For most undergraduate students, opportunities to work closely with mentors on leading-edge cancer research projects come few and far between. For students from minority communities, such connections can be especially valuable, says Kola Okuyemi, M.D., M.P.H., director of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Program in Health Disparities Research.
“There are populations in this country who experience vast differences in the prevalence of disease,” explains Okuyemi. “They get diabetes at much higher rates, or have much lower rates of survival for diseases like breast cancer. We call these ‘health disparities,’ and it’s a problem that’s plagued our health system for decades.”
Okuyemi has long believed that increasing the number of medical professionals from minority groups is key to fighting health disparities.
To encourage more minority students to pursue careers in medicine, Okuyemi, along with Christopher Pennell, Ph.D., created an internship program at the Masonic Cancer Center. Launched in the summer of 2009, the paid internship pairs undergraduate students with professors currently conducting cancer research. Students spend time in the lab learning basic protocols and procedures, and they are required to design their own research projects.
A grant from the National Cancer Institute provided funding for the first two summers of the program, and philanthropy from the Sylvia H. Lam Endowed Cancer Research Fund supported it in 2011.
Abdi Jibril was one of 10 students awarded a spot in the highly competitive program in 2010. Jibril, a premedical student, is a native of Oromia who moved to Minnesota in 2005. “But I didn’t know much about research,” he says, “so I applied for the internship to find out more about it.”
He quickly developed a passion for research as he studied the prevalence of water pipe, or hookah, smoking in the Somali and Oromo immigrant communities. So successful was his project that Jibril was hired as a research assistant for his mentor, Janet Thomas, Ph.D., who specializes in tobacco-related studies at the Masonic Cancer Center.
“Because of the internship, I’ve been able to network with like-minded students and even attend meetings with world-class researchers and physicians,” Jibril says. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better than this.”
Jibril was part of a group that included African American, Southeast Asian, Native American, and Latino students—all from communities that traditionally suffer from significant health disparities.
“It should be a national priority to encourage students from these populations to choose careers in the health sciences,” says Okuyemi, who is already looking ahead to next year’s program. “Without them, these communities will suffer the same health disparities for generations to come.”