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Harris, Mary Styles 1949–

Mary Styles Harris 1949

Geneticist

At a Glance

Sources

The daughter of a doctor, Mary Styles Harris developed an interest in science at an early age. By the time she was in high school, she was entering local science fairs and volunteering in a medical laboratory. Harris pursued graduate studies in molecular genetics and was later in charge of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia. After several years of teaching and consulting, Harris became the head of Bio Technical Communications, which produces health care communication, product, and research materials for radio, television, and the Internet.

Mary Styles Harris grew up in a scientific environment. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 26, 1949. Her father, George Styles, was finishing his studies at Meharry Medical College, and her mother, Margaret, had completed her degree in business administration at Tennessee State University. Soon after her fathers graduation, the family moved to Miami, Florida, where her father opened a medical practice near the city center.

In 1963 Harris was one of the first African Americans to enter Miami Jackson High School. At that time, schools in the city were just beginning to desegregate. Four years later, she graduated 12th out a class of 350.

Harriss pursuit of science increased during her high school years by her after school work. Harris entered the local science fair each year. She also volunteered evenings and weekends at the first black-owned medical lab in Miami. While there, lab technicians showed her the use of various laboratory equipment and items. By the time she was ready to graduate from high school, she could perform simple routine biological tests, such as counting red cells in blood samples.

After high school, Harris enrolled in Lincoln University, located in Lincoln, Pennsylvania. She was one of the first women to be accepted there, so her classmates were almost entirely male. Although she basically followed a pre-med program in college, Harris also took advanced algebra and chemistry courses. It was generally assumed, certainly by her classmates, that she would enter medical school. In fact, her fathers colleagues in Miami had been able to assure a place for Harris, through a minority program, at the University of Miami Medical School.

What young pre-med student would turn down an assured place in medical school? Harris did, much to the surprise of her classmates. But by now she had decided that her true passion was not in treating patients, but research. Upon graduation in 1971 with a B.A. in biology, her overall academic performance earned her a Ford Foundation Doctoral Fellowship to study molecular genetics.

Soon after graduation, Mary Styles married Sidney Harris, who had just graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. The young couple decided to pursue their careers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Her husband had been accepted in the graduate engineering program, and Harris entered the well-regarded molecular genetics research center at the university.

At a Glance

Born Mary Styles on June 26, 1949, in Nashville, TN; daughter of Dr. George and Margaret Styles; married Sidney E. Harris; children: one daughter. Education: Lincoln University, BA, Biology, 1971; Cornell University, PhD, Genetics, 1975; Rutgers Medical School, Postdoctoral study, 1977.

Career: Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia, executive director, 1977-79; More house College, assistant professor, 1978; Atlanta University, assistant professor, 1980-81; Georgia Department of Human Resources, director of genetic services; Harris and Associates, founder, president, until 1987; BioTechnical Communications, president.

Memberships: Public Health Association, 1977-; American Society of Human Genetics, 1977-; Congressional Black Caucus Health Brain Trust; Georgia Board of Regents, University of Georgia, 1979-80; Womens Forum of Georgia; Governors Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Georgia Human Genetics Task Force; CDC Foundation, board member.

Awards: Outstanding Working Woman, Glamour magazine, 1980.

Addresses: Office BioTechnical Communications, 5920 Roswell Rd., Bldg. B107, PMB 190, Atlanta, GA 30328.

Barbara McClintock, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, had conducted her experiments at the Cornell labs and returned there frequently while Harris was a student. Harris also benefitted from the fact that her own faculty advisor, Dr. Gerry Fink, had been a close colleague of McClintocks over the years.

This was a rewarding time for those in the study of genetic research. Harris graduated from Cornell with a Ph.D. in genetics in 1975. Her dissertation was entitled An Investigation of Several Aspects of the Killer Character in Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, dealing with yeasts. Following that, she received a National Cancer Research postdoctoral fellowship to study the structure of viruses. For this work, Harris spent the next two years at the New Jersey University of Medicine and Dentistry. Although she found the work rewarding, after completion of a project involving the chemical structure of viruses and molecules, Harris decided that she needed a career change.

Harris became the executive director of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia in 1977. This was an administrative, rather than a research-based, position. Besides raising money to fight sickle-cell anemia, a disease that afflicts mainly African Americans, she was in a position to inform the public about this very serious condition.

This administrative position was new to Harris in many respects. She had to learn how to direct an organization whose basic aim is public service. She also had to mix advances in science with meeting the practical health problems of the public she served. But Harris did her job well, and she was awarded a Science Residency Award by the National Science Foundation.

With this aid and recognition, Harris was able to publicize other diseases in addition to sickle-cell anemia. Her face became familiar to television viewers when she hosted a series of documentaries, which she wrote and produced, explaining health and science issues to the general public. Largely because of these, she won Glamour magazines Outstanding Working Woman of 1980 award. The award ceremony took place at the White House with then-President Jimmy Carter presiding.

After a period spent in Washington, D.C. completing her Science Residency, Harris became the State Director of Genetic Services for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. From this position, she could also influence health policies nationwide, and her advice was sought by health officials in other states. In addition to work in Genetic Services, Harris was a part-time assistant professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta and at Atlanta University. To make life even busier, the couples daughter was born during this period.

After three years at Georgias Department of Human Resources, Harris took charge of a program encompassing seven states for the genetic screening of newborns. Next, she founded Harris and Associates, a consulting firm she ran until 1987 for companies with products that are based on genetic research.

Harris moved to California when her husband was offered a teaching position at Claremont College. But they later returned to Atlanta, where he became head of the Georgia State University College of Business. Harris headed up BioTechnical Communications, which actively focuses on health issues by producing audiovisual materials on such health topics as breast cancer, an issue of major concern among minority women. She produced a 40-minute television special called To My Sisters A Gift for Life and hosted by Debbie Allen that examined breast cancer among black women. Harris remained a firm backer of public health education, focusing on the need for cooperation between government officials and scientists so that vital health information is made available and understandable to the people who can most benefit from it.

Sources

Books

Kessler, James H., et al. Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century, Oryx, 1996.

Notable Black American Scientists, Gale, 1998.

Whos Who Among African Americans, 14th edition, Gale, 2001.

Online

http://www.princeton.edu/~mcbrown/display/mary_harris.htm (July 13, 2001).

Corinne J. Naden and Jennifer M. York

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