Carnegie Mellon University
February 15, 2021

A Driving Force

Alumna’s push to advance equity and inclusion has been with her since her time as an undergrad

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS

Betty Mbom believes that better health care comes from understanding how medicine affects real people in the real world.

Currently, Mbom serves as the senior director of customer success at Syapse, a real-world evidence company that harnesses the power of precision medicine to improve outcomes for cancer patients. The company partners with community health systems, life sciences companies, regulators and molecular labs to transform real-world data into real-world evidence to extinguish the burden and fear of cancer.  

Having this kind of impact on people’s lives is what drew the Carnegie Mellon University Department of Biological Sciences alumna and Stanford University cell and molecular biology doctoral graduate to the industry in the first place. 

“Real-world evidence is about utilizing all available patient and lab data that is collected and generated on a daily basis and using that information to make decisions,” explained Mbom. This evidence allows companies like Syapse to uncover insights into how drugs and other treatments are affecting patients in real time.

“In the past, we relied solely on clinical trials data,” noted Mbom, which has its shortcomings. Clinical trials are usually a very pristine setting with narrow inclusion criteria; as a result, they often don’t reflect the diversity of people who will eventually be administered these treatments.

“If you don't have your population reflected in your trial, then there are subsets of people that are not part of the conversation around efficacy and safety,” said Mbom.

In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently released new guidance on how to enhance diversity in clinical trials, noting both the continued efforts and challenges to include underrepresented minorities.

Mbom wrote a response article detailing why diversifying clinical trials can revolutionize care for underrepresented minorities. She summarizes many of the challenges noted by the FDA.

“Part of it is access. Part of it is education. Part of it is institutions changing their approach,” said Mbom.

“There is an inherent distrust of the health care community by people of color for legitimate reasons,” said Mbom, noting a long history of unethical and racist studies, such as the Tuskegee Study of untreated syphilis in Black men and the continued nonconsensual use of Henrietta Lacks’ stem cells.

“As a Black woman and as someone who is one of very few in my field, I feel that I have a responsibility to ensure that the work that I'm doing is truly advancing care for all.”

Actionable steps include expanding clinical research access to more diverse geographic locations; educating people about the benefits of participating in trials; and rebuilding trust with communities of color, who bear the burden of greater health care disparities.

The conversation is even more important as we face one of the largest health crises in history. A recent analysis of real-world data by Syapse showed that cancer patients who “identify as Black, and low-income, suffered from worse COVID-19 related outcomes.”

“As considerations are made to approve COVID-19 vaccines, it is important to consider how it will perform in the real-world setting across populations which traditionally haven’t been appropriately represented,” Mbom wrote in her article.

The benefits of doing so far outweigh the status quo. By including people of “every race, socioeconomic and geographic background,” Mbom concludes, we can address “historical inequities, reshap(e)  the clinical research and care ecosystem and creat(e)  a socially just future for biomedical research.” 

For Mbom, such a goal comes from a personal place as well.

“As a Black woman and as someone who is one of very few in my field, I feel that I have a responsibility to ensure that the work that I'm doing is truly advancing care for all.” 

The drive to advance equity and inclusion has been with Mbom since her undergraduate days at Carnegie Mellon, where mentorship was a defining feature of her educational experience, both as mentor and mentee.

In her junior year, Mbom founded COMPASS, short for COaching Minority Progress and Academic Success in Science, a mentoring program for first-year minority students. Still in practice today, the organization works to increase underrepresented minorities pursuing scientific, mathematical and medical fields.

Mbom credits many individuals from the university who shaped and inspired her journey, including former Vice President for Research Rick McCullough, Vice Provost of Education Amy Burkert and Eric Grotzinger, John Woolford and the late Beth Jones of the Department of Biological Sciences.

“I felt very supported at Carnegie Mellon,” she said. “It made me into the scientist, thinker and professional that I am today.”