Railroad tracks cut through the edge of the small town of Fairbank in northeastern Iowa, forming a portion of the city’s southeastern boundary. They lead westward through the rolling Wapsie Valley across the winding Wapsipinicon River, a tributary of the Mississippi River.
Heather Brandt, PhD, remembers those tracks well—how her parents encouraged her and her two younger sisters to dream beyond their borders. During dinner table conversations or trips to museums in nearby towns, Brandt’s parents showed her a world of possibilities.
It’s that philosophy of expanding opportunities and limitless bounds, the idea that the “world doesn’t stop at the railroad tracks” that led her to become her family’s first college student and graduate.
“My parents worked really hard to expose me and my sisters to different cultural experiences,” Brandt says. “It opened my eyes to the world.”
Brandt expanded that vision, melding her interests of science and medicine into a doctoral degree before finding her calling as a social and behavioral scientist. Her works centers on leading community outreach and research programs aimed at preventing cancers associated with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
She joined St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital last July to lead the new St. Jude HPV Cancer Prevention Program. She’s hit the ground running, despite the challenges of developing a new initiative during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“St. Jude dreams big. I like to dream big, too,” Brandt says.
My parents worked really hard to expose me and my sisters to different cultural experiences. It opened my eyes to the world.
Mapping a new way
Nearly 1 in 4 Americans is infected with HPV. Of those nearly 80 million people, 31,000 will be diagnosed with one of six HPV-related cancers this year. The best prevention is early vaccination. Vaccination is recommended for children from ages 9 to 12 and for everyone through age 26 if not previously vaccinated.
There are two maps of the United States that make Brandt cringe. The first shows regions with the highest rates of HPV-associated cancers. The second map displays HPV vaccination uptake. The Mid-South and the Southeast rank at the bottom in both maps. St. Jude is located in the heart of this area. The challenge of increasing HPV vaccination uptake to prevent cancer-related deaths in this region was one of the main reasons Brandt came to St. Jude.
“I would love nothing more than to change that story,” Brandt says. “The HPV vaccine is safe, effective and durable to prevent six types of HPV-related cancer in men and women.”
In 2018, the hospital joined all National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers in endorsing the American Cancer Society’s effort to eliminate HPV-related cancers through vaccination and screening. The St. Jude role in this initiative was two-fold: to increase the number of children who benefit from the vaccine and reduce the high HPV-cancer associated burden in its immediate region.
Path to prevention
As a seventh grader at Wapsie Valley Junior High School, Brandt’s foray into science began to blossom. She and a classmate teamed on science fair projects, winning first place in consecutive years with respective entries highlighting the movement of glaciers and chemical application safety.
During those years, her mother joined the staff of a gynecology clinic as a transcriptionist. Her mother often shared stories from her work—patient confidentiality protected of course—which led Brandt to a newfound interest in health, especially women’s health.
At the University of Iowa, she majored in political science and planted the seeds of interest in policy and the internal workings of government. During her senior year, she was prepared to begin a full-time position at the state organ procurement organization. That’s when a mentor stepped in.
“My professor told me that I would get a job and do well, but that it would not be enough for me,” Brandt says. “He said, ‘You should go to graduate school. I think you’re a researcher, a scientist. I think you have a lot of questions that you can help answer.’”
Brandt had not considered that option, but she took the leap. Her mentor recommended the University of South Carolina, where she discovered warm weather and a new focus. She earned graduate and doctoral degrees in public health with training in social and behavioral science.
As a graduate assistant in psychosocial oncology, she provided supportive care for adult cancer patients. She loved the time spent with patients, organizing activities and chatting about their days. But Brandt took their deaths hard. She realized she could have the greatest impact with prevention.
“I decided that if I could spend my career doing one thing, it would be to prevent anyone from ever having to be in this situation,” Brandt says.
The road ahead
Brandt joined the faculty at The University of South Carolina in 2004. She served as associate dean in the Graduate School and professor of health promotion, education, and behavior in the university’s school of public health. She worked with churches, nonprofits and health care facilities across the state, including in rural areas, to increase HPV vaccination rates and screening for cervical cancer and colorectal cancer. Much of her research focused on preventing and controlling cancer by looking at health disparities in vulnerable populations.
“The people in these communities have extraordinary strength and resilience but lack the power to be able to make change,” Brandt says. “A lot of work is focused on interventions and education. I don’t call it outreach specifically because that implies a single direction. My work is bi-directional, where we are co-creating knowledge and learning together. I may have the content expertise, but these partners have the context expertise.”
She brings that focus to St. Jude, where she has assembled a team of five staff members who will work with partners locally, regionally and nationally to focus on implementing evidence-based interventions to help increase HPV vaccination.
In addition to leading the HPV Cancer Prevention Program, Brandt serves as co-associate director of outreach for the St. Jude Comprehensive Cancer Center and works closely with the hospital’s Epidemiology and Cancer Control Department.
“I am inspired by the possibilities that become reality at St. Jude,” Brandt says. “It is the great privilege of my professional career to have the opportunity to lead a new program focused on preventing HPV cancers.”