Marquita Taylor, PhD Says Ingraining DEI in Cancer Research is Personal

March 14, 2023 by

Marquita Taylor

Marquita Taylor, PhD, MPH, MBA

One sentence in cancer epidemiologist Dr. Marquita Taylor’s research philosophy stands out as an absolute. “Cancer epidemiology and health equity must exist under the same umbrella,” states Marquita Taylor, PhD, MPH, MBA, who recently joined UVA Cancer Center as associate director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and the School of Medicine faculty as an assistant professor of Public Health Sciences.

Dr. Taylor’s conviction is born of experience. As a cancer survivor, her fight against the disease is supremely personal. As a Black woman who cites social, economic and environmental factors in her diagnosis, and who has often not seen herself in the institutions where she studied and served, so too is her work to ingrain diversity, equity and inclusion in everything the Cancer Center does.

“Epidemiology and institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion share a major commonality: community,” Dr. Taylor said. “And these parallel professional paths allow me to impact both internal and external communities.”

Since arriving last fall Dr. Taylor has listened to colleagues, fostered partnerships, and has taken initial steps toward positive change at the Cancer Center that she hopes, working with partners, may ultimately be applied across UVA Health.

“We’re very fortunate to have Dr. Taylor’s caring and dynamic leadership at the Cancer Center,” said Tracy M. Downs, MD, FACS, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and UVA Health Chief Diversity and Community Engagement Officer. “Like everything the Cancer Center does, her work will benefit not only the institution, its research and UVA Health’s patients; also our diverse communities in our region as we seek to engage individuals through education about risks, and provide access to screening and care.”

A Wisconsin native, Dr. Taylor studied business, finance, and political science as an undergraduate at Alverno College in Milwaukee before circumstance set her on a new path. In her early twenties, she was diagnosed with an advanced cancer that occurs most commonly in patients twice her age or more. After treatment and despite extensive testing, her physicians were unable to pinpoint a cause.

“This set me on a quest to determine the cause—the why and the how,” Dr. Taylor said. “After extensive independent research I determined that my cancer was linked to a combination of access to healthy food options, poor water quality, secondhand smoke exposure, and poverty.”

That conclusion formed in Dr. Taylor a conviction that would fuel her new calling: Cancer prevention and control resources should be available to everyone. She continued with her studies but with a new focus, earning her executive MPH at the Morehouse School of Medicine and her MBA as well as her PhD in leadership for the advancement of learning and service at Cardinal Stritch University. She has also completed a competitive fellowship at Brown University in Research and Community Engagement and holds a certificate in Race and Equity from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Taylor’s studies reinforced her professional commitment to building DEI in healthcare. She counts her time at Morehouse – a historically Black college – as the highlight of her career as a student.

“With the exception of the Morehouse School of Medicine, the institutions I attended were not diverse—neither were my places of employment,” Dr. Taylor said. “I found myself working to establish safe spaces for underrepresented minorities—building community, advocating, and developing programming.”

In 2015 Dr. Taylor joined Yale University, where she managed the Social Innovation Lab at the Center for Public Service and Social Justice and served as the Center’s inaugural Director of Inclusion. Later she was the inaugural Assistant Director of Health Equity and Leadership Programs at the Yale School of Health/Yale School of Medicine and Southern Connecticut State University, in a dual role supporting the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE).

Across her roles in New Haven, Dr. Taylor worked with the Yale Cancer Center on community-engaged approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, minority participation in clinical trials, and on training researchers on community-engaged best practices and community-based participatory research. She developed and led in partnership with the Yale Smilow Cancer Center the Community Research Fellowship which fostered scientist and community-led research. She also worked to improve digital health literacy tools to bridge the digital divide impacting patients across New Haven.

Dr. Taylor has consulted on health equity for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most recently for the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, and served as a social and behavioral health research consultant for U Mass Medical School. She has taught business at the University of California – Los Angeles and at Concordia University, has lectured at the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, and has served as core faculty and course developer in the Health Informatics program at Wake Forest School of Professional Studies.

Dr. Taylor’s first impressions of UVA Cancer Center? Its employees are passionate and committed to people and to patients. They are also eager to collaborate to move DEI forward. She also sees opportunities for improvement in workforce diversity including increasing access and opportunities for employees with disabilities, and women, DEI-related workforce training, and development of inclusive communication strategies.

Dr. Taylor said her work is driven by her personal values of integrity, impact and intentionality. She frames her efforts at the Cancer Center with the theme “United: Mindful and Mission Driven.”

To date, Dr. Taylor’s efforts include work to establish standard operating procedures and processes to support DEI, and development of formal processes and systems for reporting of DEI-related employee complaints, which she hopes will be implemented across the Health system. A new Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee that oversees implementation of the Cancer Center’s Diversity Strategic Action Plan.

Her ongoing priorities include recruitment of diverse and underrepresented personnel at all levels of the organization, development of leadership training and support for career advancement, and establishment of criteria to measure the effectiveness of diversity programming.

Along with epidemiology, equity and digital literacy a major research interest for Dr. Taylor is Community-based Participatory Research (CBPR), which she calls “one of the most important yet most underutilized approaches to research.”

“We are very grateful to have a leader and scholar of Dr. Taylor’s caliber, both guiding us in pursuit of DEI, and as a research member of the Cancer Center,” said Cancer Center Director Thomas P. Loughran, Jr., MD. “In addition to developing a comprehensive plan in support of our Diversity Mission, she leads with compassion, which sets a welcoming tone and encourages discussion about challenging topics and opportunities for positive change.”

Dr. Taylor’s advice is simple for Cancer Center teammates who want to more to support DEI but aren’t sure how.

“Reach out to me,” she says. “DEI&B is everyone’s responsibility. The key is to be willing to have conversations – some of which may be difficult – but to start, and to make a commitment.”

If you have questions, concerns, or any other input about DEI efforts at the Cancer Center, please contact Dr. Taylor. 

Authored by Joe Straw, Communications Manager, UVA Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Filed Under: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Faculty, Research