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VCU health inequities researcher uses her hard-earned influence to support others

VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Vanessa B. Sheppard’s dedication to researching health disparities highlighted as part of ongoing Women’s History Month series.

Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., with the MCV Campus skyline over her shoulder. Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., has dedicated her career to researching breast cancer health disparities. / Credit: Tom Kojcsich, VCU University Relations.

By Annie Harris

When Vanessa B. Sheppard, Ph.D., was a newly arrived faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, she had a memorable encounter with a student in the office kitchen. 

“She turned to me and said, ‘I read one of your papers in my class. It’s so important that you’re here. You don’t know what it means to have someone like you here,’” Sheppard recounted, recalling the emotional impact of the student’s words. 

“I recognize that responsibility, beyond just the impact of my personal research. The opportunity to have a leadership role to garner resources, to hire diverse individuals with different perspectives, to show a commitment to students with different experiences and to help shape this department’s future – it is bigger than me.” 

Sheppard has embraced that responsibility in her nearly seven years with VCU, extending her leadership throughout the institution: She serves as the associate vice president of population and public health strategic initiatives and the Theresa A. Thomas Memorial Chair in Cancer Prevention and Control at the VCU School of Medicine. Sheppard also serves as the associate director for community outreach and engagement and health disparities research at VCU Massey Cancer Center

“It’s affirming to see the research I do appreciated by a broader constituency of people,” Sheppard said. “Massey is the perfect place to think about how we test innovative approaches to engage diverse populations in clinical trials. At VCU we’re ready to seek the answers to these hard questions.” 

Long-term research takes “prayer” and “patience” 

A leading expert in health disparities research, Sheppard focuses on inequalities within breast cancer outcomes and addressing those disparities by developing approaches to better survivors’ quality of life or cancer care delivery, such as improving the communication taking place between clinicians and Black breast cancer patients.

“I’m pleased that we seem to be in a space where we can use words like health equity and disparities, because earlier in my career, I was advised not to limit myself to issues of minority health,” Sheppard said. “I knew if I was going to work this hard, I had to do something that I felt mattered in the communities that I felt needed it. So, I didn’t take that advice.” 

People from racial and ethnic minorities and other diverse backgrounds are historically underrepresented in clinical research. Due to her focus on African American, Afro-immigrant and Latinx populations, which had less robust data available, Sheppard had to spend more of her research time in primary data collection. 

Sheppard’s mother, Winifred Phillips, D. Min., recognizes her daughter’s dedication to her research and how many obstacles she faced along the way. 

“It takes a certain amount of tenacity – when you have a dream, sometimes it doesn’t unfold right away. If she has a challenge, she has the patience to wait, to pray, to think about it and reflect, and each time she has been able to maintain her belief in the project or the mission and come out stronger,” Phillips said. “She’s really my hero.” 

As part of her data collection early in her career, Sheppard worked to engage community members who lived in the cancer center’s catchment area but were not part of its patient population. 

“It took longer to build those partnerships, because the patients I wanted to see didn’t come to my previous institution,” Sheppard said. “My reward has been seeing community members sitting around the table, talking to them as partners in our research efforts. That was a good shot in the arm when my peers – or even my early mentors – didn’t understand why I was taking that path.” 

Sheppard’s research has not only caught the attention of VCU students and VCU Health care teams, but national audiences as well. In February, Sheppard was honored for her innovation and advances in cancer research with the American Cancer Society’s 2022 Researcher of the Year Award. Pride beams from Phillips’ voice as she recounted the moment her daughter received word of her American Cancer Society award. She was sitting next to her when the news came. 

“I’m so proud of her. She had a desire to make a difference in health for women, and to make more resources available to help people make good decisions for their health,” Phillips said. “As a mother, we see the best in our children from the beginning, and we’re very grateful and thankful when others recognize it too.” 

Vanessa Sheppard, wearing a cap and gown, stands with her mother Winifred Philips at a university convocation.

