Mentoring the next generation of minority cancer researchers
For cancer research to be successful, the workforce must be diverse. One way the University of Florida is making strides toward diversifying the cancer research workforce is the Florida Cancer Research Training Opportunities for Outstanding Leaders (ReTOOL) Program, which is training and opening doors for the next generation of underrepresented minority cancer researchers.
The ReTOOL program’s mission is to develop a diverse oncology workforce in basic, clinical and behavioral research who will bring unique perspectives to oncology research, address cancer disparities and increase the participation of minority populations in clinical trials, said Folakemi Odedina, Ph.D., ReTOOL program director and faculty mentor.
“With over 25 years in academia, what I would like to define my academic legacy are programs like the ReTOOL Program,” Odedina said. “For me, it is not about the millions of grant funding that I receive or the unique scientific contributions to cancer health disparities globally. It is all about the next generation of biomedical research workforce who will continue our legacy.”
In 2012, the University of Florida and Florida A&M University (FAMU) formed a partnership focused on creating opportunities and promoting prostate cancer research careers for Black students through the ReTOOL Program. Since its inception, the program has grown from a 10-week program to a 15-week program, boosted attendance from five trainees in 2012 to 20 trainees this year, and added collaborating minority-serving institutions, including Edward Waters College, Florida Memorial University, Bethune-Cookman University, Florida International University and the University of Central Florida.
“Not only does the ReTOOL Program serve to diversify the sciences, health professions, and academia and to reduce cancer health disparities, but it provides opportunities,” said Parisa Fathi, MSW, ReTOOL’s program manager. “Trainees are not just taking the next step in their career by participating — their acceptance into the program shows that someone believes in them. Someone believes in their dreams; the University of Florida believes in their dreams. And, those dreams are worth investing in.”
Continuously funded by the Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute, the program is designed to give trainees the opportunity to learn, understand and explore all that encompasses cancer research and to begin the process of establishing careers in cancer research. Alumni of the ReTOOL program have gone onto prestigious graduate and professional programs, internships and careers related to cancer research.
Recognizing the success of the program and the need for diversity in cancer research, the UF Health Cancer Center is now funding six trainees in the program.
UF Health Cancer Center members also help by serving as mentors; Michael Gutter, Ph.D., Ramzi Salloum, Ph.D., Walter O’Dell, Ph.D., Debra Lyon, Ph.D., R.N., FNP-BC, FNAP, FAAN, Diana Wilkie, Ph.D., R.N., FAAN, and Francois Modave, Ph.D.
“We are giving students a chance,” Fathi said. “Many of our trainees face multiple barriers that often impact their ability to participate in academia. When we review applications, we consider the whole student and not just their grades or coursework.”
Cassandra Walker, a program alumna and current student at University of Southern California Pharmaceutical and Translational Sciences program, sent an unsolicited email to Odedina to share her appreciation for the ReTOOL Program:
“My grandfather’s battle with prostate cancer is what led me to the ReTOOL program, but it was my experiences engaging in both clinical and biomedical research projects that led me to where I am today,” Walker said in the email. “I am thankful that through the ReTOOL program we were able to not only conduct research but were allowed the opportunity to go into the community and talk with men about prostate cancer. Here, I was truly able to see the need for health literacy programs.”
Another alum of the program, Matthew Clowers, a Pharm.D. candidate at FAMU, also thanked Odedina for the opportunities that the program awarded him:
“My experience with ReTOOL was a wonderful experience that keeps giving over and over as the years progress,” Clowers said in the email. “I believe that the amount of knowledge and experience that I gained during that summer experience is magnificent, as I still see myself utilizing many of the acquired skills today.”
One of those barriers this year was the novel coronavirus. Instead of canceling the program, which started on May 4, the trainees and mentors have overcome the barrier and transitioned to a virtual program.
Although the program isn’t how she originally thought it would be, Cristina Orozco, a current trainee, is ready to learn and grow.
“I hope to gain knowledge, connections, and an incredible research project where I can foster growth and insight further curiosity in the field of health disparity research,” Orozco said.
With 73 participants and 12 publications since it began in 2012, the ReTOOL program is only gaining momentum. The program has been expanded to a one-year post-baccalaureate training program funded through the CaRE2 Health Equity Center, and a graduate health equity certificate program at UF has been established and approved for the Fall 2020 semester, providing underrepresented minority students an opportunity to take classes and conduct health equity research. The program also plans to expand to high school students in the future.
“My passion for training the next generation of minority scientists is limitless,” Odedina said. “Each ReTOOL trainee takes the baton to continue the race to put an end to cancer health disparities and conquer cancer.”
(These images were taken prior to national guidelines of face coverings and physical distancing.)