Woman in yellow dress speaking on stage
Charmaine Royal delivered the Trinity Distinguished Lecture on May 1, 2024. (John West / Trinity Communications)

Charmaine Royal Delivers Trinity Distinguished Lecture

A warm and enthusiastic audience greeted Charmaine DM Royal, Robert O. Keohane Professor of African & African American Studies, Biology, Global Health and Family Medicine & Community Health as she delivered the 2024 Trinity Distinguished Lecture on May 1 at Duke.

Her talk, “Shifting Paradigms on Genetics and Race,” reflected on her personal and professional journey as a scholar focusing on the ethical, social and clinical dimensions of human genetics and genomics, particularly as they relate to the intersection of genetics and race.

“In talking about paradigms, I'm including everything from how we talk about genetics and race, to how we teach genetics to how we think about and try to dismantle racism,” she said. 

Royal framed the talk in reference to the shifting paradigms that occurred in her own life — the moments when new opportunities or discoveries took her in unexpected directions. The first personal paradigm shift occurred when she was an undergraduate at Howard University.

For most of her college career, Royal majored in medical technology with the goal of becoming a pediatrician. Then she discovered genetics in her senior year, after she changed her major to microbiology. “I was mesmerized by genetics,” Royal said, “and thought it was the most fascinating science.”

After graduating with a degree in microbiology — which required two extra years of coursework — Royal decided to remain at Howard to complete a master’s degree in genetic counseling, still intending to become a pediatrician. While helping people to understand, manage and cope with genetic disorders, Royal became increasing]y interested in human genetics and its social and psychological implications. 

Following the completion of her master’s, Royal continued to study at Howard, pursuing a Ph.D. in human genetics. It was during this time that the paradigm shifted again. “I didn’t want to do what other people in human genetics usually did, which was work in a lab,” she said. “I wanted to go hang out with the social scientists and do a project based on sickle cell disease.” And that is what she did for her dissertation.

Through connections at Howard, after earning her PhD Royal was referred to Kate Berg, a human geneticist who led the then Office of Genome Ethics at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Royal said, “'I talked with Kate and told her what I wanted to do.' She said, ‘I've been looking for you,’ and hired me on the spot as the first postdoc for the program.”

The field of genomics and its ethical implications were growing at a furious pace in the 1990s, and Royal wanted to be part of it. After her postdoctoral work, she considered a full-time position at the NIH, but her mentors advised her to return to Howard and join the faculty of the newly established National Human Genome Center, where she had the opportunity to publish papers, write grants and make a name for herself as a scholar.

“Howard acculturated me in terms of race,” said Royal, a native of Jamaica. “That's where I first learned about race and racism in America and globally, and it meant a lot to me in terms of my own identity.” But by the early 2000s, after about 25 years at Howard, Royal knew it was time to move on.

While seriously considering another institution, she received an email from Hunt Willard, who was leading the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy. He asked if she wanted to visit and discuss her work. “When I did my job talk, it became so clear to me that Duke was next,” she said.

Royal’s research and how she moves between traditionally natural, medical and social science spaces remains unique. “My goal, especially when dealing with geneticists, is to help them do their science better,” she said. “I critique, but I also collaborate with them.”

Two men pass a stack of books
Audience members pass a printed collection of art from one of Royal's classes during her lecture. (John West / Trinity Communications)

The arts are also integral to Royal’s work. In her teaching, for example, she utilizes various forms of art as mechanisms for students to communicate what they have learned about race and genetics and to share how they experience or understand racism and how to dismantle it.

As director of the Center for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT), Royal lends her background in genetics, ethics and race to help change incorrect narratives about race and racism. “With TRHT, we’re also asking ourselves, ‘How do we build relationships across divides, leading with empathy? What are the structural barriers we need to overcome to disrupt false assumptions about race and get to the underlying factors that are at the heart of the matter?’” she said.

In 2022, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine appointed Royal cochair of a new committee aimed at tackling complex issues regarding the use of race and other population descriptors in human genetics research. Under Royal’s coleadership, the committee released a report in March 2023 discussing how to best use population descriptors in genetics and genomics research.

The report advised researchers to consider the use of population descriptors based on the nature of the study and research objectives. It also advised against the general use of "race" in genetics research, suggesting alternative population descriptors only when they clearly serve the study's purpose.

“We were determined this wouldn’t be one of those reports that sits on a shelf,” said Royal. She’s pleased that organizations such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and the National Institutes of Health have implemented and published around the report’s recommendations.

When asked following her lecture about how she would advise students who want to follow her path or are uncertain about their career options, Royal had this advice: “My path was one I wouldn't have imagined, but it was the best path for me because it was how I met genetics. I can’t see myself doing anything else. Students can be set on something or have no ideas of what they want to do when they first come to Duke. I always encourage students to keep an open mind so they can learn about and explore opportunities they might never have considered.”