In 2021, researchers and educators from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and Markey Cancer Center developed an idea for a program to diversify the health care workforce, particularly in cancer research.

What started as a pilot program through the American Cancer Society (ACS) has grown into a successful career development opportunity for biomedical trainees. Two years in, the Markey Science Training in Research, Oncology, Networking and professional Growth (STRONG) Scholars program has supported skill building for more than 20 undergraduate scholars from underrepresented groups. It is expanding this year to include post-baccalaureate trainees.

Kathleen O’Connor, PhD, professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry, spearheaded the creation of the Markey STRONG Scholars program. As a leader in cancer education, she recognized the need for developing a pipeline for underrepresented researchers. Diversity, she said, is imperative to promoting scientific discovery.

“There’s a huge amount of data out there that diversity matters. It feeds into our ability to look at problems from multiple angles, to innovate, to take care of patients,” Dr. O’Connor said. “In order to be our most effective at driving research forward, we need to include the entire population.”

The Markey STRONG Scholars program began in 2021 as a 10-week professional development opportunity for undergraduate students interested in cancer research who come from historically underserved or underrepresented backgrounds.

The first round initially supported four scholars. Dr. O’Connor leveraged campus resources from the UNited In True racial Equity (UNITE) Research Priority Area and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to further develop the program and expand it to eight openings, then 15 the following year. The team has renewed the program for another three years with ACS, and this year, garnered further support from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education health care workforce grant, KY-WINS, to support the Markey STRONG Scholars program.

The next initiative, the Markey STRONG Post-Baccalaureate Fellows program, builds off of the success of the Markey STRONG Scholars Program. Dr. O’Connor is the recent recipient of another ACS Center for Diversity in Cancer Research that will provide $660,000 in funding over three years to train four post-baccalaureate fellows and prepare them for fulfilling research careers.

“Dr. O’Connor and her team have built a successful program for improving diversity and inclusivity in research settings,” said Stephanie White, MD, MS, acting associate dean for diversity and inclusion. “Their success demonstrates that even small amounts of financial support can drive progress and build momentum that leads to additional funding and greater impact.”

The Markey STRONG Post-Baccalaureate Fellows program is expected to begin later this summer. The program is designed as a two-year cancer research experience for individuals who plan to pursue a doctoral degree in biomedical science, a health profession, population health, or public health. Participants will have the opportunity to advance their knowledge, critical thinking skills, technical skills in experimentation, ethical conduct of research, and networking abilities to make them more competitive for professional graduate programs.

“This program has done great things to support our scholars to advancing their careers and having the confidence, support, and experiences needed to do so,” Dr. O’Connor said. “None of this would have been possible without the substantial institutional support from the Markey Cancer Center and UK’s investment in DEI.”

For more information about the Markey STRONG Post-Baccalaureate Fellows program, click here. Applications are accepted through April 10.