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Mentors Embolden Aspiring Minority Scientists

Article Summary
  • Sylvester’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and Diversity in Cancer Research (DICR) Internship programs offer undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds paid training experiences to teach them how to pursue biomedical careers.
  • The programs help address disparities in oncology professions. Of the 15,000 hematologists and oncologists in the U.S., only 525 identify as Black or African American.
  • Both programs encourage professional aspirations and provide concrete guidance for students with an interest in cancer-related careers. 

While mentoring aspiring medical school students last summer, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine M.D./Ph.D. student Jovanka Ravix encouraged them to keep their eyes on the goal, even when they might feel defeated.  

“Don’t be intimidated by all the requirements you need to get your foot in the door to get into medical school. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. And when you have a stumbling block, like your GPA or your Medical College Admission Test score, it can feel like that’s the end of the road and there’s no reason to keep trying,” Ravix said. “If this is something that you really want to do, there’s always a way to make your application stronger. If it takes a little more time, that’s also OK, because the goal is to end up in med school.”

University of Miami Miller School of Medicine M.D./Ph.D. student Jovanka Ravix
Miller School M.D./Ph.D. student Jovanka Ravix says aspiring physician-scientists may feel overwhelmed by the process but persistence will pay off.

Ravix conducts research with Sophia George, Ph.D., associate director for diversity, equity and inclusion at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the Miller School, and associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences in the Miller School’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology. 

While assisting in the George Lab, Ravix mentored students from the Sylvester-run Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and Diversity in Cancer Research (DICR) Internship programs. SURF and DICR offer undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds paid training experiences to teach them how to pursue biomedical careers. 

Filling the pipelines for physicians, researchers and physician-scientists with Black or African American students is particularly important. Of the more than 15,000 hematologists and oncologists in the U.S., only 525 identify as Black or African American, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. 

Direction for STEM Careers

Through the National Cancer Institute-funded SURF program, Sylvester hosts 30 students from U.S. colleges and universities each summer. SURF Director Priyamvada Rai, Ph.D., co-leader of the Tumor Biology Program at Sylvester and professor of radiation oncology at the Miller School, said the program provides concrete direction to promising students.

SURF Program Director Priyamvada Rai, Ph.D.
SURF Director Priyamvada Rai, Ph.D., says programs like SURF provide structure for students with an enthusiasm for science.

“There are many SURFers who came into the program with little-to-no experience in biomedical research and chose to enter graduate or medical school programs because of their SURF experience. An estimated 63% of SURF alumni are currently in science, technology, engineering and math careers,” Dr. Rai said. “We take their boundless passion and energy and give it the structure and direction they need to successfully enter the next level of their training.”

Ifeanyichukwu Ogobuiro, M.D., M.H.S., witnessed SURF’s impact while mentoring scholars as a surgical oncology research fellow at Sylvester. Dr. Ogobuiro, a Sylvester radiation oncology resident, believes the program’s success with minority students hinges on seeing people who look like them, like Dr. Ogobuiro, succeeding as physician-scientists.

“I’m still early on in my physician-scientist training and can relate to them as they think about how they can apply for medical school and how they can continue to reach their career goals in clinical training,” Dr. Ogobuiro said. “I can help them progress while being a positive role model.”

SURF Scholars Contribute to Published Research

During his two years as a fellow, Dr. Ogobuiro published extensively on pancreatic cancer clinical, translational and basic science research. SURF scholars worked with him on those studies. 

“I mentored each one of them and still keep up with some of them as they apply to medical school,” he said. 

Ifeanyichukwu Ogobuiro, M.D., M.H.S.
Ifeanyichukwu Ogobuiro, M.D., says he benefited from the opportunity to work in the labs of prominent physician-scientists.

Some of Dr. Ogobuiro’s research involved clinical studies on disparities in health care outcomes, including why some Black pancreatic cancer patients don’t respond as well as white patients to standard-of-care chemotherapy. 

