Monica Webb Hooper

5 questions with… cancer disparities researcher Monica Webb Hooper

When Monica Webb Hooper saw a Facebook post about an opening to establish and direct the Office of Cancer Disparities Research at Case Western Reserve University, she knew it had her name written all over it.

She didn’t know much about Cleveland, but when she came here from the University of Miami to interview for the director position, she realized the extent of disparities that exist within the community.

“I saw that there’s an opportunity to really do something meaningful and to—hopefully—have a positive impact on the community,” Webb Hooper said. “For me, it was too important of an opportunity to pass up.”

The Office of Cancer Disparities Research, part of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, brings together researchers interested in cancer disparities—or differences, observed across populations, that should not exist. It aims to serve as a launchpad for innovative, trans-disciplinary research projects and increase community engagement.

And that’s exactly how Webb Hooper has spent her entire career.

Ever since she learned that tobacco use is the most important behavior an individual can change to prevent cancer, and that there were certain groups who found it harder to quit and died disproportionally more from cancer, Webb Hooper has sought to address health disparities.

Early on, Webb Hooper made a point of ensuring cancer disparities were considered scientific issues, rather than just community outreach concerns, by backing her studies with rigorous scientific methods.

Her studies have focused on racial and ethnic disparities in tobacco use, and she developed clinical trials to test innovative approaches to help people, specifically African-Americans and those of lower socioeconomic status, quit smoking.

Also a professor of general medical sciences (oncology), family medicine and community health, epidemiology and biostatistics, and psychological sciences at CWRU, Webb Hooper will continue her work in cancer disparities by laying the groundwork for the new office.

The office will make pilot funds available to investigators, recruit more patients of ethnic and racial minorities for clinical trials, and help researchers translate their findings into the community.

While she’s only been at CWRU for a short time, Webb Hooper already has begun putting the Office of Cancer Disparities Research’s mission into action.

Soon after arriving here, Webb Hooper brought together a group of 21 investigators from CWRU, University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic to develop a grant proposal to investigate cancer disparities in terms of genomics.

The team recently submitted the proposal, and while it’s yet to be seen whether it will be funded, Webb Hooper sees it as an example of what the office can accomplish.

As the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center now is just one of a few National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers to have a program in place for cancer disparities, Webb Hooper thinks the new office has the potential to develop a model for what other cancer centers can do.

“We have national goals of achieving health equity. To have this organized effort was exciting to me because it means the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center has a real commitment to doing that,” she said. “Especially when you look around the Cleveland area and you see the vast disparities, the cancer center and our dean want to put something meaningful behind it. Not just talk about it, but facilitate the infrastructure and devote the resources to do something about it.”

Get to know Webb Hooper—and her early take on Cleveland and CWRU—in this week’s five questions.

1. What’s the best way to spend a summer day in Cleveland?

I have three small children, so for me the best way to spend a day in Cleveland is doing things they find enjoyable. So far, we’ve really enjoyed going to the zoo, to one of the Metroparks and to family-friendly activities. For me, seeing them smile and enjoy the outdoors is great.

We’re also coming from Miami, where the summer is very hot and humid, so I didn’t enjoy being outside there in the summers at all. I’m really enjoying the summer here. And also that means finding new restaurants with good food.

2. What motivates you to work hard?

I’m motivated because I really believe in what I’m doing.

There are not many African-American investigators who have the opportunity to do something like this—I feel motivated by that. And, I really want to be able to make a difference in the community, which is also very motivating to me.

Also I’m motivated by research in general—that is, scientific inquiry, finding new knowledge and applying that knowledge. I’m interested in applied behavioral science because I can see the impact it has on people’s lives.

3. Who is your favorite character from a book, TV show or movie?

Neytiri from the movie Avatar. She is among my favorite characters because she appreciates the beauty of life and the present moment, has keen instincts, is smart, is loyal, and believes in peace and love. She is also able to see past the physical forms of individuals, focusing instead on their inner heart.

4. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever done?

I moved away from Florida right after graduate school. I didn’t do a post-doc so I went straight from being a graduate student to being a faculty member at Syracuse University. I was going from Florida to Syracuse, [New York], and all the naysayers in Florida thought I would never make it through a winter. I was by myself—I had no friends, no family in Syracuse, just me—and I went to start a new life. I guess that was pretty daring, but it worked out really well.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

So far, it’s been the people. I have met some of the nicest people and they’ve been very welcoming. I feel very wanted here and I feel like people appreciate the things I bring to the table. From the faculty to the staff, it’s been great.