“See, there are a lot of smart people, brother. It’s hard work that’s going to get you over the hump.” —Ulysses W. Burley III
As I was going through the hundreds of email from students in my inbox I noticed one from Ulysses W. Burley III. His bio and curriculum vitae were so nice I had to read them twice! His incredible passion and work ethic were clearly evident as I read his amazing and truly inspiring story.
Ulysses is a medical doctoral candidate at Northwestern and Rush Universities of Chicago. He attended Morehouse College as a Packard Science Scholar (a full scholarship) and is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. He has at least a dozen medical terms on his C.V. that I have no idea how to pronounce. Ha!
Ulysses has accrued over seven years of cancer research experience, contributing to a compliment of research projects with two major first author publications as well as two co-authorships and guess what? He’s only 24 years old.
‘Nuff said. Let’s find out what else is inside the mind of Ulysses W. Burley III.
IN HONOR OF MY MOTHER
After reading over all of the info that you sent me, I’ve got to ask: How did you become so passionate about cancer research and awareness?
It was kind of a gift and a curse. When I was eight years old my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctors gave her six months to live. At the time I knew I wanted to be a doctor—an orthopedic doctor. You know, when you’re eight years old you don’t really know what that means.
So, being a doctor was always of interest but it became a reality when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through the grace of God she definitely lived longer than six months. She went on to live for two more years.
Hmmm…That is a blessing.
We lost her when I was ten. I had a strong father; a strong support group around me to take care of my sister and me. It really brought to life the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” because that is indeed what I had surrounding me.
Even at the age of ten it became apparent to me what I was going to have to do to intervene as far as cancer goes. Eventually, I went on to apply to a specialty high school for the health profession in Houston. Being accepted was a blessing because a lot of students don’t have access to schools like that. But Houston does pretty well in terms of specialty high schools.
I was exposed to the clinic, the hospital, and we had rotations. We even came dressed appropriately in lab coats and scrubs. So I was exposed to the science and medical field—my future—very, very early.
So, although you always dreamed of becoming a doctor, it was your mother’s passing that gave you that laser beam focus on reaching your goal.
Definitely. I have my blinders on.
CANCER STRIKES TWICE
Did you lose your Grandmother to cancer as well?
I did and this was my mother’s mother, but I didn’t lose her until later on. She passed when I was a freshman in college.
Yeah. And that was a lot more recent. Cancer is definitely a disease that runs rampant through out my family. My grandfather—my mother’s father—he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and his sister is a breast cancer survivor. I’ve developed a mentality of: I gotta get it before it gets me. Or hey, I’ve gotta get it before it gets my younger sister. That’s been the driving force behind everything I’ve been able to accomplish.
NO TIME TO PLAY
Man, I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. That’s a lot of weight for a young guy to carry on his shoulders.
I think so and it made me grow up fast; it made me a little heavy hearted. My attitude changed about things. I was a more serious person.
Did you still have a chance to enjoy your childhood?
Oh, definitely, definitely. I was able to balance well but, you know, when it came down to academics and school and things of that nature, there were no games.
Okay. So, no time to play, huh?
“For me, anything less than great[break]and I would be doing a disservice to all of the people[break]who helped me through my hard times.”
THE POWER OF FRIENDS AND FAMILY
What I’ve noticed is, especially in my line of work, so many people have a little bump in the road. And they experience some hardships, trials, and tribulations and use those things as excuses just to lie down; excuses not to do anything in life. But you took this whole thing that happened to you and shaped it into the perfect example of turning tragedy into triumph. What were some of things you did to get through the hurt and pain?
The night my mother passed—a Sunday morning around 1 or 2AM—I was at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather woke me up and he was crying. I knew what that meant.
My Reverend at the time came to the house, gathered the family around, and said a long prayer. Man, I tell you, when he was done I just felt this sense of relief. I felt like everything was going to be okay. It really helped me to deal with what was happening to me. God touched me right away. He put me in a place of understanding.
I also had a wonderful support group. My father was always right there. I kind of have a unique familial situation where my parents’ best friends took us in and did things for us that maybe my father couldn’t do as single parent. They became a second set of parents—surrogate parents. To this day I still call them my folks. And when I say my folks I’m talking about a number of different people, because there were a number of different people who had an equal hand in my growth and development; keeping me on the right road and keeping me positive and focused.
I always wish that more young people had a support group like that. The Reverend dropped a nice prayer on you that night to start you off in the right direction and that reminds me of what my grandmother always said—prayer changes things.
when it came down to academics and school
and things of that nature, there were no games.”
