Reason Leads to the Reggies
Questions have always led Duke geneticist and bioethicist Charmaine Royal down the right path. A consummate researcher, Royal formulated a list of questions when university leaders asked if she would consider guiding the Reginaldo Howard Scholars as their faculty director. The merit scholarship program is for domestic and international students of African descent. Administrators cited what Royal could add to the Reggie program. Associate Professor of African & African American Studies and Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke, Royal defined her own questions. “What would the Reggies lose if I did not do this?” Royal asked herself. The questions continued. “Why would I want to do this? Where does directing the Reggies fall in terms of my desire to mentor, encourage, and support students who are only beginning to have an idea of what they want to do? How do I help them to get to where they need to be? It’s my answers to those questions that made me say yes.”
After deciding to take on the faculty director role Royal came up with three key goals for the Reggies. The first goal is to provide Reggie scholars with the particular support they need. “One of the things I’ve found with many black students, and students who are for whatever reason disadvantaged or marginalized in terms of academics, is that they often need additional support to accomplish their goals and to achieve their full potential,” says Royal. I was one of those students just a few years ago. “The Reggie program brings to Duke some of the brightest and best black students, young people of African descent who have excelled at many things in high school. I intend to find ways to provide the academic, emotional, and social support they need to succeed at Duke and beyond. I want to see them accomplish what they want to do at the undergraduate level and give them the tools to get to the next step, graduate school, professional school, careers, whatever it takes to help prepare them for life.”
Royal’s second goal is for the Reggie program to be a beacon that helps Duke accomplish – even surpass – its aspirations for diversity and inclusion. “I want this scholarship program to be one of those treasures that Duke can point to as an asset that sets the university apart. I want the program to stand out among similar programs at other institutions.” I want to know that because of what the Reggie program does Duke will continually be able to attract the top black students that other prestigious schools are vying for.
A third priority for Royal with the Reggies is to increase the financial support of the program. “I would like to see funding increased substantially above what it is now because I believe that will increase our ability to attract even more of these top students,” says Royal. “That type of support speaks volumes about Duke’s commitment to this program. It will facilitate even more innovative, scholarly, leadership, and service activities with and by these scholars.”
At Duke scholars are provided with many opportunities, but some come in with set plans. The best advice Royal gives students is to be open-minded. As an example, she uses her own scholarly and professional path to what she calls her dream career as faculty in Duke’s Department of African & African American Studies (AAAS) and the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP).
“I found my niche and I never imagined it would be genetics,” explains Royal. “Since childhood, as far as I can remember or anybody in my family can remember, I wanted to be a physician, a pediatrician. That was my goal. I grew up in Jamaica and left after high school for Howard University in Washington, D.C., ultimately to become a pediatrician. That was what I was going to do.”
Royal started out with a major in medical technology, but eventually shook things up. “Somehow that major just didn’t do it for me,” recalls Royal. “I just didn’t enjoy it. The first semester of my senior year I decided to change my major. Of course my advisors were stunned. I changed from medical technology to microbiology and that put me back two years. The last semester of those two years, doing microbiology, I did a course in genetics and the rest is history. I fell in love with genetics. I think it is the most fascinating science.”
Royal wanted to do more in the field of genetics and Howard had a program in genetic counseling. “Even though I love science there has always been something about the psychological, ethical, and social implications of the science that appeals to me.” says Royal. “What do we do with the information we generate? How do we interpret, communicate, and apply it? How does it affect people’s lives? I went on to do a master’s in genetic counseling and my doctorate in human genetics at Howard.”
While Royal enjoyed human genetics, she did not particularly enjoy being in a lab. “I asked my director if I could do a different kind of project for my dissertation,” says Royal. “Dr. Headings (now deceased) said, ‘Sure.’ And he made the most significant mark upon my career by allowing me to do what I wanted to do. My project was on psychosocial aspects of sickle cell disease. When I completed the project I wanted to do a postdoc. I had a difficult time finding a postdoc focusing on the ethical, social, and psychological issues in genetics. Dr. Headings pointed me to the director of the then Office of Genome Ethics in the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH.
After her postdoc at NIH Royal returned to Howard as faculty in the National Human Genome Center, Medical School, and Graduate School, until she knew it was time for her next move, joining Hunt Willard and the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy team at Duke. “One cannot overstate the richness of having people doing genome sciences and people doing related policy, social science, and humanities research working in close proximity,” says Royal. “Hunt Willard brought me to Duke and in so doing has helped move me closer to fulfilling my purpose.”
After five years at Duke Royal looks back and feels she’s come full circle because of the Reggies. “When I was asked to be faculty director for the Reggies, I thought, now it’s really coming together. Coming to Duke, my own desire to increase diversity and inclusion in science and academia, being part of AAAS and the IGSP, genetics, social and ethical issues. It’s perfect. Guiding the Reggies provides me with a phenomenal opportunity to walk alongside the next generation of scientists, scholars, and leaders and to be part of their future.”