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CWRU internship part of regional effort to build minority participation, scientific contributions

Blue Case Western Reserve University sign
Tim Harrison
Ideastream Public Media
Case Western Reserve University is leading the effort to better engage minorities and other underserved populations on health care.

Case Western Reserve University is partnering with its affiliated teaching hospitals, the Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth and University Hospitals, on a five-year summer internship program to encourage more minority and underrepresented students to enter medical research.

The program, funded by a five-year, $540,000 National Institutes of Health grant, will allow for five undergraduate students per year, starting in 2024, to be a part of the Intensive Summer Education Program in Translational Research for Underrepresented Students, MetroHealth announced in a media release. Participants will be from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and have an interest in clinical and translational science, an area of study that turns scientific inquiry into interventions that benefit individuals and communities.

CWRU's Ronald L. Hickman, Jr., who co-authored the grant with MetroHealth's Dr. J. Daryl Thornton, said the program is meant to build awareness of this career path and provide the support and training to move toward that goal.

“It's really just to... inspire them..., to motivate them, to provide them a set of skills that they can be they can persist and accomplish their career goals and to open up their eyes to the possibilities that lie ahead of them,” Hickman told Ideastream Public Media.

Thornton added the program is part of a broader initiative to address the lack of sufficient representation of these communities in medical research and care.

I think one of the immediate... strengths and benefits of this program is that we'll be able to diversify the workforce across the scientific platforms so that people we can improve the relationships with participants and increase the diversity of the content that's being produced.
Ronald L. Hickman, Jr. of Case Western Reserve University

“The statistics are dismal," he said. "Over 75% of people who are research professionals are white. When you look at physicians, less than 5% of physicians are underrepresented minorities.”

Greater representation will lead to more trust among the minority community, which will help lead to more equitable care, Thornton said.

"You can't improve health inequities unless you involve the community and the people that are being studied, and you're not going to involve those communities unless you can improve trust that things will be done equitably and fairly in the research itself," Thornton said. "I think people are more willing and likely to participate in research endeavors when they feel that the researchers themselves are going to have their best interests at heart in conducting the research."

Interns will participate in a 10-week program at CWRU and the hospitals where they will receive hands-on experience in a research lab. In addition to getting training in research methods, the students will receive career counseling and classroom instruction as well as receiving research and career mentors, according to the release. Students will also be provided opportunities to mentor one another.

Students will also receive a stipend and have their housing costs covered, which Hickman said is important in ensuring more of the minority community can participate.

"Oftentimes these individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds or folks of color don't have the opportunity to do these types of programs because they have to spend the summer working," he said. "We want to give them a competitive wage. We really do earmark most of our funds ... to pay them competitively and ... to allow them to come to Cleveland if they don't live locally and to make sure that they have the housing and so forth — that they can so they can just focus on their immersive experience with us."

The program identifies promising candidates by partnering with existing minority scholarship programs, such as CWRU'S Graduate Student North Star Award program and the federally funded McNair Scholars Program and by recruiting students from historically Black colleges and universities.

This internship program joins the Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative of Northern Ohio as part of a broader effort to better engage minority and other underserved communities in healthcare, MetroHealth said. The collaborative, funded by a seven-year, $56.3 million NIH grant received by CWRU, MetroHealth, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and the Veterans Affairs Northeast Ohio Healthcare System, to better target minority and underserved communities' health needs and build trust with those communities.

"The goal is to make research count, make research lead to improvement in people's lives," Grace McComsey, the collaborative's director, previously told Ideastream. The intent is to have health studies "translated from showing in clinical studies [to] something to be disseminated to the community and be adapted clinically because that's the only way that research will lead to improvement in people's life."

CWRU is using the grant to accomplish these goals, focusing on Hispanic, Black, LGBTQ+, rural and senior communities, as well as individuals with disabilities, she said. The grant, awarded Aug. 2, is the fourth round of funding for the collaborative, building on nearly $175 million received from the NIH since 2007.

Stephen Langel covers health care and health policy for Ideastream Public Media.