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Mary Harris

Health researcher Mary Styles Harris was born on June 26, 1949 in Nashville, Tennessee. She later moved to Miami. Her father, George Styles, was finishing his studies at Meharry Medical College, and her mother, Margaret, had completed her degree in business administration at Tennessee State University. In 1963 Harris was one of the first African Americans to enter Miami Jackson High School. Four years later, she graduated 12th out of a class of 350. Harris graduated from Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) in 1971, and then enrolled at Cornell University where she was awarded the Ford Foundation Doctoral Fellowship to study molecular genetics. She graduated with her Ph.D. degree in 1975.

In 1977, Harris became the executive director of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia, where she raised money to fight sickle-cell anemia and was in a position to inform the public about this very serious condition. Harris was awarded a science residency award by the National Science Foundation. After a period spent in Washington, D.C. completing her Science Residency, Harris became the state director of Genetic Services for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. From this position, she could also influence health policies nationwide, and her advice was sought by health officials in other states. In addition to work in Genetic Services, Harris was a part-time assistant professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta and at Atlanta University. To make life even busier, the couple's daughter was born during this period. Then, Harris became founder and president of BioTechnical Communications, which actively focuses on health issues by producing audiovisual materials on such health topics as breast cancer, an issue of major concern among minority women.

Harris’ interest in preventive health care has led her to get involved in new born screening of Sickle-cell disease and sitting on the Atlanta board of the March of Dimes. Also, she has produced television and radio shows, and she hosts a radio show, “Journey To Wellness,” and has developed a documentary, “To My Sisters... A Gift For Life.” Harris has received several awards for her research and advocacy, including the National Cancer Research postdoctoral fellowship, the Ford Foundation Doctoral Fellowship, and the Outstanding Working Woman from Glamour magazine.

Mary Styles Harris was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on December 11, 2012.

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University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey

Cornell University

Lincoln University

Miami Jackson Senior High School

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Favorite Vacation Destination

Paris, France

Favorite Quote

All that glitters is not gold

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Favorite Food

Barbecue (Ribs)

Short Description

Health researcher Mary Harris (1949 - ) received her Ph.D. degree from Cornell University and is the founder of BioTechnical Communications, Inc.


BioTechnical Communications, Inc.

Georgia Department of Human Services, Division of Public Health

Medical College of Georgia

Emory University

Atlanta University

National Science Foundation (NSF)

Morehouse College School of Medicine

Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia


Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Slating of Mary Harris' interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Mary Harris lists her favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Mary Harris describes her mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Mary Harris describes her mother's life in Nashville</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Mary Harris describes her father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Mary Harris talks about her parents</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Mary Harris describes her parents' personalities and who she takes after</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Mary Harris talks about her siblings</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Mary Harris describes her earliest childhood memory</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris talks about her early life in Miami, Florida</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris describes the sights and sounds and smells of growing up</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris describes life in the Brownsville community of Miami in the 1950s</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris describes her childhood in Miami</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris talks about the integration of Jackson High School in Miami</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris talks about the problems with her grade school education</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris talks about television in the 1950s and 1960s</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris describes her childhood interest in science</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris describes her experience in middle school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Mary Harris talks about African American political activism in the 1960s</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris talks about her father's death and the family's new business</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris talks about Liberty City, Miami</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris talks about President John F. Kennedy's assassination</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris describes race relations in Miami in the 1950s and 1960s - part one</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris describes the establishment of the Cuban community in Miami</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris describes race relations in Miami in the 1950s and 1960s - part two</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris describes the Bahamian community in Miami</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris discusses Sidney Poitier</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Mary Harris describes her experience at Jackson High School</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Mary Harris describes her science education at Jackson High School</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Mary Harris describes her decision to attend Lincoln University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Mary Harris describes her experience at Lincoln University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Mary Harris describes the loss of private medical practices</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Mary Harris describes her decision to pursue a Ph.D. degree instead of a medical degree</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Mary Harris describes how she earned a Ford Foundation fellowship</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Mary Harris describes her experience as a doctoral student at Cornell University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris describes her experience as a doctoral student at Cornell University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris describes her Ph.D. dissertation research on the molecular mechanism of killer factor in yeast</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris talks about being married in graduate school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris describes the challenges she experienced during her post-doctoral training at Rutger's Medical College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris describes her role as an executive director of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris describes her work in STEM-related programming in collaboration with the National Science Foundation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris talks about Dr. James Bowman</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris talks about receiving the Outstanding Working Woman Award</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris describes her experience at the Georgia Department of Human Services</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Mary Harris talks about her documentary production, 'To My Sisters, A Gift For Life'</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Mary Harris describes her work in television and radio broadcasting on science and health</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Mary Harris talks about the major health concerns in the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Mary Harris describes her television production, 'Keeping Up With The Walkers' - part one</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Mary Harris reflects upon her non-traditional career path in science</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Mary Harris describes the impact of her work in science communication - part one</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Mary Harris reflects upon her career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Mary Harris reflects upon potential post-retirement pursuits</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Mary Harris describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Mary Harris talks about her family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Mary Harris reflects upon her legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Mary Harris reflects upon the people who influenced her life</a>

