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Nurturing Future Cancer Researchers in the PathMaker Program

A unique program at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah (U of U) nurtures an interest in cancer research for high school seniors and college undergraduates. The PathMaker program is open to students across the country with backgrounds underrepresented in the biomedical workforce. This includes racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, and rural and frontier residents.

"Students have to be interested in health sciences or a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] career," says Anna Reineke, administrative program coordinator for HCI's Cancer Health Equity Department. "We really want to be a stepping stone for students interested in a career in health sciences or STEM who otherwise might not get the opportunity."

A young woman of color works in the lab

For ten weeks every summer, PathMaker students are immersed in life on the U of U campus, while being mentored by HCI researchers. Selected students live in a U of U dorm and begin the program with a weeklong intensive training to familiarize themselves with basic lab procedures and safety. Each student is then assigned to an individual lab and a mentor from one of the many HCI labs. PathMaker scholars are offered more than the experience, each student is paid a stipend for working in the lab 30 hours a week, plus housing and a meal plan.

PathMaker attracts students by promoting through various channels, including the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and other diversity groups. Organizers also work with high school principals and science teachers. In addition, PathMaker does extensive outreach to rural Utah and throughout the HCI catchment area in the Mountain West.

Don Ayer, PhD, HCI investigator and professor in the department of oncological sciences at the U of U, directs the PathMaker program. "It's a pathway for underrepresented minority or disadvantaged students to enter the biomedical cancer research pipeline. Unfortunately, the biomedical work force is not as diverse as it should be. PathMaker is one way HCI and the U of U can bridge that gap," he says. "All of the PathMaker students are smart and talented, bringing their unique perspectives to HCI. I find their stories incredibly inspirational."

The program started in 2015 and has a positive buzz among those who've completed it: word-of-mouth recommendations are generating applicants. About 40 students apply to the program each year. In past years, eight students would earn the chance to participate in the program, but additional funding in 2018 allowed for a total of 13 students to participate. A selection committee sorts through applications that include educational transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement written by the applicant about their background and career goals.

a young black man works in the lab

"You read their stories and you bond with them. That's why we try to focus on who this program will help the most as well as who is going to take advantage of this opportunity," Reineke says.

"Knowing what challenges these students have overcome, and seeing how determined they are to pursue a career in health or medicine is inspiring," says Reineke. One student's story sticks with Reineke because he overcame so much. "He was born in a refugee camp and grew up in poverty. He moved to the United States at the age of eight and helped support his family. Now, he has been accepted on a full-ride scholarship to Duke University."

So far all PathMaker students who have graduated high school have been accepted to college, and some have gone on to prestigious research programs.

At the end of the summer the PathMaker students participate in an undergraduate research symposium. They present their research project to everyone who attends, including scientific mentors, colleagues, family, and friends.

"I love watching them grow over the summer. I think about how young they are, how smart they are, and where they come from. Some people in their situations could just as easily give up, but they're all so resilient and they work so hard," Reineke says. "It's really rewarding."

Learn more about the PathMaker program, including information on how to apply. The PathMaker program is supported the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute P30 CA24014 and Huntsman Cancer Foundation.

Cancer touches all of us.