Every summer, a diverse group of college students gathers at the University of Kentucky for an intensive 10-week program designed to prepare them for successful careers in cancer research.  

The Markey STRONG Scholars Program, offered by the UK Markey Cancer Center, gives students from underrepresented groups the opportunity to get hands-on experience in a supportive learning environment. 

For Veronica Rojas, a STRONG Scholar and senior at Asbury University, the program's emphasis on diversity aligned with her own aspirations to attend medical school with a focus on addressing the health care needs of Spanish-speaking communities. 

“Being in a diverse cohort was really important to the formation of my future career, and it helped me prioritize what’s important in medicine,” said Rojas, one of 16 students in the program’s 2023 cohort. “This program helped me prioritize integrating my ethnic heritage into my future career. Because if I’m not giving back to my community in the long run, I don’t think that what I’m doing is worth it.” 

Established in 2021, the Markey STRONG Scholars Program aims to foster a diverse talent pipeline in the field of cancer research, which is a critical need to improve inequities in cancer prevention, treatment and care. Many communities that bear a disproportionate burden of cancer remain underrepresented in the cancer research workforce. 

“The Markey STRONG Scholars Program is helping to ensure that the next generation of cancer researchers will reflect the communities we serve and be better equipped to address cancer disparities and improve care for cancer survivors,” said the program’s director Kathleen O’Connor, PhD, associate director for cancer education and mentoring at Markey Cancer Center. “By providing students with the mentorship, training and support they need, we are empowering them to make a real difference in the fight against cancer." 

Participants in the program gain valuable experiences that will help them further their future health science careers: personalized mentored research experiences with cancer mentors and near-peer mentors, interactive cancer research lectures from Markey faculty and trainees, clinical shadowing experiences with Markey oncology specialists, and networking and career development activities with Markey faculty and trainees. Scholars also present their work at a poster session at the program’s conclusion. 

In addition to introducing students to cancer research, the Markey STRONG Scholars Program also aims to enhance their understanding of the disease. 2023 STRONG Scholar Princess Magor Agbozo credits the program for expanding her knowledge about cancer — especially helpful for the UK College of Public Health senior pursuing a career in global health and health equity. 

“This program helped me to build a good foundation and understanding of cancer risk factors and how we can help populations disproportionately affected by this disease,” Agbozo said. “I feel like with the skills that I have learned, I’m able to pursue this career path and actually make a difference in the world.” 

The experience also fosters resilience, a crucial trait for navigating the challenges of a scientific career. STRONG Scholar Donavyn Mosley, a Kentucky State University senior, attributes his newfound confidence in pursuing a research career to the program's supportive network of peers, mentors, faculty and researchers. 

“Medical research can be very difficult for some people to find the determination to continue moving on, especially in such a difficult and competitive field,” Mosley said. “But participating in this program, I felt like I was accepted and like I could continue to find success.” 

The Markey STRONG Scholars Program is supported by funding from the American Cancer Society, the UK Diversity and Inclusion UNited In True racial Equity (UNITE) Research Priority Area and the UK College of Medicine Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion