NIH grant to support mentorships for underrepresented students

Interdisciplinary program aims to address health disparities by increasing minority scholars

Lisa Kitko, left, and Linda Wray. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Researchers in Penn State's College of Nursing and the College of Health and Human Development have received five years of funding from the National Institutes of Health to launch a program positioned to address both the health disparities experienced by underrepresented populations and the lower numbers of racial and ethnic minorities earning advanced degrees.

Historically in the United States, students from underrepresented backgrounds earn a smaller percentage of doctoral degrees in the biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences. Along with the shortage of minority scholars, underrepresented populations are also faced with health disparities related to their socioeconomic status, race and/or ethnicity.

The program "Improving Access through Research and Training" (IMPACT) will pair faculty and students whose academic and research interests align, with the overall goal of ensuring the mentees are adequately prepared to pursue advanced degrees in their chosen disciplines.

IMPACT is funded by a $718,519 award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Principal investigators — Lisa Kitko, associate professor and Josiah S. Macy Jr. Faculty Scholar in the College of Nursing, and Linda Wray, associate professor of biobehavioral heath in the College of Health and Human Development — will facilitate the IMPACT program over the next five years.

“This is an excellent opportunity for students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds to be exposed to the benefits of graduate education and immersed in a summer research experience. It is our goal that this mentored experience will spark interest in pursuing a graduate degree,” said Kitko.

The program will host an annual, 8-week, research-intensive summer experience where cohorts of 10 undergraduates will receive mentorship and training that will prepared them to pursue careers as research scientists with a special focus on cardiovascular, pulmonary, hematologic, or sleep disorder issues. Additionally, IMPACT faculty will help steward the transition of participating students into graduate school programs, with the end result being a diverse, doctorally prepared workforce perfectly positioned to address health disparities in underrepresented populations. During their summer experience, the IMPACT scholars will benefit from faculty-mentored research and attend seminars to develop the skill-set required to complete a competitive pre-doctoral application.

Given the projected growth of minority populations, where some projections show that ethnic and racial minorities will become the majority of the U.S. population by 2050, programs like IMPACT are essential to ensuring today’s minorities are adequately prepared to address health disparities with a diverse and inclusive approach.

“A diverse workforce is critically needed for two key reasons," said Wray. "First, a diversity of experiences permits health care professionals to hear, treat and study their patients with greater respect for and understanding of their needs; in turn, this respect and understanding may inform improving practice and policy aimed at reducing health disparities. Second, given the changing demographics in the United States and increasing interdependence with other nations, a diverse workforce and the reduction of health disparities are also quite simply good business."

Last Updated September 03, 2020