Inspired by Science: Cancer Research Internships for Minority Students
Noah Espinoza, who grew up in a small ranching community in New Mexico, was excited when he was selected in 2008 to participate in the prestigious Cancer Research Internship Program for Undergraduate Students at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA. He had heard about the program during his senior year at New Mexico State University (NMSU), when Fred Hutchinson scientist Dr. Beti Thompson visited one of Espinoza's classes to talk about the internship opportunity.
"One of the things that motivated me to apply was that [the internship] would allow me to take the next step of getting hands-on experience in health care research," said Espinoza, who graduated from NMSU in May 2008 with a bachelor's degree in Community Health prior to heading for Seattle. "The program at NMSU was mostly focused on training me to become a lay health worker and educator, but I didn't feel like I had any 'real world' experience with research, and that's why I was so excited to be going to 'The Hutch.'"
Espinoza found his internship through the Minority Institution Cancer Center Partnership program (now called Partnerships to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities) developed and funded by NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD). NMSU and the Hutchinson Cancer Center have partnered through the NCI program since 2002 to expand the number of underrepresented students who are trained in cancer research.
Dr. Thompson, who is on the Cancer Prevention faculty at Fred Hutchinson, has led the partnership since its inception. "It is a wonderful program because NMSU has the student population of Hispanics and Native Americans that Hutchinson is interested in working with in our efforts to reduce cancer health disparities in those populations," she explained. "In return, our cancer center has helped NMSU increase [its] cancer research infrastructure and provided advanced training opportunities for [its] students." The goal is to encourage more NMSU students to pursue graduate education in cancer research.
Each summer, between six and ten NMSU undergraduates are accepted through a rigorous selection process into the Cancer Research Internship Program, which involves 9 intense weeks of mentored research activities, seminars, social activities, and a final poster session. Dr. Thompson recalled being impressed with Espinoza when he arrived at the University of Washington.
"Noah is very passionate about what he does, including research," she said. "He takes great care in looking up scientific literature, making sure he knows what he's talking about, and just really digging deep into any topic that he's interested in."
"I was really amazed by the supportiveness of everybody at the Hutch, especially Dr. Thompson," commented Espinoza. "She has lots of research projects going on, so there was plenty of work for me and the other interns."
After he finished his internship research project doing data entry and analysis for the smoking cessation program "Quit and Win," Dr. Thompson invited Espinoza to do similar work on her program of home health parties aimed at increasing cancer screening rates among Hispanic farm workers in Washington State. In that program, trained lay health workers visit a Hispanic family and their friends to talk about the importance of colorectal cancer screening.
"It's like a Tupperware party, only what we're selling is cancer prevention," explained Dr. Thompson.
Involvement in that project "was the turning point for me," Espinoza recalled, "because, with data analysis, you're discovering meaningful things and getting an understanding of what's working in order to improve people's health. That was one of the main reasons why I decided to apply for graduate school; because I want to be able to do more of that sort of research."
Upward and Onward
Dr. Thompson and her colleagues subsequently wrote recommendations that helped Espinoza get into the University of Washington Master of Public Health in Epidemiology program. She also helped him write and apply for a 2-year grant to do research on physical activity for his graduate thesis.
"I'm hoping I can continue my career here at the Hutch," Espinoza said. "I see myself working with rural or underserved populations, trying to address the issues of health, cancer prevention, and quality of life in those populations."
"Noah embodies the goals of our partnership with NMSU," Dr. Thompson noted. "He is the kind of person who we want to get into the pipeline because he's going to be a fantastic mentor later on for Hispanic students and other students of underrepresented populations who are trying to get ahead in the research field. His enthusiasm is very contagious."
Watch a video of Noah Espinoza produced by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center online.
More information on training opportunities for students and researchers can be found online.