Leading a Change in Care: An Interview with Histopathologist Aqua Asberry, HT(ASCP)CM

Mar 23, 2023, 00:56 AM by Molly Strzelecki & Corey Whelan

As a student, Aqua Asberry, HT(ASCP)CM, studied chemistry and was determined to become a forensic scientist. An intuitive mentor steered her towards histology, and Ms. Asberry is currently Research Histology Manager at Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech. Critical Values spoke with her to learn more about her fascinating journey and future goals. Here’s what she had to say.*     

Critical Values (CV): What was your introduction to histology?
Aqua Asberry (AA): I was studying chemistry at Augusta State University and my mom suffered a massive stroke. I relocated to care for her. During this time, I started attending Darton College of Health Professions (now Albany State University). A professor inquired about my future goals. I told him I was interested in forensic chemistry. I wanted to examine crime scene evidence and help solve cold cases and homicides. He asked if I ever heard of histology. At that point, due to medical terminology, I only knew histology was the study of tissue. The professor offered me a challenge. He had me sit in on his histology course for one week, to see how it works and if I thought it would be right for me. I’ve always been eager to learn, so I jumped at the challenge. After one session, I was completely in love with histology.  

CV: You’re a leader in your field. How did you get started?     
AA: Upon arrival at Georgia Tech, my background was in clinical histopathology. The position involved research histology, also. It was challenging, but I remained eager to learn. In fact, learning is my favorite hobby!  

At Georgia Tech, there’s never a routine day. I was like a sponge when I first arrived. I was always ready and willing to soak up any information that I could. I was introduced to so many areas of disease, like cardiovascular and neurological disorders, sickle cell anemia, gastrointestinal diseases, and more. I wanted to learn it all.  

At the start of my career, I was the point of contact for anatomical and physiological research. I needed to know as much as the pathologists to troubleshoot issues and optimize results for routine and non-routine specimens. I took time with each department to learn the ins and outs of their research. I met with pathologists and principal investigators to familiarize myself with all of their histological goals. I was committed to gaining as much knowledge as I could in each area of interest. I’m a perfectionist, so I meticulously set aside time to gather as much information as possible. It must have paid off. 

Through my research, I’m acknowledged in hundreds of publications. Some of my work has graced the covers of science magazines. I’ve been awarded nationally and internationally. I’ve also had the honor of collaborating with many institutions and industries around the world. This furthered my outreach and created a resourceful network to help upcoming clinical researchers.  

CV: You’ve successfully brought people into careers in histology and biobanking. How did you do that? 
AA: One of my career focuses is to help PhD candidates reach histological aims that are essential to obtaining their degrees. Georgia Tech provides a foundation where different areas of science combine to establish groundbreaking results. Clinical and research pathology are essential to the medical research performed at the institution.  

My career has allowed me to meet people all over the world. Out of 100 people, 20 might be familiar with histology. There have been cases where medical professionals have no idea it exists. That’s where I step in. I educate people about histopathology, the benefits of the field, and the careers that are available in this area of medicine. I used to ask, how can I introduce this field to others to make them love it as much as I do?  

Challenge them! Every day, I challenge individuals just as my professor challenged me when I was in college. I invite them to visit my lab to see what we do and how essential histopathology is to everyday life. This way, they can learn about histology and see if it’s a good fit for them. 

Many young students’ knowledge of medical fields is limited to being care providers, but there’s an artistry to the field of histopathology. Combining arrays of science and medicine with critical thinking to unmask the beauty of microscopic anatomical structures is amazing. The histology lab is an innovative atmosphere. I introduce this field to students on that level. I show them that histology is more of a work of art than a field of study. 

I also focus on the youth. I reach out to the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and other institutions because young people are always eager to learn. The younger people are when you introduce them to histology, the more likely they are to explore it later. Science is exciting, but so much depends on how you’re introduced to the field.  

CV: What are you excited about for your own professional future, and for the future of the laboratory?  
AA: Right now, I’m excited about bridging the gap between research and clinical histopathology. I’ve been on both sides of the field. I know that both are needed and how they can benefit each other. The norm in research is tackling non-routine things in unfamiliar territory. To be able to do this, you must know the foundation – clinical histopathology. I think research and clinical professionals should come together to take ASCP to a whole new level.  

I really want to be pivotal in developing a foundation, society, or small network where research and clinical histopathology combine. We need each other. 

CV: As a woman of color and leader in histology, how do you talk to historically marginalized people about the history of Henrietta Lacks, and the way tissues are used in the lab? 
I always approach topics from different perspectives, especially one as sensitive as the story of Ms. Henrietta Lacks. We are all diverse and lack exposure to different types of people, social experiences, and subjects. Many of us wear multiple hats, so we see things from different angles.  

From the perspective of a woman of color, what happened to Ms. Henrietta Lacks mirrors the cycles of medical mistreatment that serve as the foundation of distrust in the medical system when it comes to minorities. Her family has never been compensated. Ms. Lacks has been disregarded by the very subject that she helped advance — science. 

As a child, hearing your grandmother say, “Don’t trust those doctors, they did this to me," instills fear. Learning the gap in the mortality rate of Black people in comparison to other races, after seeking medical attention, instills fear. I understand the mistrust. I understand being exhausted. Women of color, like Ms. Henrietta Lacks, have been overlooked for years. As a Black woman, I understand the fight, but I’m not only a Black woman. I’m also a histopathologist.  

From that perspective, I can’t imagine being the first researcher to look through a microscope and witness immortal human cells. It’s inconceivable! The goal of a scientist is to discover or develop a breakthrough that will improve life as we know it. When these innovations are achieved, we become so amazed by future possibilities that we overlook certain things. Does it excuse being unethical? No! It does open the door to a different viewpoint. 

HeLa cells have advanced research beyond our wildest dreams. New fields of study, discoveries, and treatments exist because of their existence. We have to destroy the habit of passing down toxic ways to handle the truth. Yes, it occurred. Yes, it was wrong, but what are we going to do to prevent it from happening again? We must become the change we want to see. As a leader in the field, I want to help lead that change. 

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.