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Pharmacology Researcher to Lead Cancer Diversity, Inclusion Program

James Turkson, PhD, Brings a Global Perspective to His New Role: Guiding Inclusion Initiatives for Researchers, Clinicians and Patients

James Turkson, PhD

James Turkson, PhD

James Turkson, PhD, professor in the Division of Medical Oncology in the Department of Medicine at Cedars-Sinai, is uniquely positioned for a new role developed at Cedars-Sinai Cancer: director for Diversity, Inclusion and Strategy.

“I have great confidence that Dr. Turkson will provide superb leadership and implementation of programs, policies and initiatives that enhance the diversity of our cancer center's membership, leadership, staff and trainees,” said Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD, director of Cedars-Sinai Cancer and the PHASE ONE Foundation Distinguished Chair. “He demonstrates how the human spirit can triumph over adversity and is a great role model for all of us.”

Turkson comes to his new role with a truly global perspective and an understanding of what it means to overcome obstacles on the way to achievement. Born and raised in Ghana, he was the first person in his family to attend high school and college, which he did when his hard work earned him government scholarships. But during his first semester in college, both of his parents died.

“My dad died from a stroke and then my mom died from uterine cancer,” Turkson said. “I was lost. I didn’t even think I would stay in college, but friends, family, and teachers encouraged me to stay on. To honor my mom and all of those afflicted with cancer, I made it a mission to pursue cancer research to help find a cure.”

After completing his undergraduate degree, Turkson was awarded a fellowship to attend graduate school at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, where he earned a PhD in pharmacology.

“Living in different parts of the world and experiencing different cultures has been a valuable and rewarding experience,” Turkson said. “Local is now global. Every day, we work with colleagues in different parts of the world to work toward cures for different diseases, including cancer. I am elated and honored that Dr. Theodorescu asked me to take on this role, because I think I come at it from a very useful perspective.”

While working toward his PhD, Turkson took an interest in cancer research, dedicating himself to exploring the mechanisms behind cancer in order to develop new treatments. He went on to complete a fellowship at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, and today the Turkson Lab focuses on anti-cancer drug discovery.

Before his latest appointment, Turkson served as an ambassador on the Cedars-Sinai Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council and as a member of the academic diversity task force. He said that he finds learning about the experiences of colleagues from diverse backgrounds informative and inspirational.

“Each time you listen to someone’s experience, you learn something and you gain strength through hearing what they have experienced and been able to overcome,” Turkson said. “It is rewarding when we appreciate our differences because they are a source of strength not only to us as individuals, but to Cedars-Sinai as a whole.”

His ultimate goal is to create a national model of what diversity, equity and inclusion can look like for cancer researchers, clinicians and patients. 

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Cedars-Sinai Cancer delivers care to the most diverse population in the U.S., and Turkson will help guide and expand on the many efforts underway. These include use of big data and innovative technology to identify and address ethnic and racial disparities in cancer biology and treatment, and unique outreach efforts to bring awareness and care to underserved groups in the community.

Turkson pointed to the history of inclusiveness at Cedars-Sinai as another source of inspiration. “Cedars-Sinai came into existence to serve people who were disenfranchised,” Turkson said. “I feel at home here. Each person is appreciated and recognized for their individuality and what they bring to the table.”