Sheppard with her mother, Winifred Phillips, D. Min., at her convocation for receipt of tenure at Georgetown University in 2012. / Image provided by Vanessa Sheppard

Research for the community, by the community

Sheppard’s American Cancer Society-funded clinical trial tests the effectiveness of her “Sisters Informing Sisters©”(SIS) intervention, which pairs newly diagnosed Black breast cancer patients with Black breast cancer survivor-coaches who have undergone similar therapies. 

The pairs work through a patient guidebook and decision-support materials designed to prepare the newly diagnosed women to ask more questions and engage with their providers. The materials were developed with input from African American clinicians, survivors, advocates, researchers and others, within the context of promoting patient-centered care and with the underlying knowledge that when people get the recommended treatment in a timely fashion, outcomes are better.  

Some of the now-coaches were once participants themselves in Sheppard’s pilot study on the intervention, which demonstrated an increased uptake in recommended therapies among participants. The intervention’s effectiveness was summarized simply by an early participant: “You go in more informed, you come out more informed.”

Sheppard’s goal is to improve this patient population’s understanding and commitment to maintaining the recommended chemotherapy as well as adjuvant endocrine therapy regimens. The hope is ultimately to chip away at some of the complex causes of Black women’s increased death rates from breast cancer, which is 40% higher than that of white women. 

“Studies show differences between how information is delivered from physicians to patients of color,” Sheppard said. “Physicians tend to give more information to their white patients, less to their Black patients. But when patients ask more questions and are ‘activated’ to share their values and preferences, they are able to make more informed decisions. Rather than intervening on the physician end, we want to focus on giving patients’ the practice and confidence to ask for the information they need.” 

SIS was the first decision-support tool developed for Black women, and its involvement of survivors as consultants in a research project is unique. The survivors are the interventionists, trained in the protocol and implementing it as collaborators in the research. They also have an open line to Sheppard and her team to provide live feedback on what’s working or not working.

Sheppard’s ability to bring compassion to her human-subject research is a lesson that has stuck with her mentees, including Megan C. Edmonds, Ph.D., MPH, a postdoctoral fellow at Mount Sinai and one of Sheppard’s former doctoral advisees. 

“She does a really good job with humanizing the work, not just for the purpose of sharing it back to the community, but also to the team that’s working to collect the data,” Edmonds said. “It’s easy to look at numbers taken from statistical analysis and say 80% of participants reflect this versus 20% that, but that 80% includes someone’s mother. Dr. Sheppard can tell stories with her research that connect those data points back to the people they belong to.”  

Researchers and participants from the Sisters Informing Sisters research program pose as a group.

Sheppard with team members and participants in the Sisters Informing Sisters © program./ Credit: Blake Belden, Massey Cancer Center

Inspiring the next generation

As she celebrates her American Cancer Society Researcher of the Year award, Sheppard reflects on the support she has received to make her research a reality. 

“VCU places value on diversity, and it’s wonderful to see and hear discussions about equity across the university campus,” said Sheppard. 

Massey’s Office of Community Outreach and Engagement provides the resources to make connections between its academic research and what’s needed in the community by building partnerships. 

“We can start really early with community exposure to our research, and learn from them what they think will work or not,” Sheppard said. “I do believe that if any place can do health equity research right – knowing that you have to understand and eliminate disparities to achieve that equity – it’s VCU.” 

Recalling her decision to come to VCU in 2016 – with the support of her spouse, Earle E. Sheppard, who recognized the pull the institution had for her – Sheppard highlights the opportunities her research has been able to make for the next generation. 

“I try to give the best of what I have so that those people have more to give to the next,” she said. 

Edmonds, who still collaborates with Sheppard on breast cancer disparity research, is the living embodiment of that idea. 

“A really good mentoring relationship will continue to thrive and live and that’s definitely the relationship that we have,” Edmonds said. “[Sheppard] thinks of me when I’m not in rooms and advocates for me, which is helpful in my career progression. I look forward to being able to give that back and help pave the way for someone else, because that’s how I got here.”


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