National Cancer InstituteU.S. National Institutes of
Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities logo

Grantee Spotlight: Marjorie Kagawa-Singer

Jessie A. Satia, PhD, MPH Marjorie Kagawa-Singer, PhD, MA, MN, RN

Faculty Associate, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research Professor
Asian American Studies Senior Editor, AAPI Nexus; Associate Director

650 Charles Young Drive South, PO Box 951772,
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1772
phone: (310) 825-9481
fax: (310) 794-1805

As third-generation Japanese-American Dr. Margie Kagawa-Singer, PhD, MA, MN, RN had no idea that her upbringing in an isolated community in Berkeley, California would lead her to study how illness is traditionally perceived and cured around the world.

Living in the 60’s in an isolated neighborhood—one that only Asians and Blacks could buy property—Dr. Kagawa-Singer learned firsthand what health disparities meant.

After graduating with her nursing degree from San Francisco State, Dr. Kagawa-Singer went to work at a San Francisco General hospital and LA County Hospital .

“I found that what I learned in school had very little applicability to the people I was working with (in the hospitals), but what I learned at home did,” she says. “That was my first realization that growing up a minority is truly a different world than the dominant U.S. society.”

Dr. Kagawa-Singer went on to graduate school in nursing, but was surprised to find that there was very little in the field of “minority health,” which is what health disparities was called at that time.

“There was nothing reflected in the literature…except a sort of a deficit model of racial differences,” she says. “Moreover it was only, at that point, about blacks and whites, the multiple other ethnicities were not represented.”

Kagawa-Singer continued working as a nurse for the next 15 years; however, she continued to be intrigued by the lack of cultural accountability in the literature, as well as the with the mind, body connection and whether a person’s way of coping can affect the physiological course of cancer.

Then she started searching for doctoral programs, but to her dismay each program left something out.

“In sociology they didn’t realize you had a body, in psychology they ground up rats, and nursing in LA didn’t have a doctoral program at the time.”

Frustrated that nothing brought the biological, physiological, social, and cultural elements together—the elements she experienced growing up, which differed from many of her co-workers—Dr. Kagawa-Singer turned to a former faculty member in nursing who was an anthropologist.

Dr. Kagawa-Singer had never taken an anthropology course in her life.

“I went to talk with her and at the end of 20 minutes, it turns out that anthropology has five areas…it is the bio-psycho-social components of being all within the cultural context,” she says. “I knew that’s where I needed to be.”

Around the same time Dr. Kagawa-Singer finished her degree in medical anthropology the Healthy People 2000 report and the Workforce 2000 report were published.

“Both of (those reports) said that major changes in the demographics’ of this country were occurring, and that diversity would be the face of America,” Dr. Kagawa-Singer says. “The United States institutions weren’t prepared for it, so those of us in anthropology became bridges to that knowledge.”

Now, a tenured faculty at the UCLA School of Public Health, Dept of Community Health Sciences and the Department of Asian American Studies, Dr. Kagawa-Singer also serves as the Director of the Concurrent Degree Program Community Health Sciences and Asian American Studies and as the Principal Investigator for the UCLA Minority Training Program for Cancer Control Research.

As a nurse for almost 40-years, one of Dr. Kagawa-Singer’s most thrilling accomplishments will be her November 7, 2009 induction as a Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing. Not only a personal honor, she says, but also “professional recognition that the path I chose was worthy of that recognition in science and in practice.”

Dr. Kagawa-Singer adds that “the people in the academy were all my role-models. Nursing has so much to offer in improving the quality of cancer control along the entire care continuum, for all the diverse groups that comprise the American people.

Updated: 05/15/13