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Ensuring educational success

Ensuring educational success

The Academy provides mentorship to underrepresented students

For people from underserved backgrounds, the road to becoming a health expert is often laden with barriers. Many students must leap hurdle after hurdle to further their education and achieve their dreams—a feat particularly more difficult as an underrepresented minority in advanced education.

If these students are Black or Hispanic and in the biomedical sciences, there is nearly a 50% chance that they will not finish graduate school.

"The science environment can be unwelcoming for these students. Many underrepresented students feel isolated and like they don’t belong. They have a hard time identifying themselves
as scientists because they have little in common culturally with the scientists they see,” says Cherilynn R. Shadding, PhD.

"A lot of people from underserved communities like mine do not have the opportunity to pursue the next level of education or the next level after that,” says Broderick Turner, a PhD student in the Immunology Program at MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School. “By graduate school, there aren’t a lot of people who look like me.”

Determined to address this challenge, MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School established The Academy to provide historically underrepresented students with high-level guidance and support.

"I don't want any student of color who wants to become a scientist to do something else because they felt like they didn’t belong in graduate school,” Shadding says. “We want to help them develop the resilience and science identity they need to navigate these waters. Part of this effort is creating community support.”

"Meeting with other students and faculty who understand the challenges I have faced makes me feel less anxious and less like a fish out of water,” Broderick explains.

The program starts with three days of activities before the school year begins to give students a preview of graduate student life and expectations and to discuss important research articles. Each month, speakers address academic advancement topics, such as how to present professional papers or secure research funding.

The Academy launched in the fall of 2021 with 16 students. In addition to the educational activities, the program provides five of its students with $5,000 scholarships to support their education.

"The scholarship takes away some of my financial worries and gives me a layer of security,” Broderick says. “It lets me devote more of my brain power to my courses.”

Program support has come in large part from philanthropic gifts to the Dean’s Impact Fund at MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School, which helps meet urgent needs in the school as they arise. In line with the Many Faces. One Mission. campaign’s emphasis on training the next generation of health professionals, The Academy was a featured program during Giving Day in spring 2022.

Additional philanthropic commitments will expand the number of scholarships and help even more underrepresented students flourish in the biomedical sciences, enriching future health science teams.

"The more we include students from all backgrounds in science, the better it is for everyone. The data show that diverse teams solve problems that non-diverse teams cannot,” says Shadding. “Including more voices will help us overcome some of our biggest health challenges.”

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