For two weeks in July, a computer screen gave 18-year-old Bintou Samassa glimpses of what she wants her future to look like.
She watched and listened to Yehoda M. Martei, MD, an assistant professor of Hematology-Oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, talk about health disparities one day, while Armenta Washington, a senior research coordinator at the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC), discussed community engagement on another. Before that, Donita C. Brady, PhD, a Presidential professor of Cancer Biology at Penn, had walked through what it’s like to work in a lab.
Enrolling in the ACC’s Summer Health Experience, or SHE, program that introduces young women to careers in cancer, had placed her virtually in front of a group she doesn’t often see: Black women in medicine.
“Seeing these women playing important roles, especially in something as deep as cancer, was very inspirational,” said Samassa, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia with her family. “I feel like I really related to Dr. Martei, too, because of where she is from.” Samassa’s parents emigrated from Senegal, Africa. Martei was born in Ghana and immigrated to the United States for college. “I thought she was inspiring and told me to keep going in the right direction. She pushed me to be dedicated.”
Statistics show that Black and Latinx women are severely underrepresented in the health sciences. Latinas represent less than 4 percent of doctors and 2 percent of people in STEM careers in America, while Black women make up less than 3 percent in both, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges and National Science Foundation.
The SHE program aims to help change that by introducing high school students to a wide range of cancer-related career experiences, including in research, clinical care, survivorship, and community engagement, and the women who have them.
“There are not many people like us,” Samassa said, “who are able to do stuff like that.”
The free program, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, is currently hosted by five cancer centers across the country — this is the first year for the ACC.
The pandemic pushed the program to be virtual, rather than onsite at each location, but there was a silver lining in that disruption because it allowed all 80 or so girls, including the 10 from six high schools in Philadelphia representing the Black, Latinx, and Asian communities, to engage with the lessons, talks, and experiments as a group, as well as peers and faculty from all different addresses.
“The goal is simple: to engage and support underserved students,” said Jamie Shuda, EdD, the director of outreach, education, and research at the Perelman School of Medicine, and one of the leaders of the SHE Program at Penn. “An impactful outcome of this virtual program has been the exposure of SHE participants to each other. These students were eager to learn about and explore cancer care in geographic locations outside of their own. Their own scientific literacy has grown alongside the opportunity for them to find STEM mentors and a new peer network.”
Having all the young women at once allowed them to hear perspectives and experiences that differ from their own. Questions spurred fruitful conversations: What’s it like to live in the area surrounding your cancer center? What are some of the challenges and benefits of living in a city near a major cancer center versus living in a rural area?
The barriers to care, education, and certain careers around the country can vary — and seeing and listening to their fellow students helped humanize those differences.
“It opened up a new mindset for me because I was learning from all types of people,” Samassa said. “I felt like my thoughts were similar to the students in Philadelphia, while the Kentucky students’ were way different. It helped me learn more.”
In addition to the ACC, the program included students and staff from the University of Texas – Austin, the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, and the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center.
The first week had everyone immersed in basic science to learn research skills and improve their scientific vocabulary. Thanks to a partnership with the eCLOSE Institute, the women also conducted virtual experiments with live fruit flies to show how animal models are used to better understand how cancer affects the body and to familiarize them with data collection and all the other parts of study design.
“The potential impact of the SHE program and exposure to cancer research for students in Philadelphia cannot be overstated,” said Brady, one of the leaders of the Penn SHE Program who is also an assistant dean for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (IDE) in Research Training at the Perelman School of Medicine. “This year, we were thrilled to be able to expand our ongoing partnership with eCLOSE to give the young women a real taste of what’s like to work in a lab and the tools we use to find solutions for patients.”
In the second week, the group learned how that research discovered at the bench translates to the bedside. In teams, the women were assigned a case study representing a patient in the geographic location where they lived with a particular diagnosis. By the last day, they took what they learned that first week and presented a care plan for the patient to the larger group over Zoom.
They also heard from Martei about how cancer disproportionately affects certain groups and from a survivor about the mental health aspects of battling cancer. Katherine L. Nathanson, MD, deputy director of the ACC, talked about collaboration and team science.
In all, more than 25 people addressed the young group over the two-week program.
“I have received and continue to receive mentorship and inspiration from so many successful women in leadership roles in academic medicine,” said Martei, who also acts of the vice chief of Diversity, Inclusion and Health Equity for Hematology/Oncology. “Participating in the SHE program is how I pay that forward, especially for Black girls interested in STEM.”
Samassa is thankful for it.
The recent graduate and valedictorian from Mastery Charter School Lenfest in Philadelphia will begin a health science track at Drexel University as a freshman this fall, with an eye toward its Physician Assistant program.
After going through the SHE program, Samassa said she is also now considering working in oncology. The paid research and clinical positions available at Penn for young students like her have piqued her interest, too.
She’s only 18, though, so she knows there’s plenty of time for her to decide on what area she belongs in.
No matter what, she said, “I am going to do something related to medicine. I am going to pursue my dreams.”