Making the biomedical community more diverse

September 18, 2015

This summer Dean Robert Alpern met with undergraduates who came to Yale for the inaugural session of the BioMed Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (BioMed SURF). At Yale the students, all members of underrepresented minority groups, worked and studied under the supervision of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty at the medical school.

Every summer the School of Medicine brings college students from underrepresented minority groups to New Haven to provide them with the foundation and skills they will need for careers in medicine and biomedical science.

This summer I had the pleasure of meeting 12 undergraduate students who had spent nine weeks at the School of Medicine during the inaugural session of the BioMed Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (BioMed SURF). In their time at Yale the students, all members of underrepresented minority groups from colleges across the United States and its territories, worked and studied under the supervision of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty at the Medical School. The students not only carried out research in Yale labs, but also participated in weekly journal clubs and career development sessions, met with current PhD and MD-PhD students for peer mentoring, and shadowed physician-scientists. By summer’s end they knew how to craft a scientific presentation, write a CV, produce a scientific poster, and apply to graduate school or an MD/PhD program. The goals of BioMed SURF—to demystify graduate education and research careers in the biomedical sciences for minority students and their parents—seem to be met.

BioMed SURF is the brainchild of Barbara Kazmierczak, MD, PhD, the director of the MD/PhD program, and Anthony J. Koleske, PhD, recently named director of the Program in Biology and Biological Sciences. Both saw a need to encourage undergraduates from underrepresented minority groups to consider careers in science.

Stephanie Caicedo, an exercise science and kinesiology major at Rutgers University, was one of 12 undergraduates who participated in a poster session at BioMed SURF this summer. Her interests include signal transduction and stem cells.

Since 1997 the medical school has also been part of a national program that provides undergraduates from minority groups with the foundation of knowledge and skills for successful careers in medicine and science. The Summer Medical and Dental Education Program, under the leadership of Forrester Lee, MD, an alumnus and associate dean for multicultural affairs, exposes students from underrepresented minority groups to the academic and learning environment they would encounter as first-year medical students. This past summer 80 students came to Yale for the program. For six weeks the students took classes, attended lectures, shadowed clinicians, and learned communications and writing skills. Yale is one of 12 sites around the country in the program supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We have found that students love this program, and that it has a high success rate. Two-thirds of its participants later apply to medical school, and two-thirds of those applicants enter medical school. Twenty program graduates have received medical degrees from Yale. And most of those who don’t go to medical school still enter the health professions.

Students who came to Yale this summer as part of the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program took part in the medical school tradition of posing for a photo on the seal in the library rotunda.

We have long known that diversity in medicine and science benefits us all by bringing fresh perspectives to biomedical research and clinical care. Although underrepresented minorities represent almost a third of the nation’s college students, they account for only about 12 percent of physicians and 9 percent of dentists. As we move towards a more holistic approach to treating our patients, it is imperative that we have physicians of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds who can understand the factors beyond medicine that affect patients’ lives and health. The presence of such physicians, residents, and medical students in our health care system can influence all of us, regardless of where we come from, by making us more aware of the lives of others.

Over the past 30 years, more than 400 African-American students have received medical degrees from Yale. More than 225 Hispanic/Latino students have attended the medical school since 1985. African-Americans and Hispanic/Latino students now comprise almost 20 percent of the student body, which also includes members of other minority groups. Students who are members of minority groups underrepresented in the sciences make up about 10 percent of students in the MD/PhD and PhD programs at the Medical School. We are happy to welcome 19 more to Yale this fall, as members of the MD/PhD and PhD first-year classes.

This year at the annual meeting of the Council of Deans of the Association of American Medical Colleges, I was asked to speak on both the national program and what we have done at Yale to make our program so successful. Despite our progress, there is much to be done. We will continue our efforts to bring minority students into the medical school and graduate school, in the hopes that these promising students will become leaders in medicine and science.