LACK OF AWARENESS, LACK OF MONEY
Why is there such a lack of cancer awareness among people—especially in the African-American community? It seems like the only time we really care about cancer is when somebody is dying.
Exactly. It’s really an enigma because cancer is indiscriminate. It affects everybody, but it does affect black people twice as much as anybody else. So the question I ask myself is: “why is this and what are we doing to intervene?” I believe that if you want to change something you need to become a part of it.
There aren’t enough African-Americans going into research period, let alone cancer research. 35% of African-Americans who enter into college enter with the intention to major in science and math. After that it’s pretty much equal with other ethnicities except for Asians. It’s 50% for them. But only 13% of African-Americans end up graduating with science and math degrees. Only 3% of us are going to pursue graduate degrees in science and mathematics.
What happens between entering college and receiving a graduate degree?
Well, it’s not the most lucrative career.
What about MD’s?
I’m talking about the researchers. The things a lot of the doctors bring to patients start off in a scientific research laboratory. Well, a lot of research is dictated by government funding and government funding determines your salary.
AN ELECTION ISSUE
Prostate cancer is one of the most funded cancers around. Why? Because Congress is made up of old white men and prostate cancer predominantly affects old white guys. So they pass legislation to fund prostate cancer research. As a matter of fact, this is the first year in the history of cancer research that funding was cut.
George Dub-ya at it again, huh?
Exactly. But you know, eight of the presidential candidates have survived cancer or had it strike someone in their family. Senator Barak Obama’s mother died of ovarian cancer. McCain survived melanoma, which is a skin cancer. Huckabee’s wife was diagnosed with spinal cancer when she was 19. Hilary Clinton’s mother-in-law died of breast cancer. And more recently there was John Edwards’ wife who was diagnosed with breast cancer and it spread through her bones. Bill Richards said that if he’s elected he’s going to appoint a Cancer Czar as part of his cabinet.
Well, obviously cancer is a major issue in the election just like it’s a major part of your life. Speaking of which, one of the first things I noticed about you is that you are a shining example of positivity in the face of negativity.
SMART OR JUST PLAIN OLD HARD WORK?
There’s a lot of concern about the plight of young African-American males. How did you manage to become such a great example at a young age?
It’s just like you said, “Turning tragedy into triumph”; making the best out of any situation. I wouldn’t call myself an optimist but I am a realist. I fully believe in my capabilities and I know that God gave me the ability to work hard.
Just today, I was speaking to a white woman at church. We were meeting for the first time. She’s in divinity school and I told her that I’m in medical school. She said, “Wow. You must really be smart.” I said, “Well, I just work really hard.” She kind of gave me a puzzled look like, “okay.” See, there are a lot of smart people, brother. It’s hard work that’s going to get you over the hump.
That’s right! Work ethic is THE difference.
That is instilled in me. I have a lot of people behind me. I have a lot of people rooting for me. For me, anything less than great and I would be doing a disservice to all of the people who helped me through my hard times.
He put me in a place of understanding.”
BY ALL MEANS, BE HAPPY
You are living proof that in spite of all the hurdles young black men are facing, with the right help and guidance, they can shine like anybody else. And as we get ready to wrap this up what one message would you like to leave with us?
Lately, I’ve been a strong advocate of doing what makes you happy. So, I urge collegians and people everywhere to find what makes you happy and do it. I am so passionate about what I do that a lot of these research projects have been volunteer work. I feel like I’ll be in a place to be successful financially and to take care of my family by doing what I love because I do it so well that people will be excited to pay me to do it.
You’re a man after my own heart. I’ve had a few different mentors tell me to find something that you love to do so much that you would do it for free, but you do it so well that people will pay you top dollar.
Yeah, and the reason I’m saying this is because they call us the “we want everything now” generation.
Delayed gratification is a lost art.
Yeah. I’ve got buddies of mine that graduated and are making big money on Wall Street, but they aren’t happy. They hate to wake up every day and they hate what they do. I’m just thankful that God revealed my purpose to me early in life and like I said I’ve got my blinders on.
It’s been a blessing to sit down and talk to you for a few minutes, Ulysses.
Brother, I appreciate you giving me a chance to get my voice out there.
Hey! Are you a positive, high achieving young person? Would you like to be interviewed by me? Do you know any positive, high achieving young people I should interview?
I’m looking for outstanding young leaders, professionals and entrepreneurs to feature in my new Q&A interview series called The Young And Exceptional™. If you would like to be featured in this series please fill out the form located here. Be sure to include a short bio (less than 100 words) in your message.
Hey! Remember to Sign Up.
Speaker for Your Event?
Proud to be a National Partner of America's Promise
Fill out the form here or feel free to contact us directly at: