From a Small-Town Farm in Oklahoma to Epidemiologist
"In Oklahoma there are very few black females with PhDs. It is so rare that after class I have had black female students come up to me and just thank me for being a black, female professor-because they know that if I could do it that they can do it too!"
Dr. Deirdra Terrell, a first-generation college graduate, grew up on a farm in a small town in Oklahoma, with death and disease as a large part of her identity.
When Dr. Terrell was only 12 years old, she experienced the unsurmountable loss of her brother, only four years her senior, to cancer. While such a pivotal moment could understandably steer a child away from their path; to Dr. Terrell it served as fuel to her goal of becoming a doctor. By her sophomore year in high school, her mother was in a wheelchair as she battled progressive multiple sclerosis. She quickly became the principal advocate managing her care, serving as an interpreter when it was difficult for others to understand her mother’s slurred speech. By the time she was going to college, she says, her focus was on finding a cure to disease.
With an almost aversion to being in school for so many years and a strong dislike for touching random strangers, she realized in her junior year, that becoming a physician wasn’t what she wanted to do after all. Instead of steering away from her goal, she took off to finding a new way to cure disease. Epidemiology, was naturally, her ticket to study disease without having to ever see a stranger naked. “Hematology wasn’t a planned research area for me”, says Dr. Terrell.
Dr. Terrell began her work in hematology with a master’s degree in epidemiology as a clinical trials coordinator with Dr. James George at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center who studied immune thrombocytopenia (ITP) and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP). After she received her PhD, Dr. George volunteered her to be on the ad hoc Committee on Promoting Diversity at ASH. After serving two terms, she continued to be involved through the study sessions for the ASH Minority Graduate Award (MGA). While she doesn’t think of herself as a leader, she credits her path to leadership to her initial experience volunteering: “I feel like we are all in this together, partnering, and doing what we can to improve diversity in hematology and to improve outcomes. My advice to persons wanting to be part of the ASH leadership is to stay involved, continue to volunteer, speak up and make contributions along the way.”
Twenty-one years after her first ASH meeting in 2001, Dr. Terrell is still doing research in benign hematology. Back then, she says, “I could count on my fingers the number of black people at the meeting.” Recognizing the work ASH and her committee have done over the years only emphasizes the importance of intentionally increasing representation of underrepresented minorities in hematology: “It’s important for little girls and boys to see physicians who look like them or talk like them or understand what it’s like to grow up poor. In Oklahoma there are very few black females with PhDs. It is so rare that after class I have had black female students come up to me and just thank me for being a black, female professor-because they know that if I could do it that they can do it too!” While there’s much left to accomplish in this space, Dr. Terrell sees the changes happening in real time, fulfilling. In addition to being a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, the title she cherishes the most is the one of ‘mommy’, of her two young children.
ASH remains committed to building and nurturing a global hematology community and workforce inclusive of diverse perspectives, talents, and experiences. Learn more.