Born June 26, 1949, in Nashville, Tennessee, Mary Styles Harris turned an early love of science into a prominent career in health research. Since earning her doctorate in molecular biology from Cornell University in 1975, Harris has raised greater awareness for medical issues like sickle-cell anemia and breast cancer. She was a 1980 recipient of Glamour magazine's Outstanding Working Women award.
Early Years & Education
Geneticist and health researcher Mary Styles Harris was born June 26, 1949, in Nashville, Tennessee. The daughter of a doctor, she grew up in Miami, Florida, where her father, George Styles, opened a medical practice.
In the Styles family, a premium was placed on academics and on the sciences in particular. In 1963 Harris became one of the first African Americans to enter Miami Jackson High School. While attending the school, Harris entered local science fairs and also found work as a technician at the first black-owned medical lab in Miami, where she gained valuable experience conducting tests and learning how to use lab equipment. Harris graduated 12th out of 350 students in her class.
In 1967 Harris enrolled at Lincoln University in Lincoln, Pennsylvania, and was again in the minority as one of the institutions few female students. Harris earned a B.A. in biology in 1971 and also received a Ford Foundation Doctoral Fellowship to study molecular genetics.
Shortly after graduating, she married Sidney Harris, a young engineer. Together the couple moved to Ithaca, New York, where they both pursued graduate degrees at Cornell University—Sydney in engineering and Mary in the school’s esteemed molecular genetics program.
After completing her Ph.D. in genetics in 1975, Harris received a National Cancer Research postdoctoral fellowship to study the makeup of viruses. The often intense, demanding research, which she did at the New Jersey University of Medicine and Dentistry, led Harris to step away from lab work in 1977 to take an administrative position as executive director at the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia.
Harris leveraged the position to heighten awareness about sickle-cell anemia. She conducted lectures and speeches, and produced and starred in a series of television documentaries about issues related to the disease.
Her work in that arena gave her national attention, and in 1980 she won Glamour magazine’s Outstanding Working Woman of 1980 award. The honor was given to her at a ceremony held at the White House and presided over by President Jimmy Carter.
From there, Harris’s stature only grew. In 1980 she became the State Director of Genetic Services for the Georgia Department of Human Resources, a position she held for several years and used to help direct health-related legislation. She also taught at Morehouse College in Atlanta and Atlanta University during this time.
After leaving her post at the Department of Human Resources, in 1983 Harris founded a genetics-based consulting firm, which she ran for several years until she and her family moved to California. Upon returning to Atlanta in the 1990s, Harris founded BioTechnical Communications, an organization that produces audiovisual material on a range of health issues, most notably breast cancer, which has become a dominant area of concern for women of color.
Raising public awareness about health issues has led to other endeavors for Harris as well. She sits on the Atlanta board of the March of Dimes and in recent years produced a 40-minute television special called “To My Sisters…A Gift for Life,” which looked at breast cancer issues facing black women. The program was hosted by actress Debbie Allen. In addition Harris has worked tirelessly to advocate for more government action to promote healthy lifestyle habits, running the website Journey to Wellness and hosting a radio show of the same name.
Harris lives in the Atlanta area with her husband, Sydney, and their daughter.
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