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Cancer Researcher Fulfills Promise

When her beloved grandmother died of brain cancer, a nine-year-old Nikki (pronounced nĭ-kē´) Delk made a promise to become a scientist and to help find a cure. “She and my mother are two of my biggest inspirations,” said Delk.

Delk earned her doctoral degree and was hired as an assistant professor in the biological sciences department in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at UT Dallas in 2014.

“In my family, education has always been very important. This was especially instilled in my family by my great grandmother,” Delk said.

Nikki Delk, PhD
Nikki Delk, PhD

“At her 100th birthday party, when I sat next to her, she looked at me and asked ‘How much schoolin’ do you have?’ At the time I was working on my doctorate and she began to tell me about her time as a school teacher.  It was clear from her tone that being a school teacher was a strong source of pride.  But in her era, as a woman, and as Black woman, growing up in the Jim Crow south, she was forced to give up her career to be a wife and mother. So, she imprinted on our family that education is the means to independence and freedom.”

Delk always knew where she wanted to go in her career – to help find a cancer cure – but she wasn’t sure how she’d get there because she did not have examples of scientists, especially Black female scientists, to follow.

Delk’s path, though sometimes circuitous, demonstrates both her drive and perseverance. She was awarded an Air Force ROTC scholarship to pay for her undergraduate education at Georgetown University where she majored mathematics and minored in physics.

“I was essentially guaranteed a scholarship from the military if I agreed to study math,” she said.  “Math was my most difficult and least favorite subject in high school, but my parents had no means to pay for my college. Even though I knew I wanted to be a scientist, I studied math out of necessity and because I was drawn to the challenge of majoring in a subject that I knew would not be easy for me.”

After receiving her undergraduate degree from Georgetown and being commissioned as an Air Force officer, she ended up in Texas. 

“Of all of the places in the world I could have been assigned, I was stationed at Brooks Air Force Base at the Air Force Research Lab. I knew that it was God saying, ‘OK, I remember you said at nine-years-old you wanted to be a cancer researcher.’ It would be a turning point in my career path,” Delk said. 

“I was not a scientist in the Air Force. I was a contracts and program manager with AFRL. But I was surrounded by doctors, biomedical scientists, biologists and chemists. It’s in my nature to ask a lot of questions, so I asked – ‘What do you do? How did you get to where you are? What kind of education do you need to do what you’re doing?’ I appreciate the mentoring I received at AFRL, and after fulfilling my ROTC scholarship commitment, I separated from the military to pursue my doctorate in biological sciences at Rice University.”

She credits her forebearers for creating a path for fulfilling her promise to her 9-year-old self and to her grandmother to help cure cancer.  

“My great-grandparents and grandparents grew up in the Jim Crow south and my mom, aunt and uncle grew up during the Civil Rights era living through segregation and desegregation,” Delk said.  “Their experiences shaped my perspective and also paved a way for my success as an African American woman in a country rooted in systemic racism. Because of their boldness, fearlessness and love for me, I grew up with a sense of confidence and the audacity to know that being an African American woman is something to be proud of and an asset. If there have been obstacles in my career path because of my race or gender, I have always been too focused on achieving to let anyone or anything stop me. But I have the luxury of my unencumbered focus because of those before me — and those still today — who recognized the need for diversity in STEM and worked hard to establish and implement programs that recruit and retain underrepresented minorities and women into STEM.” 

At Rice University, where Delk was awarded her doctorate, she was the beneficiary of one of those programs.

“When I was at Rice, I was awarded an Alliances for Graduate Education and Professoriate fellowship. AGEP is a National Science Foundation program designed to recruit and retain underrepresented minorities through financial support and mentorship.  Being a part of AGEP at Rice was being part of a family with shared experiences and backgrounds.  It was a wonderful part of my life in graduate school and an integral part of my success,” Delk said.

Programs like AGEP would not exist if not for efforts to correct systemic racism in STEM. 

“I am a successful product of what these programs were designed for – to address and correct underrepresentation in STEM by ensuring people like me have opportunities afforded others,” Delk said. “When we widen the pool, it serves to benefit the field because we increase the pool of brilliant minds and perspectives working toward a common goal to contribute to society through science.” 

Delk was hired as an assistant professor in the biological sciences department at UT Dallas in 2014, invested as an endowed Fellow, Cecil H. and Ida Green Professor in Systems Biology in 2018 and promoted to an associate professor with tenure in 2020. Since her arrival at UT Dallas, Delk has taught hundreds of students molecular and cell biology and she has trained more than 50 undergraduate and graduate student researchers in her lab.  Her lab investigates the role of inflammation in cancer progression and treatment resistance, and her research is supported by UT Dallas, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

“Because my success is due to the passion, perseverance and guidance of so many others, and because I stand proudly as a legacy of my African and African-American ancestors, a true joy of my career and my position as a professor, faculty member and principal investigator at UT Dallas, is the opportunity to mentor others and serve as a positive example for those who may be or feel disenfranchised during their journey,” she said. 

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by Haywood McNeill — January 30, 2021