<a href="">Tape: 7 Mary Harris talks about how she would like to be remembered</a>







Mary Harris describes the challenges she experienced during her post-doctoral training at Rutger's Medical College
Mary Harris talks about her documentary production, 'To My Sisters, A Gift For Life'
Okay, okay. So now at Rutgers [University, New Brunswick, New Jersey], now did he, did you, you all moved to New Jersey--$$We moved to New Jersey because he had to go work for Bell Laboratories, which was in Homedel and I got a post-doc at Rutgers Medical School because I had a friend who had gone to Lincoln [University, West Chester, Pennsylvania] with me, who sat next to me at all my classes, we're friends to this day. And in the old days they took roll and they--his last name was Staley [ph.] and my last name was Styles. So we sat next to each other. And when he, he said I don't care what [James] Burney says, I'm going to medical school, which he did. And he was at Rutgers. And when I sent to see him and I said you know I'm having trouble finding a post-doc, he said let me take you to meet the dean. Lo and behold the dean was black, Harold Logan. And Harold Logan said we would love to have you here, I'll arrange the money. It happened just that quickly. And so I had a post-doc. And I went there and was very interested--I was assigned a project that was similar to something I had worked on as a graduate student. And there was a girl who had worked on this problem before me. So what happens is you, when you pick up a project, you go into the project and you replicate the experiments before you and then you move forward. And the replication shouldn't take you long because the work should have been validated, so you kind of replicate the work quickly so that you can make sure that the results are as they are, and then you move forward. Well when I tried to replicate the results, I couldn't get it to work and I was very arrogant. I had been through pure hell at Cornell [University, Ithaca, New York]. I felt I'm really smart. I mean I know a lot. Why can't I get this to work? I did the experiments for three or four months, I couldn't get them to work. Finally somebody said you need to check--I was working with tissue culture. And they said what you need to do is you need to check and see if the cell lines are contaminated. And I did. And the phenomenon that this girl before me had done her dissertation, gotten her Ph.D. on, and they had millions of dollars in grant money riding at the National Institute of Health [NIH] on this. It was an artifact of contaminated cell culture. And before I got there nobody had ever checked. Now this was a problem. It's a problem for a number of reasons. One, I had spent almost now a year has gone by before I really figure out what's, what the problem is here. Two, so I wasted a year. Post-docs are two years. I've wasted a year. Three, I need to tell somebody because it's no good. None of this, none of the papers that got published before I got there are good. None of the research grants, writing and NIH [National Institute of Health] are any good. It's all crap. The department chairman calls me in. He knows I know. He's trying to figure out what I'm going to do. And he says to me look, I know you've wasted a whole year. I, I don't want you to tell anybody about this. What I want you to do is you spend another year, I will write you a recommendation for any job you want anywhere and I will give you a lab assistant. So I was a post-doc. It's like the low, lowest of the low, right. And so you do all that stuff yourself. He says I'll give you a lab assistant, somebody to help you. That way it will take you half the time to do the work that you need to do 'cause you're going to have some help. So I said okay, fine. He said but you know don't, don't tell anybody about this, don't do anything. I'll just do this. I go back, I'm really happy now. I don't care, I don't care, I just want the lab assistant so I can get my work done, get my papers published and go. Well as it turns out, he never had any intention of giving me a lab assistant, never. Several months go by, no lab assistant. I go back to him and I say what about the lab assistant? He says well you know I want to give you the lab assistant, but we don't have any money. I went right downstairs to the dean and I said, I told the dean everything that happened. He was so outraged, he got the money for the lab assistant. I go back upstairs, I see the department chair and I say guess what? You don't have to worry about the money anymore. The dean gave me the money. He was so angry, he told me he said I will not write any letters of recommendation. I couldn't figure out what had happened. I thought I had done a good thing by going and getting the money. He said no, he said I'm not going to write any letters of recommendation for you. This has so angered me. How dare you go over my head? Blah, blah, blah, blah. So I finished up the post-doc, was able to get a job without his letter of recommendation and I thought that's it, I'm through with bench work. It's too much politics involved in this. What I didn't have an appreciation for because I was so young in my career, was that I really did have the upper hand, I just didn't know it. I knew, I mean I could have essentially sat down and said okay, here's what I want. Because they had this stuff going to NIH requesting money for stuff that was really an artifact. It was contaminated with mycoplasma [type of bacteria], the mycoplasma was absorbing the nutrients and that's why they were seeing what they were seeing. It had nothing to do with the cell line whatsoever. But I didn't know, I was young and he knew I was young. And he knew I didn't know how all of that worked, so he essentially took advantage of me. So I--anyway through with lab work, through with bench work and on to my first job, which is in Atlanta [Georgia]. And that's how I wound up in Atlanta.