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New PathMaker Summer Research Program provides a way to engage diverse students in biomedical cancer research.

By Hannah Eisenberg, Huntsman Cancer Institute communications and social media intern

Forging new paths is no easy feat. With financial, social and economic obstacles, some routes may feel permanently closed and some goals impossible to conquer. A partnership between Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and the University of Utah biology department increases inclusivity and clears the path to science and health care professions for students who face some of the biggest hurdles.

Photo credit: Jonathan Martinez

Photo credit: Jonathan Martinez

The PathMaker Summer Research Program is a way to engage diverse students in biomedical cancer research. Ana Maria Lopez, M.D., MPH, FACP (Fellow of the American College of Physicians), director of Cancer Health Equity at HCI and associate vice president for Health Equity and Inclusion at the University of Utah Health Sciences, partnered with Rosemary Gray, Ph.D., associate professor in Department of Biology, to encourage students underrepresented in the health professions to learn more about their professional possibilities. For eight weeks during the summer, the high school students study in HCI research labs to learn more about careers in cancer research, medicine and other health professions.

The program encourages students from economically, socially or educationally disadvantaged communities to gain training and research experience in a university setting. Lopez says there is a need for more inclusion and diversity in the health care professions.

“It is important that our health care professionals come from all the communities we serve,” she says.

The pilot program of PathMaker launched on June 6, 2016, with eight students. It kicked off with a two-week intensive laboratory techniques course where students covered the basics of lab safety, skills and protocol. Students then settled into a six-week individual research experience at various labs at HCI. Among the professional experiences gained, PathMaker students toured the simulation lab in the College of Nursing and interacted with a panel of current University of Utah health profession students.

Recognizing the power of relationships to build communities, Lopez structured the program to cultivate partnerships between students and HCI mentors. Students gained skills and built a support system while researchers welcomed the students as future colleagues.

Photo credit: Jonathan Martinez

Photo credit: Jonathan Martinez

Lopez stressed that in addition to these hands-on experiences, another emphasis of the program is to make sure students recognize their own potential and capabilities. Students developed interviewing skills, met with Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) to talk about opportunities, and discussed the importance of mentorship. They bonded as a group while learning skills that can help them pursue their paths individually.

The impact of PathMaker, Lopez says, is that students feel “they are one step closer to their goal. They can get a concrete idea of how they can become a health care professional and feel that it is possible for them to do so.”

The 2016 program will culminate in a poster session on July 28 where students share their research with family members, investigators and mentors. The poster session is in collaboration with the Bioscience Summer Research Program for High School Students. Directed by Gray, the biosciences program seeks to increase the participation of students in biological research.

Attend the session Thursday, July 28, 2016 from 3-4 p.m. in the Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Building on the campus of the University of Utah