“Everyone needs a safe place. Somewhere you can admit that you don’t know how to do something without being judged, criticized, or wounded. New Connections is that safe place.”
Growing up in rural Stokesdale, North Carolina, on a farm, Sherrie Flynt Wallington felt like a lot was out of her reach. The nearest hospital was three hours away. Higher education seemed even harder to grasp. Teachers told her “a girl from a tobacco farm has no chance of getting into college.” But Sherrie defied the odds, eventually studying at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Howard University, and then Harvard, and today is committed to paying it forward by supporting other junior scholars, particularly those tackling health disparities.
From the Farm to Her Future
As the youngest of five children, Sherrie saw the strains of farm life up close.
“It was hard,” she recalls. “Rural and farm life creates a lot of stress, especially when you’re poor. I have a firsthand lens of what health disparities look like, because my family lived through inequities.” However, it was Sherrie’s mother who daily demonstrated the power of hard work. Despite being advised by a high school counselor that her best option would be trade school, Sherrie held a deep conviction that education was a powerful agent of change.
Her first year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was challenging. She found herself continually trying to catch up to other students. Her undergraduate advisor saw something in her, however, and suggested she take a summer course, “Learn to Learn.” Sherrie says the course changed her life, teaching her valuable study skills that she still applies today. She does not take this mentorship, or any mentorship she has received, for granted.
“I always ask students ‘How bad do you want it?’ Because if you want it badly enough, people will be put in your path to help you,” she states.
Communicating for Cancer Health Disparities
After earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in communications, Sherrie went on to Howard University to pursue a PhD, also in communications. While writing her dissertation, she followed a professor’s advice and pursued a topic that has fueled her work ever since: cancer communication and health disparities.
Her award-winning dissertation on African-American males seeking prostate cancer information online connected Sherrie to an external reviewer at the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). The NCI reviewer encouraged her to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health. After three years at Harvard, Sherrie became an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
In 2010, Sherrie’s New Connections grant enabled her to explore the impact of the District of Columbia’s HPV vaccine mandate on HPV uptake. This preliminary research laid the groundwork for successive grants she would receive from NCI.
“The grant helped me start broadening how I think about health disparities and cancer research,” she affirms. “We need a multidisciplinary approach, not a narrow one, when it comes to cancer.”
Sherrie incorporates her communications background into her work every day.
“You have to communicate health information in a format that everyone can understand,” she explains. “If I’m developing a brochure, I pre-test it with the target population to see if the content grabs their attention, speaks to their age group, and is visually appealing. Often, the images are just as important as the message.”
By considering health literacy when she develops materials, Sherrie hopes to address a significant barrier for underrepresented, underserved, and low-literacy populations seeking health information.
Paying It Forward
As the first college graduate in her family, Sherrie now sees it as her responsibility to shepherd others on a similar path.
“To go from a tobacco farm to the Ivy Leagues and now here at Georgetown, I’m incredibly blessed,” she says. “I owe it all to my mentors and family.”
New Connections, to which Sherrie was devoted even before receiving her grant, provides the perfect platform for her to pay forward her legacy. She encourages junior faculty members from underserved populations to apply for the program, and never lets her busy schedule stop her from helping them in the application process.
“New Connections really is unique,” she asserts. “There’s nothing like it. And since the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invested time and money in me, I have to do the same for others. I try to be a safe space for younger scholars seeking help.”
Title: Program Director, Health Disparities Initiative, and Assistant Professor, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center
New Connections Year: 2010
New Connections Status: Past Grantee
- Monnat, S. M., Rhubart, D., & Wallington, S. F. (2016). Differences in human papillomavirus vaccination among adolescent girls in metropolitan vs. non-metropolitan areas: Considering the moderating roles of maternal socioeconomic status and health care access. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 20(2), 315–25. PMID: 25659994.
- Perkins, R. B., Mengyun, L., Wallington, S. F., & Hanchate, A. D. (2016). Impact of school-entry and education mandates by states on HPV vaccination coverage: Analysis of the 2009-2013 National Immunization Survey-Teen. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics (Special Issue on HPV Vaccines), 12(5), 1–8. PMID: 27152418.
- Wallington, S. F., Dash, C., Sheppard, V. B., Goode, T. D., Oppong, B. A., Dodson, E. E., Hamilton, R. N., & Adams-Campbell, L. (2016). Enrolling minority and underserved populations in cancer clinical research. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 50(1), 111–7. PMID: 26470805.