“Other than standing out by virtue of the color of my skin, I can say without any reservations that I succeeded in my doctoral program just as my classmates did—by hard work, dedication, and perseverance,” says Adams-Campbell. “My experience at Pitt positively impacted my life, as evidenced by my career achievements.”

Specializing in community health research, interventions, and outreach, Adams-Campbell has played a leading role in the Washington, D.C., public health community. With a focus on cancer prevention, she studies the issues and factors that affect populations, such as African Americans, who have a greater risk of developing cancer. In September 2008, she was appointed associate director of Minority Health and Heath Disparities Research at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In addition, Adams-Campbell’s lifelong work on health disparities has resulted in her induction into the Institute of Medicine (IOM), an honor membership organization that is a component of the National Academy of Sciences and serves as a national advisory body on matters of health and science policy. She will officially be inducted into the IOM in October 2009.

Prior to delving into the world of health disparities, Adams-Campbell studied chemical engineering at Drexel University—where she received her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and her master’s degree in biomedical science.

“I decided I did not want to pursue pipes and fluid dynamics any further—I wanted to get involved on the human side of research,” she says.

Adams-Campbell recalls being tired of reading about research that dismissed the importance of studying the health of African Americans and other underrepresented groups. She became determined to be a scientist in the field of epidemiology, and she wanted to be sure she always had adequate sample sizes of underrepresented populations.

“I always thought it was practical to address the health of people who were not doing as well, who had poor survival rates,” she says. “I think populations that are more likely to be sicker from a disease—whether it’s hypertension or breast cancer—deserve and warrant attention.”

Adams-Campbell has led several large cohort studies of African American women and played a leading role in bringing to Washington, D.C., the Boston University Black Women’s Health Study, the largest study of African American women to date.

Adams-Campbell, the primary investigator in D.C. for that study, was part of the original group of researchers who began the study in 1995—though it took three attempts for the group to secure funding. The Black Women’s Health Study has overcome great odds since its slow beginnings in the mid-’90s.

“We were told that we probably could not recruit more than 800 women, so for us to get 59,000 nationally and to consistently track them with a high follow-up rate—this is a remarkable accomplishment,” she says. “People thought that we couldn’t, but we’re the little train that could.”

In addition to recruiting such a high number of study participants, the researchers have collected DNA samples for future genetic studies from 26,000 African American women.

“We have our finger on the pulse of this minority community better than anyone else,” says Adams-Campbell. “To me, it’s been one of the biggest and most important studies I have been involved with.”

Inspired by many great minds throughout her life, Adams-Campbell fondly recalls the influence of Lewis Kuller, professor of public health and former chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Lewis Kuller played a major role in my success,” she says. “He was supportive of my research area of focus—African Americans—at a time when there was, to my knowledge, virtually no research being conducted on this population at the Graduate School of Public Health. He also supported me financially and academically to conduct hypertension research in Benin City, Nigeria, among schoolchildren. This work resulted in my receipt of the New Investigator award, the first grant I ever received from the National Institutes of Health, with Dr. Kuller serving as my mentor.”

Kuller says Adams-Campbell stood out among her peers and was a major contributor to Pitt’s epidemiology program, both as a student and faculty member. “She did a lot here—important pioneering studies,” he said.

Other positive influences in her life, she says, were her parents, both of whom earned master’s degrees. Her late father, an accountant and linguistic analyst, was especially supportive of the academic life.

“He was definitely very much interested in and supportive of upward mobility,” she says.

Today, Adams-Campbell has two children of her own. Her son is a sophomore at Emory University, and her daughter is a sophomore in high school. Both of her children inherited her love of running, and she and her husband, who is a lawyer, travel all over the country to watch their children’s varsity track meets.

“We make concessions,” she says. “We’ve had to figure out how to coordinate schedules so we can be there with the children.”

As for her hopes for the field of epidemiology, Adams-Campbell says she wants to see reduced mortality rates in African American and other underrepresented populations. She also would like to see the obesity epidemic wiped out.

“We have to change our lifestyle,” she says. “We need more behavior interventions to get people to exercise more and eat better—especially starting at a very young age—to stop this obesity.”

She says she hopes most of all to see a reduction or elimination of the disparity between the people at the highest risk and the people at the lowest risk for all diseases and cancers—whether it is African Americans and other underrepresented groups or White individuals.