Passion and Purpose

Updated Feb 1, 2021
Title: Assistant Professor, Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Rutgers School of Public Health; Full Member, Cancer Prevention and Control Research Program, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
Education: B.S., biology, Howard University; Ph.D., genetics & human genetics, Howard University; M.P.H., epidemiology, Ohio State University.
Age: 38
Career mentors: Dr. Clarence M. Lee, Howard University; Dr. Lucile L. Adams-Campbell, Georgetown University; Dr. Peter Shields and Dr. Electra D. Paskett, Ohio State University
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: “Passion and persistence are critical, so don’t give up on what you believe in. This is in your work as an academic scholar as well as in every aspect of your life."
Dr. Adana A.M. Llanos focuses her research on understanding and addressing inequities in cancer outcomes for underserved populations.

Llanos is a molecular cancer epidemiologist who engages in transdisciplinary and collaborative studies that examine molecular and sociobiological mechanisms that contribute to increased cancer incidence and mortality. Focusing on minority and medically underserved populations, she seeks to address and overcome health disparities.

“Adana Llanos really does work with and for the people that she studies,” says Dr. Perry N. Halkitis, dean and professor of biostatistics and urban-global public health at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “Too often we find in research that people are disconnected from the population they work with … but Adana does really effective, community-engaged, community participatory research where she gives voice to the people and empowers populations.”

For her own higher education, she sought an institution where her interests in science would be appreciated and where the faculty had a vested interest in her success. Llanos chose Howard University, attending the historically Black institution for both her undergraduate and graduate studies. Part of that relates to experiences she had as one of the only Black students in AP science courses and honors classes in high school.

“That sense of belonging was something that I longed for,” says Llanos. “My experiences at Howard — the love and support from the faculty as both an undergraduate and graduate student — have had immeasurable impact on my development as a scientist, researcher and global citizen. My interest in being a role model for other aspiring scientists from underrepresented groups was made at Howard.”

She was originally on the pre-med track at Howard when a mentor in the biology department, Dr. Clarence M. Lee, encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. If not for him, she says she would probably have persevered through medical school instead of finding her true passion in science research and teaching.

“Thoroughly enjoying my research and engaging with students in the way that I get to, engaging with communities, I know this is what I am supposed to be doing,” says Llanos, who is appreciative of her “amazing mentors” throughout her education and career. During her graduate genetics program, Llanos became interested in studying cancer and understanding why there were stark disparities by race and ethnicity.

“I was focused on the biological and molecular factors that contribute to disparities in cancer, but the more I study and the more research projects I do, I’m seeing that these disparities are not so much biological as social,” Llanos says. “I’ve been leaning more towards the intersection of social determinants of health, biological factors and molecular mechanisms to understand disparities.

“In a lot of questions, we might find the molecular answers, but we have to get it into the communities that have the disparate outcomes,” she adds. “I did two post-doctoral fellowships that allowed me to gain community-based participatory research experience and research that had a community perspective.”

Llanos teaches several graduate courses at Rutgers University’s School of Public Health. Halkitis says she is cognizant that many Rutgers students are first generation, so she puts together syllabi that are inclusive of different voices of researchers.

“Encouraging students, particularly those from groups that are underrepresented in academia, is really important to me,” Llanos says.

“I believe that you can’t be what you can’t see,” she continues. “Students reach out to me just to talk about my experiences. Being able to encourage them to pursue advanced degrees is one of the reasons that I’m in this career.”

Llanos has a growing research lab, and she works with a diverse group of students, trying to provide opportunities to inspire them to stay in academic research. She feels representation matters and their voices are important.

“I’m hoping my research will evolve and we will be able to find ways to address some of the disparities that we’re seeing in cancer,” Llanos says. “I’m really interested in understanding why Black women are diagnosed with more aggressive breast tumors. … Understanding what causes are related to that — whether it’s biological, social, a combination — and how can we address that. “In the U.S., Black women diagnosed with breast cancer are 42% more likely to die of their disease than White women,” she adds. “One of the things that I would like to contribute to is making that gap smaller.”