Read Time: 4 minutes
Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah (U of U) has been awarded $2.5 million from the National Cancer Institute’s Youth Enjoy Science Research Education Program to engage Utah high school students and their teachers in cancer research. The program will engage racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, and rural and frontier residents from across Utah in order to increase diversity in biomedical research. The grant, to be funded over five consecutive years, will enable HCI to train 60 students and 20 science teachers through hands-on research experiences.
This funding builds on HCI’s nationally recognized PathMaker program, which, since 2015, has trained 44 Utah high school students with backgrounds underrepresented in the biomedical and cancer workforce. "To date, all students who have participated in HCI’s PathMaker program have been accepted to college, and one former student just started medical school," says Kolawole Okuyemi, MD, HCI’s senior director of Diversity and Inclusion and chair of the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the U of U. "We are very proud of each of them and look forward to training even more of Utah’s best and brightest."
The new grant seeks to enhance diversity among Utah students pursuing careers in medicine and science. A recent analysis of 500 Utah medical students indicated that eight students identified as Hispanic or Latino, no students identified as American Indian, and one student identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, despite these being significant minority groups in the state. The grant also builds on a longstanding emphasis at HCI to enhance research and clinical offerings designed to meet the needs of Utahns living in the state’s sparsely populated landscape, where more than 96% of the state is rural with less than 100 people per square mile, and more than 70% is frontier with less than 7 people per square mile.
"Huntsman Cancer Institute is dedicated to identifying, mentoring, and training the next generation of cancer researchers," says Donald Ayer, PhD, HCI’s senior director of Cancer Training and Career Enhancement and professor in the Department of Oncological Sciences at the U of U. Ayer and his colleagues noted that the ethnic and racial makeup of Utah has become increasingly diverse in recent decades, particularly among younger populations in the state. "Yet the diversity among those who pursue careers in science and biomedical research has not increased proportionately," Ayer says. "In addition, we saw a need to enhance opportunities for scientific learning among students who live far from the Wasatch Front and/or come from families that may not have the same economic advantages as others. We are committed to changing this by providing unique opportunities for the youth in our state."
The expanded PathMaker program will include three distinct and complementary programs: PathMaker Scholars, PathMaker Bridge, and PathMaker Connect.
- PathMaker Scholars will include summer cohorts of high school and early undergraduate students from underrepresented communities who will spend ten weeks during each of two consecutive summers living on campus and training in a research laboratory, under the mentorship of an HCI cancer researcher. Students will study a variety of cancer research topics, including basic science, clinical research, and population science.
- PathMaker Bridge is designed to engage middle and high school science teachers with an extensive, mentored cancer research experience designed to develop new instructional approaches for their classrooms. Teachers will spend six weeks during each of two consecutive summers working in an HCI cancer research laboratory, clinic, or community setting. HCI will offer travel stipends and housing to teachers from outside of Salt Lake City and contribute childcare supplements for whom childcare is an obstacle for participation.
- PathMaker Connect will allow students to design and host a half-day cancer research, prevention, and screening outreach event to connect with members of the student’s community, under the supervision of HCI’s community outreach and prevention education team. This will include hands-on science activities, demonstrations, and cancer screening and prevention information for all ages. This will allow PathMaker participants to supplement their experience by teaching others about science and research and increase their awareness of STEM and research careers.
An advisory committee will offer guidance and support from a variety of perspectives and will comprise HCI community outreach staff, directors of programs similar to the proposed project, and representatives from key stakeholder groups, including participants, parents, and community members. Collaborators include the U of U Genetic Science Learning Center, U of U Health’s Office of Health Equity and Inclusion, the Utah State Board of Education, and school districts across the state of Utah. Anna Reineke Marsden, MBA, will serve as program manager of the grant.
HCI’s PathMaker program and this new grant award are supported by the National Cancer Institute, including P30 CA042014 and R25 CA240171, and Huntsman Cancer Foundation.