The work offered an added layer of meaning for Black mentees, some of whom hope to better understand their roles in overcoming cancer disparities, according to Dr. Ogobuiro.

“These pivotal research experiences are made possible because of the amazing principal investigators who welcome these next-generation physician scientists into their labs,” said Dr. Ogobuiro. “As for me, being able to inspire these brilliant young minds from diverse backgrounds so they can truly be a clinician and a scientist takes the cake.”

Secret of Success: Career Immersion, Mentoring

SURF uses a holistic approach to bring out students’ potential and set them up for success. The program introduces advanced bioinformatics analytic tools, lab experience, research article analyses, scientific data presentation skills and even interview skills.

Claude-Henry Volmar, Ph.D.
Claude-Henry Volmar, Ph.D., says SURF has elevated some students’ professional aspirations.

“Oftentimes, students who are interested in science think that a Ph.D. is out of reach or don’t realize the wide varieties of specialties that are out there until they get the chance to perform hands-on research in a lab,” said SURF Assistant Director Claude-Henry Volmar, Ph.D., assistant director of the Molecular Therapeutics Shared Resource at Sylvester and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Miller School. “At SURF, we have had students who were only planning to get an associate degree decide to get higher degrees to pursue research in oncology or neuroscience. Other students have come to SURF unsure of what career to pursue and ended up in M.D./Ph.D. programs at the Miller School and elsewhere, including Ivy League universities.”

According to Ravix, making connections with people who are like you is key.

“Through mentoring, I can let others know that I exist, and you can do this, too,” she said.

Florida Mentoring Focus

DICR is funded by the American Cancer Society and builds on SURF’s innovative structure by pairing summer research fellows from around the U.S. with accomplished mentors. 

DICR has a Florida focus and is an option for sophomores, juniors or seniors at Florida colleges or universities who are members of minority groups underrepresented in science and medicine. Prerequisites include science-based curriculum majors and an interest in cancer research or patient care.

DICR interns are exposed to some of the most exciting areas in cancer research, including bioinformatics, molecular biology and genomics, according to DICR Principal Investigator Joseph Rosenblatt, M.D., professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology at the Miller School.

DICR Principal Investigator Joseph Rosenblatt, M.D.
DICR Principal Investigator Joseph Rosenblatt, M.D., says the program sets up students for success in academic medicine.

“DICR interns receive in-depth instruction and guidance on fundamental professional and interpersonal skills that will enable them to ultimately succeed in academic medicine and in life,” Dr. Rosenblatt said. “This content simply was not discussed when I was a trainee. We were left to figure it all out for ourselves.”

Through DICR, interns learn how to network, present their work through poster and oral presentations and write papers. 

“They’re getting phenomenal coaching in how to position themselves for success,” Dr. Rosenblatt said.

The students have the opportunity to interact with luminaries in the fields of medicine and oncology, such as Sylvester Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., and Miller School Dean Henri Ford, M.D., M.H.A., explained Dr. Rosenblatt.

Last year, nearly 100 students applied for eight available internships. Given the demand, Sylvester funded four additional positions in the program’s first year.

Reducing Cancer Disparities

Significant differences in epidemiology and outcomes exist for a variety of cancers in minority communities.

Examples include the high prevalence of prostate cancer in Black Americans and unique variants of hereditary breast cancer in the Afro-Caribbean community. Minorities are more likely to contract cancer due to infections from HIV and HPV. In Miami, Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black people suffer disproportionately from human T-cell leukemia virus type 1.

“One of the most important things we can do is to catalyze the educational aspirations of young people to pursue careers in science and cancer research,” Dr. Rosenblatt said. “If people from underrepresented groups enter the oncology research workforce, they’re likely to develop fulfilling careers and make significant contributions to the field, often times addressing oncologic problems that are either more prevalent in or have contributed to health disparities that affect underrepresented communities.”

Tags: medical education, mentoring, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center