Kathie-Ann Joseph is about to let some pre med students in on a little med school secret.
"You will never really ever use anything that you learned in Organic Chemistry ever, ever again. I can't tell you how much I hated that class."
But the tone of her speech to this group of predominantly minority students was absolutely serious, coming from a young woman who has quickly gained renown as a leading breast cancer surgeon and researcher at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
“It helps to be able to see people who look like you who have accomplished it. That gives you the motivation to say hey, ÎI can do it too,’” says Joseph.
Joseph is the Director of Research in General Surgery and an Assistant Professor of Surgery at the Columbia Medical School, the first black woman appointed a Columbia faculty member in the Department of Surgery.
"Surgery is one of those times when I feel like I'm in a zone and that's why I like
surgery,” says Joseph. “I just feel like everything is at peace, it's quiet. I’m not a musician or something, but it’s almost like everything is in sync. Put my hand out, the nurse knows what I need, the instruments that I need, it's just very fluid."
Much of her research has focused on why breast cancer tumors seem to be more aggressive in black women.
One of her chief findings has involved a molecule known simply as RAGE.
RAGE has been connected to a wide variety of diseases including cancer.
Joseph found compounds put into genetically altered mice that were able to block RAGE and halt the growth of tumors in the mice.
"We didn't get to the point where we were able to figure out exactly why or how that compound was able to block RAGE, or what the mechanism was, but it proved to be very promising,” says Joseph.
Especially in the surgical field, Joseph has become accustomed to being the only African American and only woman in the room.
She says she met up with some subtle resistance along the way, and some not so subtle, like the time in residency at Bellevue when a fellow resident dressed in the same scrubs and white coat as Dr. Joseph started screaming at her in the nurse's area.
"She starts yelling about how I’m not picking up the phones. She's been trying to call and nobody is picking up the phones and I have no idea what this woman is talking about, this white woman. And then I realize that she thinks I'm a clerk,” says Joseph. “I had patients do the same thing. I had patients ask me for bed pans. I’ve always been mistaken for anything, everything but somebody more than what I was supposed to be."
What she was supposed to be? That was her decision to make.
"I already had a family; I didn't need anybody to be my friend,” says Joseph. “I wasn't one of the guys being invited out to hang out at the bar after hours. But that was OK, I don't drink. I went home and read."
While Joseph was a freshman at Harvard, her mother died of cervical cancer.
But she says that had no effect on her subsequent decision to specialize in surgery for breast cancer, rather than gynecological cancers.
“It wasn't an issue of because of what my mother went through that sort of deterred me from that field. I think it was the OB part, actually” says Joseph. “When I saw women going through childbirth and said, ÎI can't do this.’”
A phrase not often said about the 37-year-old doctor, still in the initial stages of a promising career.
“I’ll never be Bill Gates, you know,” says Joseph. “My friends that chose the Wall Street route, you know, that's great. I’ll be coming to them for money for help with my research. But I just feel the rewards come with the work that I do. That's where I get my reward."
In most families, Harvard and Columbia medical school and leading breast cancer surgeon and researcher would put you at the front of the achievement line. But Joseph is just one story in a rich family history.
"It turns out that my grandfather's grandfather — I guess that’s my great-great grandfather, was actually from Scotland,” says Joseph. “Go figure.”
A great-great grandfather was a doctor. A cousin is a Rhodes Scholar. And there are others.
“Her father is my first cousin — is actually a judge on the World Court. And he lives at The Hague,” says Joseph.
The family moved from the island of Jamaica to Flatbush when Joseph was little, and then bought a house in East Flatbush where Joseph now lives with her husband and two sons.
She says hers was the first black family in the neighborhood, which she described as welcoming. But her experience at a predominantly white middle school in Bensonhurst in the early 80s was anything but.
"I just would go to people and say, Îhello,’ and they're literally calling me the N-word for no
reason,” says Joseph. “All these things just sort of have prepared me for the mental toughness I think that I have today. I've just had to learn to deal with a lot of adversity.”
That toughness eventually led her to Stuyvesant High School, and then Harvard.
“My parents are the subdued kind, so they were like, Îwe're really proud of you,’” Joseph says in a subdued tone. “It’s not like they’re going to go jumping up and down, but I was screaming.”
But the response of another family member perhaps best illustrates why she is where she is today.
"One of my very close aunts, I spoke to her when I got into Harvard, and I said, you know, ÎI'm so lucky,’ and she yelled at me,” says Joseph. “She said, Îyou're not lucky!’ And she said, Îdon't ever let anyone tell you you're lucky. You worked hard for this. It's not luck.’ And she’s right. It's not luck. I've worked really hard."
While at Harvard, Joseph had an unorthodox major for pre med.
“I'm still trying to explain to my family what actually was sociology and why they were paying all this money for me to be a sociology major,” says Joseph with a laugh.
But perhaps her best education came during her college summers when she volunteered at Harlem Hospital, working on a new screening program for elderly African American women.
“I’m looking at women who are in their 70s, who had never had a pap smear,” says Joseph. “Never had a pap smear, never had a mammogram. It was just an eye-opening experience."
It led to a senior thesis, and a career that has put Joseph at the forefront in the fight against breast cancer.
"I want patients to have the confidence in me that when they come to me, I’m gonna do my best, 110 percent to take care of them. That's what it’s about,” says Joseph.
— Budd Mishkin