National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
December 1, 2009 • Volume 6 / Number 23

The information and links on this page are no longer being updated and are provided for reference purposes only.

Special Issue: Cancer Research Training

Ensuring a Diverse Cancer Research Workforce

African Americans and Hispanics make up nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, in 2005, they made up just 3.2 percent of funded principal investigators on NIH research project grants and 5.5 percent of research trainees supported by NIH training grants.

A concerted move is under way to change that, particularly at NCI, where several programs, including one which dates back a decade, are singularly focused on increasing the diversity of the cancer research workforce.

These NCI programs fall under the Diversity Training Branch (DTB) in NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD). Since it was established in 2001, CRCHD's programs have enabled more than 1,000 individuals from ethnic or racial minorities and other underrepresented groups to begin or further their cancer research training.

These opportunities, said Dr. Alexis Bakos, chief of the DTB, complement the extramural training programs available through NCI's Cancer Training Branch by specifically targeting underrepresented populations. In addition to ethnic and racial minorities, DTB programs provide opportunities for first-generation college students and people with disabilities, as well as those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and rural communities.

Increasing the proportion of underrepresented minorities and people from medically underserved groups in the cancer research workforce is important for a number of reasons, and could pay significant dividends, said Dr. Dihua Yu of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Yu co-chairs the Diversity Recruitment Committee of the Cancer Biology Training Consortium, a group that collaborates with research institutions and NCI's Center for Cancer Training to facilitate conversations around the topic of training.

"Scientists from underrepresented minorities or other medically underserved groups represent a source of talent that has not been fully explored," said Dr. Yu. "They may be more motivated to address cancer [disparities and other] problems in these groups, or they may bring a different approach to solving them."

CRCHD's flagship program, the Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE), established in 1997 under the Comprehensive Minority Biomedical Branch, reflects the philosophy that research training and career development are a continuum, said Dr. Bakos. CURE programs offer support for budding cancer researchers at every level, from high school students to young scientists beginning their first faculty appointments.

"Training should culminate in competitive, independent investigators," said Dr. Bakos. "Regardless of where along the continuum trainees start, they should be enabled to compete successfully for investigator-initiated research grants."

CRCHD also provides research supplements to support diversity training in cancer research. Principal investigators holding other NIH research grants may apply for a supplement to recruit or support students, postdoctoral researchers, and junior scientists from underrepresented groups. The supplements must support work within the scope of the original research project. Approximately 120 supplements are funded per year. In 2009, thanks to the additional funds made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, CRCHD has funded more than 300 diversity supplements.

In addition, CRCHD's Minority Institution/Cancer Center Partnership program, established in 2001, enables colleges and universities serving minority students to partner with NCI-supported cancer centers to train scientists from diverse backgrounds in cancer research. CRCHD's Community Networks Program also provides training opportunities in community-based cancer research for junior investigators from underserved populations.

"Only when diversity in the cancer research workforce is no longer an issue will we know that our CRCHD diversity training initiatives have achieved their ultimate measure of success," said CRCHD director Dr. Sanya Springfield. "The investigators coming out of our diversity training efforts are also critically important to helping us achieve one of our most important missions at NCI—that of understanding and ultimately eliminating cancer health disparities."

Dr. Cathrine Hoyo

Dr. Cathrine Hoyo is a cancer epidemiologist whose research explores factors underlying differences in the occurrence of esophageal, cervical, and prostate cancers among individuals of African and non-African descent.

In 2001, as a visiting assistant professor at North Carolina Central University, Dr. Hoyo received research support through CRCHD's Minority Institution/Cancer Center Partnership program. The following year she moved to Duke University as a research assistant professor.

In 2004, she obtained a 5-year Mentored Research Scientist Development Award to Promote Diversity (K01), also supported by CRCHD. That award enabled her to generate sufficient preliminary data to compete successfully for an NIH Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant (R21) in 2006. And, in early 2009, she successfully obtained her first investigator-initiated research grant (R01).

The Mentored Research Scientist Development Award was "an incredible opportunity," Dr. Hoyo said. In addition to providing her with "protected time" for research, the award also brought her valuable scientific networking opportunities and—perhaps most useful—training in molecular techniques and in how to write a successful research grant application.