Dr. Marcia Cruz-Correa Becomes the First Latinx Researcher to Serve as AACR Annual Meeting Program Chair
, by CRCHD Staff
Marcia Cruz-Correa, MD, PhD, AGAF, FASGE is Professor of Medicine, University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, Adjunct Professor of Surgical Oncology, MD Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas, Visiting Professor of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, and Executive Director and GI Oncology Division Chair, University of Puerto Rico Comprehensive Cancer Center. In April 2022, Dr. Cruz-Correa became the first Latinx researcher to serve as Program Chair of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting.
When the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting kicked off in April, it was not simply momentous – for being the first in-person Annual Meeting since 2019 – but historic – as it was led for the first time by a Latinx Program Chair – two-time NCI CRCHD Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) scholar Marcia Cruz-Correa, MD, PhD, AGAF, FASGE.
“We made history as an organization,” Dr. Cruz-Correa says.
She was excited for the moment and for the global scientific community. She found it “simply extraordinary” to be on stage to open the Annual Meeting, which featured more than 15,000 in-person attendees and thousands more participating virtually.
A former CURE K22 and Workforce Diversity R21 scholar, Dr. Cruz-Correa’s primary area of research is gastrointestinal oncology, where she merges clinical and translational research in early-onset colorectal cancer and conducts clinical trials among patients with hereditary cancer syndromes. Her professional roles are many, including Professor of Medicine, University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus, Adjunct Professor of Surgical Oncology, MD Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas, Visiting Professor of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, and Executive Director and GI Oncology Division Chair, University of Puerto Rico Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“We were fortunate to have Dr. Cruz-Correa as the Program Chair of the AACR Annual Meeting 2022,” says AACR Chief Executive Officer Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc). “Under her visionary leadership, the Program Committee developed a spectacular scientific agenda that put health disparities into focus throughout the entire spectrum of the cancer continuum, from prevention to survivorship.”
Disparities as the Common Denominator
The planning process began when then-AACR President-Elect David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR, presented Dr. Cruz-Correa the opportunity to be the Annual Meeting Program Chair.
“I simply could not believe it,” says Dr. Cruz-Correa, acknowledging Drs. Foti and Tuveson for entrusting her to be part of the team. She felt “multiple feelings at once—gratitude, excitement, nervousness, joyful,” as well as a “big responsibility following the footsteps of previous Annual AACR Chairs,” including John D. Carpten, PhD, who in 2019 became the First African American to serve as Program Chair.
After the conversation with Dr. Tuveson, the two years leading up to the meeting were marked by tremendous coordination by Dr. Foti, Dr. Lisa Haubein, and the AACR team, frequent meetings, phone calls, and text messages, and 45 investigators from around the world contributing their expertise.
“It was almost like a dance,” Dr. Cruz-Correa says.
Arriving at a disparities-focused theme was one element of the extensive work done during this time. From the beginning, Dr. Cruz-Correa engaged several Latinx women scientists and sought their input on the vision for the program, which would include cancers that disproportionately impact Latinx communities and the Latinx researchers studying these cancers.
Understanding the role of individual biology and social context in cancer risk and outcomes, the Committee settled on a theme — “Decoding Cancer Complexity; Integrating Science; Transforming Patient Outcomes.” The theme encapsulated “health disparities from multiple lenses and perspectives integrating genomics, tumor evolution, experimental therapeutics, laboratory models, social determinants, and even policy,” Dr. Cruz-Correa says. Disparities was the “common denominator” across presentations in basic, translational, clinical, and population science.
“Marcia is a great friend and long-time champion of cancer disparities research, and that is reflected in the work that she does and the Annual Meeting she directed. She thrived in this pioneering role, developing and leading an exceptional AACR Annual Meeting. She is an exemplary role model for the next generation of cancer researchers from underrepresented groups,” said NCI CRCHD Director Sanya A. Springfield, PhD.
Dr. Cruz-Correa “performed brilliantly as the Program Chair” and “deserves recognition for the extraordinary success” of the meeting, says Dr. Tuveson, who is Cancer Center Director and Roy J. Zuckerberg Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Chief Scientist, The Lustgarten Foundation.
Significance for Latinx Cancer Research Community
When NCI CRCHD asked about the impact of her accomplishment, Dr. Cruz-Correa’s focus was not remotely inward on herself — but instead outward, on the community — on how to reduce disparities in the U.S. Latinx population, and what this moment could mean for the Latinx cancer research community.
As the Latinx community continues to become a greater proportion of the U.S. population, Dr. Cruz-Correa anticipates and is concerned about rising U.S. incidence rates of cancers that disproportionately affect the Latinx community. She aims to curtail these disparities.
Dr. Cruz-Correa also concentrates on the continued growth and advancement of a diverse cancer research workforce.
“Programs like the CURE within the NCI CRCHD have been key to help Latinx [researchers] … to have access to mentors, funding, and training opportunities. I am a product of NCI and NIH programs that have opened doors and help trained people like me, a Los Angeles-born Puerto Rican woman, raised on the island by first-generation college graduates,” says Dr. Cruz-Correa, who has also been involved in CRCHD’s Partnership to Advance Cancer Health Equity program as an Investigator, Principal Investigator, and Internal Advisory Committee Member for the University of Puerto Rico-MD Anderson Cancer Center U54 partnership.
Dr. Cruz-Correa senses a change in opportunity for Latinx cancer researchers.
“There is a momentum for our community to take leadership positions and contribute as scientists, mentors, sponsors, pioneers, and visionaries,” she says.
Dr. Cruz-Correa has long been focused on workforce diversity and has worked to support the advancement of Latinx researchers, according to Mariana C. Stern, PhD, Professor of Population and Public Health Sciences & Urology, Ira Goodman Chair in Cancer Research, and Associate Director of Population Sciences with the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“Marcia is a brilliant scientist and a compassionate clinician. Equally important, as a Latina researcher, she never lost sight of the fact that there are too few of us Latinx scientists in the cancer research workforce,” Dr. Stern says. “Therefore, she always makes time to mentor and foster the careers of other minority scientists, paving the road, opening doors, sharing her experience, creating opportunities and connections, and always cheering on with her contagious enthusiasm and positivity.”