Dr. Elizabeth T. H. “Terry” Fontham, is the Founding Dean and Emeritus Professor of Epidemiology at Louisiana State University School of Public Health-New Orleans, having served on faculty since 1980. Despite being officially “retired”, her colleagues notice little difference in her schedule! Terry can be found in her office working on issues she enjoys nearly 40 hours per week! Terry is an internationally respected cancer epidemiologist with a research focus on the etiology of tobacco and nutrition-related cancers. She has done pioneering work with her mentor, Dr. Pelayo Correa, on Helicobacter pylori and stomach cancer. She also has spent a substantial part of her career on the health effects of second hand smoke.
Terry is a member of the National Cancer Institute Board of Scientific Counselors and has served on numerous NCI advisory and ad hoc committees. She served ten years on the national Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society, was national President in 2009, and remains involved on critical issues, such as the guidelines for cancer screening. Terry is the author of more than 200 scientific publications and the recipient of many noteworthy professional awards. She is actively involved with several non-profit organizations including the Louisiana Public Health Institute and the International Women’s Forum.
Dr. Fontham was involved in some of the formative years of ACE, worked on the Committee to update the Strategic Plan of the College, and was recently elected to the ACE Board of Director.
Terry is a native Cajun from Louisiana, growing up in the “rice capitol of the world”, in Crowley, Louisiana. For many years, Terry rode with the “Muses” Krewe for Mardi Gras. Muses was an early all-female Mardi Gras Krewe and one of the largest.
Interview with Dr. Fontham by ACE Fellow, Dr. Edward Trapido
Question. How did you get interested in Epidemiology?
Answer: In a roundabout fashion. I had health problems at a young age (7 years old), and was diagnosed with polio. At the same time, my grandfather was dying of stomach cancer. These shaped my life. I had a great desire to keep people from getting sick, or to help them get well.
ChWhen I got married, I moved from Louisiana to Charlottesville, VA, and worked in the Cancer Research Laboratory. The lab used large white rats for their animal model, and after 3 years, I decided that I did not want to spend my life working with rats. I wanted to work with people, and so studying health in human populations seemed like perfect fit, and Epidemiology remains a perfect choice! I took some “time off” for raising my children, and then went on to pursue my career.
Question: Can you tell me about your mentor?
Answer: I had finished my coursework for my doctoral degree, but not yet started my prospectus. Dr. Pelayo Correa wanted to hire me for two jobs- one as the manager for a parish (county) tumor registry, and another job, as a study manager. Serendipity is a wonderful thing. The second job was for an NCI contracted study manager for study of cancers of the stomach, lung and pancreas. While the stomach cancer component was not used for my thesis, it gave me area of focus that became so important. Dr. Correa had a wonderful mentor himself, Dr. William Haenszel. Pelayo was generous with time, and provided many opportunities. He was not a micromanager. He trusted me to do the job that needed to be done and always provided support and contacts when needed. I believe it’s important to follow this path as a mentor. I want to also mention that peer mentors can be remarkable, and I was fortunate in that. My peer mentor was Dr. Vivien Chen, and we have been lifelong colleagues and friends. My dissertation came from a study of gastric cancer. I carried out a case control study of diet, gastric nitrosamines and gastric cancer precursor lesions.
Question: What are your current research interests now?
Answer: There have been recent opportunities in my home state of Louisiana for epidemiologists. Unfortunately, they have arisen from the disasters- Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill. I have gotten the chance to work on these issues with colleagues, supported by NIEHS grants. There was not a lot known about the shorter and longer term effects of these disasters on human health, but we are already seeing findings. For example, the multiple stressors impacting SE Louisiana have been found to be associated with very poor mental health outcomes. While mental health is not my area of expertise, I have talented people to work with. I am also interested in turning scientific findings into interventions as well as policy development. I have been active recently in development of cancer screening guidelines for the American Cancer Society.
Question: What advice would you give to someone with a newly minted PhD in epidemiology?
Answer: New epidemiologists should be open to opportunities beyond their comfort zone. It’s not always to step out and take a chance, but some of the best opportunities will be outside the box. Also, never forget that epidemiology is team sport. It is critically important to recognize how much colleagues contribute and to acknowledge those contributions. I cannot express how important it is to build a team of colleagues. You may not be PI on your first grant. Take every step one at a time. Seek out experts in your field when you have access to them. Listen and learn, and don’t be afraid to ask.
Question: If you had the opportunity to choose a field of work for your lifetime, would you again choose epidemiology?
Answer: In a heartbeat. I have never, even for a day, regretted that choice.