$Okay. Now in 1992, now this is a--so throughout the '80s [1980s], throughout the Reagan Administration and George Bush the first and stuff you were doing, you were working for the state of Georgia. In '92 [1992] you were the founder of, of Biotechnical Communications, Incorporated. Now so just kind of tell us how--$$So in a nutshell, I moved to California with my husband because of his work. And the commute from where we're living into Los Angeles is hellacious. And I say I cannot do this every day. And I start doing technical writing for biotechnology companies. And they tell me while I'm doing this writing, I'm looking at what they're doing and I see this small business innovation research grant. And I think why am I writing this for them? I write this for myself. I go back home and I'm watching TV, I was actually telling Patrice [Coleman, who is observing the interview] this story earlier. And I'm watching a talk show personality talk about breast cancer in black women and she's doing an awful job, it's, it's simply awful. And I say to myself you know, I think I could do a better job. Get on the phone the next morning and I called National Institute of Health [NIH]. I say to the guy you know here's what I want to do. He says let me send you an application. Again, there was no downloading, let me mail you an application. And he kind of walked me through how to fill it out and how to write it. And it got funded on peer review. And I--so I went on to produce this television special 'To My Sisters, A Gift For Life'. It was the first documentary done on black women and breast cancer in this country. And it went on to win some awards. But the television experience so wore me out I thought I cannot go back to this. And then I began to develop my business by writing these grants to NIH, getting the money to do the research around--the research issues around it, but also to do the productions. And so I went from television, to radio, from radio to internet. And so I've just recently finished an animated program based on health around African Americans called 'Keeping Up With The Walkers'. So that's how my business developed.$$Okay, okay. So these--say the, the first one, the breast cancer video 'To My Sisters'. Now where was it broadcast and how--$$BET [Black Entertainment Television] broadcast that.$$Okay.$$And it was interesting because by the time we got to the broadcast after producing the show, by the time we got to the broadcast, they actually did not have an appropriate timeslot. And so what they said was well we'll put it on, but we'll put it on on Sunday morning at eleven o'clock. I said that's when every black woman in America is in church. Why would you do this? But they did. And surprisingly by word of mouth, of course there's some people who were home will see, it was so popular that they had to rerun it. And then we took it after the rerun and we turned it into a video. And I think we wound up distributing about 8,000 of those things across the country because there had been nothing like it before. And it was just a--it was just wonderful to see it.$$Now did you consult with doctors around?$$Yeah.$$Okay.$$I did.$$Who were some of the--$$Tony Disher; he's a radiation oncologist. We--I worked very closely with the American Cancer Society and with the National Cancer Institute. So Oscar Streeter [ph.], Tony Disher, Otis Brawley [ph.]. Those are some of the people that we worked with.$$Okay, and there's several points bulleted here that the, that the video was to accomplish and can you maybe talk about what you intended to do with it?$$Well the goal was to get black women engaged in this dialogue about breast cancer and to get it out of the closet and into the public dialogue. We wanted to--wanted them to understand that even though we have a lower incidence, we have a higher death rate from the disease. We wanted to emphasize that mammography was key and to demonstrate why and how it works and why it works. So, so people will say well I had a mammogram five years ago, why do I need another one? Well we were able to actually demonstrate why an annual mammogram is so important of course because you see early changes in the breast tissue, you see those changes early. So you, you can find the change here as opposed to waiting to five years later when it's a full grown lump. Because by the time you feel a lump, it's been growing for about seven years. So you really are--it, it's great to be able to visualize it way, way when it's microscopic as opposed to waiting until you can feel--although it's nothing wrong with finding a lump that you can feel. The other thing is that treatment is important. It's not only important to get the mammogram, but to get the treatment. And where we tend to fall down now because the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia] has a very aggressive breast and cervical cancer screening program, is the treatment. So black women will say I don't want to, I don't want to do this because I can't afford the treatment. The treatment is going to make me sick, I need to work. I don't need to be home sick. I, I, I don't have anybody to keep my kids and I say to them who will keep your kids when you're dead? It's, it's a simple choice. Who will keep your kids when you're dead versus who will keep your kids now? So you need to see about doing this now. So the, so the problems that arise for black women are not so much money for mammograms, but money for treatment. That's where the biggest--I see the biggest challenge for black women.