Carcia Carson, a Jackson State University alumnus, became the first black woman to get a PhD in biomedical engineering from Vanderbilt University. When she completes her graduate degree in this field, Carson aims to dedicate her professional research to the development of translational research in cancer vaccines and tailored immunotherapy. “I am honored to become the first to accomplish this feat.” “I look forward to diversifying my industry and continuing the discussion of representation in high-level research environments,” she said.
Carson, a Terry native, graduated from JSU in 2014 with a BS in physics. Soon after, she transferred to Fisk University, where she took part in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program and earned a master’s degree in physics. As a physicist, Carson said, much of her academic training prepared her for more conventional teaching roles. Carson is eager to broaden her professional horizons, and she credits her time at Fisk with sparking her interest in medical physics.
According to Carson, advancing cancer research is critical in order to help close the knowledge gap for her family and community. As a result of her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent selection for participation in an immunotherapy clinical study, she became interested in translational research. “Translational research is more likely to impact the treatment of cancer patients directly.” That’s what I want to do. I want to have a direct hand in the treatment of cancer patients… “I want to directly impact cancer patients with the hopes to improve the lives of people living with cancer,” she said.
It was Carson’s ability to maintain a sense of self-worth throughout her academic career that helped her overcome feelings of inadequacy. “I felt small, and imposter syndrome started getting bigger.” I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here. “Being the first African American female to get this Ph.D., I didn’t see anybody that looked like me,” said Carson. “So I started to find mentors in other departments that were black women. I joined organizations that were for black graduate students, and that truly helped me.”
Carson attributes her success in securing national scholarships and publishing multiple scholarly articles during her time at Fisk and Vanderbilt to her time at JSU, where she learned how to successfully network with other major players in her profession. It was Quentin Williams, a former JSU faculty member, who had a profound impact on her abilities and work ethic and motivated her to seek the Fisk-Vanderbilt program.
With many of her academic competitors attending prominent colleges outside of the HBCU spectrum, Carson understood the probability that her fellow classmates and instructors would not consider her the perfect candidate. However, she was able to persevere because of the high standard of her work and the passion with which she approached her endeavors.
At her commencement ceremony, Carson thanked the Vanderbilt teachers who took a chance on her and let her show that brilliance can come in many forms and from any setting. “I was not the golden candidate that all faculty sought to advise, but the leader at Vanderbilt took a chance on me. Faculty needs to take a chance on all students,” said Carson. “Just because they didn’t come from a prestigious undergraduate institution or didn’t have high-level research doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of being successful in your lab or program.” Carson thinks the best advice she could give to her younger self is to use her resources, ask probing questions, and let her professional connections and ideas guide you. Carson said she plans to devote the next several years to furthering her medical studies and earning an MBA in the hopes of one day becoming an oncology director.