In an attempt to bolster the numbers of minorities in cancer research, the Cleveland-based Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine (CaseMed), in partnership with the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, was awarded a five-year grant, totaling $2.5 million to engage local underrepresented youth. The funding went to the creation of the Youth Enjoy Science (YES) Program and is the first and only program at CaseMed to provide a comprehensive and integrated approach to cancer research training, spanning middle school through high school, and extending to college undergraduates.
“There is currently a deficit in minorities engaged in scientific research,” said Nathan A. Berger, M.D., principal investigator and director of the Center for Science, Health and Society at CaseMed. “Through the YES program, we aim to interest students in cancer research careers and to give them a sense of self confidence to speak scientifically to their colleagues. The number of outstanding research labs we have here at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center truly makes the program possible.”
Running parallel to the outreach aspect is the development of an educational curriculum cultivating interest in cancer research, risk reduction, disparity elimination and long-term pursuit of careers in cancer research. In order to engage and attract minority students to oncology, the YES Program will work with in conjunction with standing projects including the Scientific Enrichment and Opportunity Program (SEO), developed to partner high school students with medical school faculty to engage in biomedical research and supported in part by the Young Scientist Foundation (YSF).
“I joined the SEO program, because I like doing scientific experiments — for instance mixing chemicals; it’s my favorite part of the program,” said Gile Nzitunga, a student of Glenville High School and who already has an impressive resume: “The main focus of my research [this year] was to screen a panel of 22 antibodies to find additional antibodies that would detect Cell Migration Inducing Protein immunohistochemistry in colon cancer.”
Also supported by the National Cancer Institute, the YES program is one way Case Western acknowledges the ethnically diverse but economically challenged Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD). Multiple academic challenges and poor socioeconomic conditions had led to dismal statistics. In 2010, the CMSD had a high-school graduation rate of just 52.2 percent. Programs like SEO and YSF helped to pull that number to 66 percent by 2014, but work remains to be done.
About 40 high school students are expected to enroll in the YES program this year. In order to participate, students will fill out an application indicating their research interest, the college or university they hope to attend and what type of research they wish to be involved in. Then, they meet with faculty and guidance counselors who match them with the best-suited labs for their interests.
“Case Western Reserve School of Medicine has made it a point to go out of their way to provide students with a strong support system, and our various youth programs will help the University achieve diversity in its own undergraduate population,” said Berger. “In addition to developing individuals and providing students with career guidance, we also foster community development by providing appropriate training to staff biotechnical firms in the Cleveland area. In this sense, the program is a constant cycle of interesting students in research while giving back to the Cleveland community.”
The hope is to expand the program to not only include high school students, but also to interest middle school students, teachers, and eventually college students as it continues to grow.
Case Western Reserve University is home to NFCR Fellow James P. Basilion, Ph.D., an authority in the fields of cancer genomics and molecular imaging.