When Dr. Jay A. Perman looks across the biomedical research workforce, he is struck by a disparity, with African-Americans and Latinos profoundly underrepresented in the health sciences. As president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Dr. Perman is in a position to do something about it.

In 2015, his office launched the UMB CURE Scholars Program, a corollary to the National Cancer Institute’s Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences program, which came to life in 1999 as a way to attract underrepresented students into the biomedical research fields.

Working in collaboration with three West Baltimore public schools — Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, Green Street Academy, and Southwest Baltimore Charter School – UMB CURE accepts a new cohort of 25 to 30 sixth grade school students a year, working with them every year through high school. It aims to be a pipeline, with mentorship and career navigation moving students in the direction of a long-term career in the health sciences.

Jmore recently spoke with Dr. Perman about the goals of the program and about the effort to increase African-American and Latino participation in biomedical research.

Why do we need a program like CURE?

Partly it is a workforce development program. All the data show that in the United States, health care is a growing field. There are hundreds of different jobs in health care, they are reasonably well-paying, and there are shortages in many of those fields.

Why focus on minority communities?

 Those of us in higher education are challenged to fill in those gaps, and wouldn’t it be great if they could be filled by populations that are currently underrepresented in those professions? Focusing on physicians, the African-American population in the United States is in the 12-15 percent range, and yet the number of African-American physicians is in the 4-6 percent range. So there is a discrepancy.

A lot of this is embedded in the K-12 system not preparing young people, particularly people living in poverty, to take on a career in science. We hypothesize that one of the reasons we are not getting sufficient numbers of minorities moving into research careers is because we are starting too late. One needs to have that fire built early on.

How does CURE aim to do that?

We partner with three West Baltimore schools to provide a program for middle schoolers, which gives them an afterschool experience where they do fun things in sciences and where they are mentored by over 100 of our students, faculty and staff. They come to the university, they see the inside of laboratories and operating rooms, they meet our scientists and surgeons and they get excited about health care through that exposure. We may eventually have 150-200 students at any one time, and they will have a summer experience of three to six weeks where they do something more intense.

What kind of outcomes do you expect?

We hope they will take away greater self-confidence and tell themselves, I can do this no matter what anybody else tells me. They can build up a real sense that they have the same ability as anybody else. And they can begin to build a direction, to build a goal.

Beyond that, we also make sure they have an exposure to the soft skills: How to introduce oneself, how to have a conversation with someone. All these are things you need to wrap around the education if you are going to succeed.

Adam Stone is an Annapolis-based freelance writer.

 

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