An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Wayne Lewis | November 6, 2019
Dr. Rick Kittles | City of Hope Rick Kittles, Ph.D. Above, Kittles works in the lab with Leanne Burnham, Ph.D.

When it comes to kindling a love of science, starting early is key.

“Middle school is a crucial stage,” said Rick Kittles , Ph.D., professor and founding director of the Division of Health Equities within City of Hope’s Department of Population Sciences. “This is where the foundation for science and mathematics is formed.”
 
Kittles is the principal investigator for a National Cancer Institute grant awarded to City of Hope with the goal of sparking passion for science among underrepresented minority youth in neighboring communities. Along with co-principal investigators David Ann, Ph.D., and Christopher Sistrunk, Ph.D., he leads YES2SUCCESS, short for Youth Enjoy Science: Seeking Useful Comprehensive Cancer Education Strategies for Students.
 
The program is one step toward remedying the lack of diversity in biomedical research. Taken together, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders make up less than 9% of scientific research faculty today.
 
“We’re attempting to help fill those voids by creating targeted engagement with middle school students in hopes they’ll continue to explore science in high school, college and graduate school,” Kittles said.

A Pipeline of Firsthand Experiences

YES2SUCCESS comprises a pipeline of outreach activities and hands-on participation in research from sixth grade through the undergraduate years. In all, the program is expected to reach as many as 2,000 students each year from four participating school districts: Azusa Unified, Duarte Unified, El Monte City and Monrovia Unified.
 
Students’ experiences with YES2SUCCESS begin with middle school site visits three times a year as well as field trips to City of Hope bringing more than 600 students to campus annually. The content, coordinated with school curricula, imparts a greater understanding of cancer prevention, detection and treatment.
 
“We want to get the students to see the links between research techniques, career opportunities and how we fight cancer,” said Sistrunk, assistant professor of population sciences and director of the STEM Training and Education Program (STEP) at City of Hope.
 
The summer after sixth grade, up to 30 students from each school district attend two-week-long summer science camp sessions at City of Hope. The camp includes hands-on experiences showing the basics of laboratory work as well as tours of 15 core research facilities.
 
During the spring semester, up to 30 students from seventh through ninth grades attend monthly Saturday science camps at City of Hope. After the first five sessions providing hands-on research experiences, students give presentations about what they have learned and achieved during a final friends-and-family day.
 
The Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy, a mainstay of City of Hope’s efforts to offer research opportunities to young people since 1960, reserves up to 30 positions each year for YES2SUCCESS participants. Ideally, students attend for two summers.
 
“Doing science is like a habit,” said Ann, the Morgan & Helen Chu Dean's Chair of the Graduate School of Biological Sciences and co-leader of the Molecular and Cellular Biology of Cancer Program. “This continuous exposure is critical for young people.”
 
Open to high schoolers over the age of 16 as well as undergraduates, the 12-week academy connects students with City of Hope postdoctoral scholars for unique mentored research opportunities. Additional programming includes workshops, seminars and time shadowing clinical faculty.
 
The Roberts Summer Academy has been a springboard for prominent careers in biomedicine — including alumni such as Nobel laureate Bruce Beutler, M.D., and Alexandra Levine, M.D., M.A.C.P., professor of hematology and hematopoietic cell transplantation and former chief medical officer at City of Hope.

Impact on Many Fronts

In stoking a love for science among students from underrepresented minority groups, the leaders of YES2SUCCESS have a number of broader goals.
 
By attracting more diverse people to find careers as biomedical investigators, the endeavor is likely to make for better science. In fact, research groups that are ethnically diverse have been shown to publish in higher-impact scientific journals and have their studies cited more often compared to homogeneous groups.
 
The YES2SUCCESS team also expects that bringing more underrepresented minorities to biomedical fields will help to reduce disparities in health outcomes that affect minorities.
 
“Increasing diversity can aid in some of the big problems we’re dealing with now,” Kittles said. “One of the key features of conquering health disparities is having scientists from the communities that are suffering, so that there’s this advocacy and focus on the health of those communities.”
 
Even if students do not go on to find biomedical careers, their participation in YES2SUCCESS will increase their scientific literacy as citizens. And the program’s leaders hope that the knowledge about cancer that students gain along the way will filter through to their families, demystifying the disease.

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