The oncology field has a diversity problem. It’s no secret and there are no easy solutions. Less than one percent of medical oncologists are Black, Native American, or Hispanic, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), and yet research has shown that a more diverse physician workforce improves patient care.
Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination (CRTEC) program wants to do its part to make things better in Rochester and nationally.
Last year, Carla Casulo, M.D., took a new step in that direction. An enthusiastic mentor who already supervises Wilmot’s fellowship program, Casulo learned of an opportunity, through an ASCO committee that she sits on, to encourage students who are underrepresented in medicine to consider the field of oncology.
She applied to ASCO to host an inaugural summer internship program geared toward diversity — and that’s how the University of Rochester became one of five medical schools in the country to offer this unique experience to rising second-year medical students.
“The U.S. is a country of immigrants,” Casulo says. “Having that reflected by demonstrating that we’re taking this seriously, and that we’ve been recognized by ASCO as a leader in the field to shepherd them, is really important.”
While the program began with a longterm desire to help diversify the field, in the short term, the students were the real winners. The five of them spent an immersive four weeks listening to talks given by prominent oncologists from around the country, participating in social events with Wilmot physicians, and shadowing faculty in clinic appointments with patients.
It had a big impact on George Olverson.
“I didn’t know a lot of mentors or know a doctor or a lot about medicine. I knew what I saw on TV,” Olverson says. “This was my first experience in a clinical setting seeing patients, having more patient interactions and seeing the clinical aspects.”
Olverson thought his medical career might veer toward research; the experience helped him realize how much he enjoys being able to help patients, too. Specifically, he felt a kinship with two Black patients he met. They seemed to appreciate having someone who looks like them in the room, and it made him want to help more patients.
“Now I need to do something impactful,” he said.
The internship has also placed oncology on Ashley Marie Cortes’ radar, providing an “eye-opening” experience, she says. Not only did she enjoy witnessing the resilience of patients, but she also learned a lot about cancer.
“I didn’t understand completely how many different types of cancer there are, and the many biomarkers and ways to identify and treat the disease,” she says.
She felt nervous about meeting patients facing a devastating disease but seeing how patients and physicians interacted was insightful.
“I expected more tears,” Cortes says. “One thing that really struck me is that the older people took it in stride. A lot of people were very calm and just wanted to know all of their options. They were very collected.”
In medical school, students learn about life-changing diseases, but seeing firsthand how cancer treatment decisions are made between doctor and patient was powerful for Bianca Duah.
“You meet people who make the decision to fight with treatment,” Duah says, “and others who choose to live life out the best way they can.”
But it wasn’t just the patients who inspired the student interns. Both Duah and Cortes commented on the kindness they saw in the Wilmot oncologists they met – perhaps because an oncologist has to offer a mix of hope and honesty, especially when dealing with someone facing advanced cancer.
“They are so down to earth,” Duah says. “The work they do shapes their perspective on life.”
She adds that she was already considering oncology, “but I was worried that I didn’t have emotional strength. Now I think it’s feasible to push ahead.”
While the official program ended in the summer, Casulo and others at Wilmot believe this is only a beginning. She encouraged the students to continue shadowing and meanwhile, Casulo and the education team hope to strengthen the program, serving more students in the future.