A training program from Mass General's Center for Diversity and Inclusion helps students from diverse backgrounds explore the world of medical research.

As an African American girl growing up in small-town North Carolina, Ugoji Nwanaji-Enwerem had never seen anyone who looked like her become a doctor or a scientist. As a young woman, that lack of visible representation made those career paths feel distant. But now, Ugoji has a new vision of her future, thanks to Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) and the Summer Research Trainee Program (SRTP) — and she is ready to make a difference.

Diversity in Medicine
David Fisher, MD, PhD, chief of Dermatology and Ugoji Nwanaji-Enwerem

Each summer, SRTP hosts 20 students from ethnic or racial groups — primarily African American, Latinx and Native American — that are underrepresented in medicine. Students in college or medical school work alongside Mass General physician-researchers, who mentor them through a research project of their own.

“The SRTP helps debunk debilitating psychological myths that underrepresented minorities have,” says Ugoji, who participated in SRTP in summer 2019 and is now in her first year of medical school at Brown University. “Many minority students do not get an opportunity to engage in meaningful experiences in spaces like Mass General. Participating in this program has a real impact for us.”

Research that Reflects a Diverse Society

SRTP creates a pathway for students from groups underrepresented in medicine to gain the experience and connections needed to enter academic medicine. Launched in 1992, SRTP is part of Mass General’s larger commitment to building a diverse community and fostering a culture of inclusion and respect. In addition to research opportunities, the program also provides intensive mentoring and career training.

“The importance of mentoring these young people and expanding the number of people of color in the medical and research worlds cannot be overstated.”

“This is about ensuring that our doctors and researchers reflect our society and that those who are underrepresented are given an opportunity to explore careers in academic medicine,” says Elena Olson, JD, executive director of the CDI, which sponsors and runs this program. “We need now, more than ever, to focus on the younger generation and build the pipeline into academic medicine.”

Long-time supporter of the program and honorary Mass General Trustee James Cash Jr., PhD, understands the challenges that face young people who want to pursue careers where their racial group is underrepresented.

“The importance of mentoring these young people and expanding the number of people of color in the medical and research worlds cannot be overstated,” he says. Dr. Cash was the first African American full professor at Harvard Business School and the first African American scholarship athlete in the Southwest Conference, as a basketball player at Texas Christian University in the 1960s.

Donations to support the program have an immense impact on the lives of program participants, providing much-needed support for essential costs like student travel and living expenses. Mentors give their time voluntarily and provide laboratory or office space to the program for no charge. This summer, with the pandemic under way, the program temporarily suspended its research component and only provided online workshops and career mentoring sessions.

Ugoji Wins the Prize

Ugoji is the daughter of two Nigerian immigrants. As a child, she loved science and math, but it was her mother’s work as a nurse that helped guide her career choice. At an early age, Ugoji began doing volunteer work with patients. She continued to volunteer through high school and in her undergraduate years at Brown University. The work gave her the confidence to link her academic interests to a career helping others.

Upon applying for the SRTP program, Ugoji expressed an interest in dermatology. “There is a lack of research and understanding about how different skin conditions appear on individuals of color, particularly people with darker skin,” she says.

She was paired with David Fisher, MD, PhD, chief of Dermatology, and Shinichiro Kato, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow, who served as her mentors.

“It helped me learn what a career as a physician-scientist in academic medicine might really be like.”

Initially nervous, as the only African American woman in the lab and one of the youngest students in the program, Ugoji found a warm welcome on Dr. Fisher’s team. “Everyone had intriguing conversations with me about their research work, and the lab culture was positive,” she says.

Through her research, Ugoji showed that a substance called an inhibitor could cause cell death in some types of melanoma cancer cells. She won the 2019 MGH Clinical Research Day poster award for Dermatology.

Ugoji says the training, mentoring and career guidance she received at Mass General cemented her desire to pursue a career in academic medicine. “It helped me learn what a career as a physician-scientist in academic medicine might really be like.”

Her early love of math and science has found a way forward, bringing greater diversity to the medical field and better reflecting the community it serves.

To learn how you can support the Summer Research Trainee Program at Mass General, please contact us.