Scientist Is Donating Kidney to Raise Awareness About 'Great' Need for Diversity in Research

As part of his job, Norbert Tavares works to "increase the participation of people of color in research," but he tells PEOPLE that "it's another thing to live it"

Norbert Tavares - Meet the Scientist Who’s Donating His Kidney to Raise Awareness About Diversity and Inclusion in Research
Norbert Tavares. Photo: Norbert Tavares, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Scientist Norbert Tavares is going above and beyond to help people in need — and it all started because of a podcast.

Tavares, a single-cell biology program manager at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, is currently in the process of donating his kidney to a stranger. He recently found out that his surgery has been scheduled for Nov. 16, but the decision to become a living organ donor didn't happen overnight.

"It came from listening to a podcast where they talked about bone marrow donation. It was an interesting idea, seemed simple, so I signed up," Tavares, 43, tells PEOPLE. "And then on another podcast I heard about the National Kidney Registry."

"If you have a kidney problem, and you have a family member that wants to donate a kidney to you but you're not a match, they can still donate to somebody else," he explains of how the system works. "If you have someone who is a non-designated donor like me into the mix, it really makes the system work better and more rapidly and more matches can occur."

Tavares said that his friends and family were initially surprised when he told them about his plans and had "lots of questions."

" 'What if your family members need a kidney?' — questions like that," he explains. "But I think because my family knows me, knows who I am, knows my motivation and moral drive around things, they understand that this is something I want to do."

Norbert Tavares - Meet the Scientist Who’s Donating His Kidney to Raise Awareness About Diversity and Inclusion in Research
Norbert Tavares. Norbert Tavares, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

One challenging aspect of navigating the process of organ donation is "figuring out what to do and how to go about it," Tavares acknowledges.

"You can go to the National Kidney Registry or you can go to the National Kidney Foundation," he explains, noting that the process "becomes much easier when you have these people shepherding you through the process."

"The start is the hard part and now just waiting and not knowing and the occasional doubt of, is this actually what I want to do? Is this the right decision?" he adds.

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Although the waiting process has been difficult, Tavares knows that the experience will be more than worth it in the end.

"The reward is knowing that I've done something good in my life. I feel like I've done good things in my life, but here's one more important thing that could actually help to save someone's life. I don't think many of us at the end of our lives can say we've saved someone's life," he says. "We've contributed to things, we've done good things, but this feels like a big and important thing."

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Tavares also hopes that in speaking out about his decision to become an organ donor, he can help encourage other people of color to "get involved in both research and organ donation."

"The need is so great, but the research participation amongst people of color is really low, and that has some serious ramifications for developing drugs and therapies that work well in people who look like me," he says. "We don't have a good enough understanding of how race and ancestry plays into disease and the development of therapies, because we don't have enough data from people of underrepresented ancestries and races."

In order to help bridge the gap, Tavares says that scientists also "need to be incentivized to not just take the most convenient samples and groups," which tend to be mostly white.

"Part of my job has been to develop programs and increase the participation of people of color in research. It's one thing to do that, it's another thing to live it," he adds. "I'm living my values of my work through my personal life as well. I want to try to elevate these things to try to address those other bigger problems through my small individual action."

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