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National Minority Health Month Spotlight: Career Development

, by CRCHD staff

April is National Minority Health Month and in support of the 2016 theme, Accelerating Health Equity for the Nation, the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD) is highlighting how diversity training and career development opportunities are contributing to efforts to reduce the unequal burden of cancer in our society.

CRCHD is committed to the training and development of a strong workforce of cancer researchers from backgrounds underrepresented in biomedical, behavioral sciences, and clinical research. A diverse workforce that is reflective of diverse cultural and research perspectives can help ensure that our science addresses the health needs of all Americans.

The CRCHD Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) program offers unique training and career development opportunities to enhance and increase diversity in the cancer and cancer health disparities research workforce. At each level of the biomedical research and educational process, CURE aims to provide substantive career-building experiences—the kind to which many investigators from underrepresented backgrounds might not typically be exposed.

CURE’s career development awards, for example, include the NCI Mentored Research Scientist Development Award to Promote Diversity, or K01.

The K01 award is a 3–5 year mentored award for basic, behavioral, population, and translational research. Aimed at post-doctoral fellows and non-tenured/junior faculty, the K01 award provides support for a sustained period of "protected time" for intensive research career development under the guidance of an experienced mentor. This approach fosters enhanced research capabilities for cancer research careers, ultimately better preparing them to compete for future grants funding.

Two current K01 awardees, both researching disparities related to breast cancer, are Dr. Erica Warner and Dr. Lorraine Dean.

Erica T. Warner, Sc.D., M.P.H.

Dr. Warner researches factors that lead to increased risk of cancer and poor cancer outcomes among low income and minority populations. Much of her research is focused on breast cancer, particularly aggressive forms of the disease, and why these types are more common among women of African ancestry.

Dr. Warner’s interest in cancer health disparities research is influenced by her family, and so many families like hers. She shared, “Everyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer in my family has died, and many of them within a year of diagnosis. So, it’s personally very relevant for me as a person of color. I think about the ripple effects of those losses and then imagine how my experience is echoed in so many other families. The health of minorities, the poor, the underserved, that’s the health of America.”

She has benefitted from the K01 award, particularly from the protected time and network of mentors she has been able to form as she examines racial/ethnic variation in breast density. The aim of this research is to identify genetic variants associated with tissue breast density in black and Hispanic women. Dr. Warner believes that her studies will improve understanding of racial variation in breast density and be a step towards greater inclusion of African American and Hispanic populations in genetic research.

Dr. Warner recently received a position as an Instructor in Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and is a proud member of the Boston Breast Cancer Equity Coalition in Boston, Massachusetts. Read more about her research in, “Racial and Ethnic Differences in Breast Cancer Survival: Mediating Effect of Tumor Characteristics and Sociodemographic and Treatment Factors,” published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in May 2015.

Lorraine Dean, Sc.D.

Dr. Dean is a social epidemiologist who researches the social determinants of chronic disease. After losing an aunt to cancer, Dr. Dean was inspired to become a researcher and contribute to the evidence on which to base equitable health policies.

“I truly believe that as researchers, we are better together both in terms of the quality of our research and our ability to advocate for equitable health policies,” Dean says. “Accelerating equity means both acknowledging and understanding disparities through research, and bonding together to ensure that quality research is the foundation for policy decisions that make healthy living the default for everyone.” 

The K01 award has enabled Dr. Dean to focus her work on social determinants of disparities in cancer survivorship outcomes so that we can resolve differences in mortality. The K01 award has been particularly helpful to her, a first-generation college student, as neither she nor her support system had much experience in navigating academia. CURE’s career development resources have supported Dr. Dean on her path to becoming an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University. The interpersonal connections she has made with other cancer health disparities researchers and mentorships have led to collaborations on peer-reviewed manuscripts and projects. 

Dr. Dean and colleagues presented their work in a poster presentation at the American Society of Clinical Oncology 2015 conference. Read more in “Black breast cancer survivors experience greater upper extremity disability.”

Dr. Davyd Chung, CRCHD Program Director for the NCI K01 career development awards, explained the value of the K01 awards, “Not only do K01 awardees receive salary and research support, they also receive mentoring by experienced investigators who have been awarded NCI/NIH research grants, training in new fields and technologies, and career development support in order to become competitive independent investigators. Ideally, the awardees will one day become mentors and help train the next generation of candidates, resulting in a workforce that reflects diverse cultural and research perspectives.”

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