By Fortson, Leigh
Black Issues in Higher Education , Vol. 16, No. 2
Dr. Patrick Allen, a University of Colorado-Boulder researcher, is spearheading a Black biomedical research movement to urge more African Americans to investigate the health issues that impact their communities.
BOULDER Colo. -- When Dr. Patrick Allen was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to define the structure of the AIDS virus, he didn't know that only 0.37 percent of biomedical research funds were given to Black scientists.
Upon reflection, however, the startlingly low percentage was consistent with his personal experiences. Throughout his undergraduate years at Springfield College in Massachusetts and his graduate studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz, and now as a postdoctoral fellow and research associate at the University of Colorado-Boulder, time and time again, Dr. Allen was and is the only Black person in the lab.
At first, being the minority in an industry that's traditionally dominated by White men didn't faze him. But the news of so few Black investigators being funded for scientific research did disturb him. Allen already knew about the higher-than-average incidence of heart disease, diabetes, high blood sugar, and high blood cholesterol among Black Americans. But when numbers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revealed that nearly 75 percent of all deaths from AIDS occur in Black men; that Black women have the disease at a rate that is 16 times that of White women; and that two-thirds of all children with HIV are Black, Allen realized there was a health crisis in Black America and that called for immediate action.
"I never dreamed this would be a concern of mine. But when I think about so few Blacks involved in AIDS research, and so many Blacks who are affected by it, that polarity got me going."
And Allen, 36, has been going strong around the country promoting a new health consciousness in the Black community. "Black people are in bad health and it's not necessary. Health consciousness and caring about your body is not that difficult. And it's not asking a lot," says Allen who launched the Black Biomedical Research Movement, a nonprofit organization set up through the University of Colorado. This is his attempt to encourage young Black students to enter the field of biomedical research, while also forging a new mindset in minority communities to take responsibility for their own health and well being.
It is bound to be a tough challenge, but Allen has faced down fierce opponents before. Born and raised in Jamaica, he always loved school because good grades got him the attention he liked -- not only from family members -- but from peers as well. A move to New York at age 13 changed everything. Being attentive in the classroom, finishing homework on time, and exemplary report cards cast him as the resident nerd. By high school, he figured out that the American way of attracting attention was through athletics.
Allen took up wrestling and excelled. By college, he was competing in national tournaments and eventually was invited to the 1984 Olympic trials. Fortuitously, a knee injury put an end to his wrestling career, so he turned to biology.
Allen credits his years as a serious wrestler for the discipline he now relies upon as a serious scientist.
"Science isn't glamorous," he says, "You have to be rigorous, you have to have discipline, you have to do things meticulously and sometimes nothing happens. Wrestling helped me learn those things."
As one of relatively few Black biomedical researchers wrestling with the AIDS virus, Allen splits his energy between exploring what inhibits the destructive properties of the virus (he was awarded a patent in 1997 for a discovery he made to that effect), and what contributes to the health crisis in Black America. He sees a clear connection between the magnitude of the health crisis and the dearth of Black scientists and biomedical researchers. …