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Diversifying Our Scientific Workforce

By Lisa Harlan-Williams, PhD, ACE Program Director
Poster presentation.

April 12, 2020

At The University of Kansas Cancer Center, we are responsible for educating tomorrow’s scientists.

Over the last decade, we have provided summer research training to individuals at the undergraduate, graduate and medical school level. In 2018, we launched a summer research program for high schoolers, too. The program, called Accelerate Cancer Education (ACE), pairs students with a mentor, who assigns them a cancer research project. This immersive research experience exposes high schoolers living in Wyandotte County to a variety of career opportunities.

Early Exposure to STEM Career Options

Programs like ACE lay the groundwork for informed career choices in the future. 

Historically, there has been an underrepresentation of certain demographics, such as women and minorities, in cancer research. Early exposure can help break down these barriers by showing high schoolers from all backgrounds that they have the potential to succeed. A scientific workforce comprised of individuals with myriad life experiences and perspectives broadens our research views. The result is more novel research. A diverse pool of scientists is essential for quality research, but some minorities continue to be underrepresented. According to a Pew report, African Americans make up 11% of the U.S. workforce but represent 9% of STEM employees, while Latinos comprise 16% of the total U.S. workforce but only 7% of all STEM employees. The academic, social and financial factors contributing to this gap are complex, but early exposure - like summer research programs - can help set the stage for a STEM career.

A scientific workforce comprised of individuals with myriad life experiences and perspectives broadens our research views. Lisa Harlan-Williams, PhD, ACE Program Director

Benefiting Patients

The ACE program supports high schoolers as they explore career options, and that may help patients in the long run. Research suggests patient-physician relationships impact disparities in healthcare, and a shared identity may strengthen that bond. Some studies have found patient satisfaction increases when they share the same race or ethnicity with their healthcare provider. Patient populations are becoming increasingly diverse, and our biomedical workforce must match that diversity. 

The journey to your career starts at a very early age. As the director of the ACE program, I have met so many bright young students with a keen interest in learning more about a career in science. Not everyone will choose to stay on that career path, but the insight they gain allows them to make more informed decisions about their future education.

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