Dr. Bettie Graham was teaching math and science in Nigeria during a two-year stint in the Peace Corps when she realized something.
The children she was teaching did not understand bacteria, she said, because they didn’t have access to a microscope. If the kids didn’t understand bacteria, they couldn’t fully learn about infections, Graham said.
This made her curious about what people could learn and discover if they had access to the proper equipment, education and funding, and it set her on a path to receiving a doctorate in virology from Baylor College of Medicine and eventually working for the National Institutes of Health.
A Beaumont native, Graham earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas State University in 1964 before joining the Peace Corps. In Nigeria, Graham faced contagions that were not a problem in the U.S., including malaria and Guinea worms.
“They were just something new, at least in my education. I basically was in an educational environment, but there was no healthcare setting at all,” she said.
It was the mid-1960s, and Baylor College of Medicine (then known as Baylor University College of Medicine) had launched its first department of virology. Graham returned to Houston in 1964 to work as a research technician at Baylor before starting graduate school.
In 1971, Graham was the first Black graduate student to earn a doctorate from the Department of Virology and Epidemiology.
“When you’re in graduate school, you eat, sleep, drink studying or doing your (certifications). All my time was consumed in classes and doing research,” she said. “(Mentor Dr. Matilda Melnick) created an environment that was warm and inviting; she treated people with respect and human kindness, and it was just a wonderful environment to be in, to grow and develop.”
Following graduation and a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, Graham joined the National Institutes of Health at the National Cancer Institute. Four years later, she transitioned to science management of the extramural program where she worked with researchers outside of NIH.
On April 24, 2022, Graham celebrated 50 years of federal government service, which includes her years in the Peace Corps. She was the third employee to join the now-National Human Genome Research Institute in 1989.
“Bettie has been a member of the NHGRI Extramural Research Program since its inception, becoming deeply woven into the fabric of all aspects of NHGRI’s extramural operations,” a news release stated. “It is hard to overstate the importance of her contributions to NHGRI’s successes over many years.”
Graham believes her biggest impact in extramural programs has been looking out for scientists and researchers as they navigate the grant process. She still receives thank you letters from researchers she helped decades later – something that makes her smile.
Though COVID-19 vaccines appeared to be developed quickly, the research for mRNA vaccines was funded by NIH more than 20 years ago, she said. That’s why basic research is important as a foundation for impactful scientific discoveries, she added.
“People in the trenches (those who make the science) are critical to what NIH does, but we don’t make the science; we provide the opportunities for science to take place,” Graham said. “Research is critical to improvements in human health, like vaccine development.
“People can’t see the value of it now, but at some point, people are then able to connect the dots so something really impactful happens.”
In addition to her career, Graham is a decorated fencer. She has won multiple medals on the veteran world epee team, including an individual bronze medal in 2016, according to NIH.
Believing change is good, she plans to continue working for a time. But she knows the importance of bringing in new people with new ideas and will make her exit when it’s appropriate.
“I want to make sure that I end my career when I’m at my peak,” Graham said. “I want to jump rather than be pushed; my grandfather used to say he would rather wear out than rust out.”
Her advice to others is to focus on the individual work and not worry about impressing others. “Don’t get distracted by what’s going on around you; don’t compare yourself to others,” she said. “I am my own worst critic, and I don’t care what you think. Only, is Bettie satisfied with what she did?”
By Julie Garcia