|Summer 2010-Center Profile|
Crossroads salutes Isabel Scarinci, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine, an associate scientist with the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, and a scientist with the UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC). The leader of many cancer-focused research and outreach efforts, she recently received a diversity award for her work to address health disparities in African-American and Hispanic/Latino communities.
Isabel Scarinci, Ph.D., relishes a challenge. When she decided to go to Harvard for a clinical internship (a requirement for receiving her doctorate from Louisiana State University), one of her professors cast doubt on her plan. “Harvard has two slots each year,” Dr. Scarinci recalls her professor saying, “and nobody from LSU had ever gone there, much less an international student.” But she persevered—and was accepted. “That’s the way to get me to do things—to say I can’t do it,” Dr. Scarinci says. “I’ll show you that I can.”
That attitude has shaped Dr. Scarinci’s life, from a bout with childhood polio to her efforts to help underserved communities in Alabama, Mississippi and her home country. “Not many people have the fortune to work with two minority populations and earn credibility in both,” Dr. Scarinci says. “I try to be an advocate for them. I don’t think research is enough if you do not advocate for them.”
Born and raised in Cambara, a small town in southern Brazil, Dr. Scarinci is the oldest of four children. “My mom’s parents were from Spain; my dad’s were from Italy, so I grew up around immigrants,” she says. “I have three citizenships—Brazilian, Italian and American.” Fluent in English as well as Portuguese, her first language, she also speaks Spanish.
Dr. Scarinci credits her mother with fueling her desire to give back to the community. “Sometimes it’s a negative event that shapes your life—in a beautiful way in my case,” she says, referring to the polio that she contracted when she was eight months old. “I got the first dose of the vaccine, but I was sick by the time the second dose came, and the doctor recommended waiting until the next month. But in between there was an epidemic. Through surgeries and rehabilitation, my mom did everything she could for me to recover both arms and one leg. Then she would take me to show the mothers what might happen to their children without proper preventive measures. But I never felt self-conscious. She really did it for the good of others, and I felt important.”
Always a high achiever, Dr. Scarinci skipped first grade and was just 16 when she started college. She received a psychology degree from the State University of Londrina and got a job at a university hospital. But Dr. Scarinci felt limited just seeing one patient at a time. She wanted to find a way to combine her clinical work with community outreach.
Then a neurologist Dr. Scarinci worked with suggested that she go to the United States. “He said I could get a scholarship from the Brazilian government,” she says, “and he found the best places in the world where I could get the training I wanted. One was UAB.” So at the age of 27, she left Brazil for Birmingham and started working with Larry Bradley, Ph.D., professor of immunology and rheumatology. “I’m here today because of his encouragement. I could barely speak English, but he took me anyway. I got my master’s in public health here at UAB, and then he encouraged me to get my Ph.D.”
While earning her Ph.D. at LSU, Dr. Scarinci met her husband, Baton Rouge native Richard Searles, who is now an information systems specialist in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine. “My husband is extremely supportive. He’s a jewel,” she says. “We don’t have any children, but he likes to say that the people I work with in the community are my children, because I adopt everybody.”
Coming Full Circle
After receiving her Ph.D., Dr. Scarinci worked at the University of Memphis for four years before returning to UAB. “[Cancer Center director] Ed Partridge and [MHRC director] Mona Fouad were already doing great work here with African Americans. I thought I could build on this infrastructure and include the Latino community,” she says. “Plus I always had a connection with UAB, because it’s where I started in the United States. So it was great to get back here and work with them. My career really took off.”
Not returning to Brazil was a big decision for Dr. Scarinci, but she says she doesn’t regret it. “I have two research grants in Brazil—one on breast cancer and one on tobacco use—in my home state. That has been very rewarding, coming full circle to give back to the people who didn’t have the opportunity that I had.” She travels to Brazil twice a year to conduct research, which also gives her the chance to see her family more frequently.
Back in Birmingham, Dr. Scarinci is on the board of the United Way of Central Alabama and the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham and recently joined the board of Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama. She also is a co-founder of Manos Juntas, UAB’s first mentoring program targeting Hispanic/Latino students.
Although leisure time is limited, Dr. Scarinci says that she and her husband “have a little boat in Guntersville. My husband’s policy is that I cannot bring any work to the boat. Also, we have a social group here called ‘Fat Tuesday.’ Most members are from different countries, and it is like our family here. We do movie nights, and my husband has a crawfish boil every year that keeps growing. I don’t know how big it’s going to get, but it’s one of the few things I do not related to work!”