Cancer researcher from the Arkansas Delta dedicated to helping others.
The University of Arkansas was a distant dream for Tameka Jennings when she was growing up in the small town of Gould in the heart of the Arkansas delta, far from campus in a part of the state she had never seen.
“As a child, I had a very curious nature,” she said. “I always wondered how life happens. How do we get butterflies? How do frogs come about?”
Today Tameka is a clinical assistant professor of biology, teaching classes and working as a cancer researcher here at the U of A, working on the front lines of the war against cancer and leading a mentoring program in the summer for girls in the Arkansas delta interested in science.
She beams with pride every time she talks about her childhood and her parents’ dedication to work, family and their shared dream that Tameka and her brother would reach their dreams of a career after college. They worked multiple jobs to make sure Tameka and her brother had everything they needed to succeed in school. Her father worked a full-time factory job and a part-time custodial job at the high school at night.
Tameka remembers joining him some nights to help so he could get home and they could all be together sooner. She smiles when she recalls that she always had fresh clothes for school while her father would patch up his worn-out clothes to wear year after year.
“He sacrificed for us,” she said.
The Gift of Education
They did everything to feed the young scientist’s budding curiosity and set her on a path to earn her Ph.D in the decades that followed. They spent hours at the library looking for books to answer her many questions and borrowed encyclopedias from neighbors.
“My parents wanted us to explore and understand the world,” she said.
Tameka’s high school biology teacher recognized her potential and curiosity and recommended she attend college to further her passion for biology –which inspired a lifelong pursuit.
“He reassured me that if I worked hard, I could be successful, and I believed him.”
Tameka wanted to come to the U of A, but felt it was very unlikely because of the distance between the campus in Fayetteville and her hometown, “it seemed as though I had a lot of obstacles to overcome.” So she chose the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff for her undergraduate studies, which was closer to home. There she met fellow female scientists who inspired her and encouraged her to pursue her doctorate.
This was not just about a diploma. For Tameka, it was a path to fulfilling a promise and helping to build a better world. Tameka made a vow while visiting her grandmother years ago, that she would do whatever she could to find a cure for breast cancer if given the opportunity to become a scientist.
“During my visits, she would talk about her sister who died of breast cancer,” she said. “I saw the hurt in her eyes when remembering her sister.”
Tameka saw the U of A as the place that could help her improve lives.
She was nervous on her first visit to Northwest Arkansas.
“The campus was so beautiful! I said to myself, I have to go here!” On her next visit to campus, she met Douglas Rhoads, professor of biological sciences and the director of the interdisciplinary graduate program in cell and molecular biology
As they were talking, he told her that this was a place she belonged.
With Rhoads as her mentor, Tameka earned her Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology.
Science Comes to Life
Now a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Tameka teaches two courses, including an honors colloquium on the biology of breast cancer.
“I enjoy those classes because I just try to make science come to life,” she said.
Tameka’s research is focused on triple-negative breast cancer, a rare but particularly aggressive type that metastasizes from the primary tumor directly to the brain. She is looking at specific proteins for the pathway used by the cancer cells to move from breast tissue and colonize in the brain in an effort to stop the cells from spreading.
She’s also giving back, reaching out to communities in the delta to inspire girls to pursue college and STEM fields. In 2015 she launched the Biomedical Research Girls Camp. The camp, which accepts 15-20 middle-school and high-school girls from the Gould and Dumas areas, demonstrates that studying STEM is a means to overcome poverty and embark on a successful career path. Jennings brings the girls to campus, where they learn about the various research programs, conduct research in labs and the library and attend teaching labs.
“I often reflect and ponder on where my life would be had I not crossed paths with Dr. Rhoads,” she said. “It gave me new hope...because I had someone who was actually cheerleading for me and believed in me. Attending the U of A has absolutely been a life-changing experience.”