Black History Month: Spotlight on Jasmine McDonald, PhD

February 12, 2020


Jasmine McDonald, PhD, Columbia University
Jasmine McDonald. Photo: Columbia University.

Jasmine McDonald, PhD, originally set out to become a laboratory biologist, but a chance conversation on a bus led her to switch fields to epidemiology. She now focuses on uncovering factors that lead to breast cancer and factors affecting pubertal development in women. 

McDonald came to CUIMC in 2011 and is now assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.


What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, where my parents were both in school when I was born. My mother was in a master’s program and my father was finishing his undergraduate degree at Tuskegee University. From a young age I was in a lab or attending classes before I entered into kindergarten. There was no question that I was going to go to college and pursue a scholarly career.

I remember my father working at a halfway house at a time when HIV was spreading throughout the prisons. After prisoners were released, they came to the halfway house; therefore, my father had to be educated on AIDS and the spread of HIV. I remember asking my father, “What’s HIV?” He explained it to me so my sixth-grade mind could understand, and I thought, this is amazing, it's elegant but it's dangerous, and I wanted to learn more. So, I thought my career was going to be in basic science and AIDS research.


What made you change direction in your studies?

I love immunology, so my whole aim was to do something immunological. During graduate school I actually chose to work on schistosomiasis, an infectious disease that’s very common in other parts of the world. Because it was a small lab, I got to design my own experiments, which I vastly enjoyed. What I did not enjoy was having to physically do the experiments. That's when I realized I needed to get out of the lab.

I remember talking to a colleague on the bus on my way from Boston to Cambridge, expressing how I wanted more human interaction in my research. My colleague at the time was working on her doctorate in epidemiology. She said, “I know a woman who is looking for a postdoc to examine the ethical issues surrounding genetic testing in underserved communities.” And that is the only postdoc I applied for after graduate school and gratefully received it. It completely changed my entire career trajectory; it renewed my passion and my love for science.


What effect has your background as an African American woman had on your experiences in academia?

Tuskegee is a city with mainly African American residents—they're doctors and lawyers and veterinarians and all kinds of different professions. All you see is greatness and they're all black. So, starting out it wasn't really a question to me what I could be. It wasn't until I came to Maryland that I was like, "Oh, so racism is really real." I was kind of sheltered in Tuskegee.

But it wasn't really until attending graduate school in Boston that it became hard to be a black female in academia. However, my father has always told me, “The world's not fair.” I am grateful that I've afforded myself a life where I don't have to subject myself to some of its unfairness, but most importantly, I can confidently stand up to the unfairness that I do encounter.  


What do you like best about your current work at Columbia?

I’ve always enjoyed thinking through how to solve a problem, and it’s even more enjoyable at Columbia because of the support I receive from my school and my department. But maybe more importantly, the students and researchers I get to work with here have created an environment that is collegial and intellectually stimulating.