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Indria Gillespie is making a difference for people of color needing bone marrow transplants

May 16, 2019

Indria Gillespie

Indria Gillespie '19 came to University of the Pacific with one purpose in mind and honed the skills that will help her fulfill another - encouraging people of color to join a bone marrow registry.

Gillespie was looking for a flexible doctoral program with an online component that would give her knowledge she could use right away in her job with the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. She found Pacific's new Doctor of Education in Educational and Organizational Leadership program in the Gladys L. Benerd School of Education and was the first student accepted in the program that launched on the Sacramento Campus in fall 2015.

"I really liked the approach of the program with its open concept on innovation and that it would be practical and applicable in the workplace," Gillespie said. "The professors either had previous experience in the field or brought a broad, big-picture perspective to discussion topics."

The program helped her to fix her gaze on her purpose.

"I love business and entrepreneurship and really appreciated the courses on entrepreneurship and design thinking, and the multi-faceted aspect of the program," Gillespie said. "The professors were extremely supportive and insightful. They really helped me think deeper about my subject and focus my vision in a direction that met my goals."

They also helped her to follow her passion.

Gillespie had signed up as a donor with the Be the Match bone marrow registry during a registration drive at her workplace in 1994, but it wasn't until 2000 that she was matched with a recipient and went through the surgical procedure to donate bone marrow for the first time. The reaction of others was profound.

"Everyone was so effusively grateful that I started researching it," Gillespie said. "I found that more than 90% of bone matches occurred within the same ethnicity, and that there were so few donors of African heritage on the registry that the match rate among black people was the lowest in the world."

Be the Match is the largest bone marrow registry in the world with more than 11 million enrolled donors, of which fewer than 800,000 are of African heritage. Gillespie then began volunteering to speak with potential donors about her experience and to encourage others to register.

Her bone marrow matched a second time just as she began her doctoral program at Pacific and she realized that her focus was shifting from academia to increasing the number of registrants in underrepresented populations. This caused her to change her dissertation research focus.

As part of her doctoral research, Gillespie conducted focus groups on the barriers to becoming a donor and used the information to create an educational program that features black bone marrow donors who donated to non-related recipients. As a result, 15% of the black people and 30% of the people of color attending the panel discussion joined the registry.

Gillespie later started the nonprofit Angels in Disguise where she continues to conduct research and promote donor participation through education and advocacy. She includes Native Americans and Latino populations, which also have low representation. And she is negotiating with Be The Match to conduct her Bone Marrow Educational Symposium at more than 500 colleges and universities throughout the United States.

Her Pacific experience helped Gillespie develop her entrepreneurial muscles and gave her the support and encouragement to pursue her passion to improve outcomes for people of color who need bone marrow transplants.

Her own outcome is impressive, as well. Gillespie graduated summa cum laude and received the Benerd's Doctoral Innovation in Research and Practice Award during the school's diploma and hooding ceremony May 11.

Read more student success stories »

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