NCI Boosting Ranks of Minority Cancer Researchers
Last week in a hotel in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a room of young cancer researchers gathered to learn about some grant opportunities available to them through NCI, receive guidance on keeping their careers moving forward, and network with their peers. Although not an unusual event in any respect, this particular workshop did offer one unique aspect: attendees were all from groups of underrepresented minorities in cancer research. The workshop was sponsored by NCI's Comprehensive Minority Biomedical Branch (CMBB).
"You're going to take us to 2015 and beyond," NCI Director Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach told the attendees. "And that's why it's so critically important that we do everything possible now to make certain that your careers are nurtured and that you have the tools and opportunities available to you to flourish."
In 1975, NCI leaders and researchers formed the Comprehensive Minority Biomedical Program to encourage minority individuals to choose and participate in biomedical research careers. Since then, the program has evolved into the CMBB.
CMBB's ambitious goal, says its director, Dr. Sanya Springfield, is to "significantly increase the number of underrepresented minorities participating as competitive NCI/NIH-funded cancer researchers." To this end, CMBB has pursued three main strategies:
One of the CMBB's most successful efforts has been the Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) program. This program directs long-term funding to qualified minority students interested in scientific, cancer research-related careers.
CURE builds on the success of the Research Project Grant Supplement Program, Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities, through which minority students can apply for supplements throughout their academic careers and combine these with numerous other programs as they move through college undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral programs. In 2003, CMBB, through CURE, allocated $26 million to 304 minority applicants at various stages in their academic careers, under individual grant and supplement programs.
CMBB also supports efforts of NCI Cancer Centers and other institutions to recruit more minorities to cancer research. To raise the research capacity of MSIs, five years ago the CMBB launched the Minority Institution/Cancer Center Partnership (MI/CCP) program to develop and fund partnerships between major cancer research and training institutions and MSIs. Since its inception, 54 projects have been funded under various planning, partnership, and collaboration grants.
One example of a thriving MI/CCP partnership involves New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Launched in June 2002 with a 5-year, $2.5 million planning grant, Hutchinson researchers developed a set of pilot projects - some focused on cancer in minority populations - and offered paid internships to NMSU minority students. In the fall of 2002, Nina Senutovich, an NMSU undergraduate hoping to pursue a career in immunology, joined the center's virology lab for a 10-week stint. "Initially I was nervous," she admits, "until I discovered that the people at Hutch are friendly and relaxed." At Hutchinson, Ms. Senutovich says, she developed "skills that will be useful for the rest of my career."
Events like last week's annual professional development and peer review workshop serve to bring together minority grant and supplement recipients with NCI and other researchers and CMBB staff. The workshop allows CURE grantees to learn about career development, gather information about funding opportunities, and develop an understanding of the intricacies of the different supplement and grant programs. Other opportunities bring together MI/CCP partners to collaborate on initiatives and develop research networks.
Dr. Springfield and CMBB staff, who include Ms. Bobby Rosenfeld, Dr. Hector Aguila, Dr. Peter Ogunbiyi, Ms. Belinda Locke, and Ms. LaShell Gaskins, are the first to admit that more still needs to be done. But they also note that many underrepresented minority scientists are successfully competing for NIH funding. "In turn," said Dr. Springfield, "these individuals are serving as role models for students from minority populations who, like them, want to dedicate their lives to helping others with a career in cancer research."
For details of all the grant and supplement programs available under CURE, go to http://minorityopportunities.nci.nih.gov/mTraining/index.html.