NEWARK, N.J. - Third-year medical student Juan Carlos Ramos and his mentor, Dr. Carlos Molina, share Spanish as a common language and cancer research as their professional interest, and each has achieved distinction in the medical field. They are also among the few medical professionals with minority backgrounds who have chosen academic, instead of practical, medicine.
While the number of minority physicians has steadily climbed, minorities still represent less than 4 percent of all U.S. medical school faculty, say the nonprofit National Medical Fellowships and Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co., which are trying to address the imbalance.
Their Fellowship Program in Academic Medicine for Minority Students supports students' research and helps them develop mentoring partnerships with working researchers.
Second- or third-year African-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American and Native American medical students are eligible for the yearly $6,000 fellowship, which allows students to spend two to three months working on a research project under the supervision of a biomedical researcher-mentor.
The fellowship aims to help students develop and present their work and to give them an ally in the profession.
According to Molina, who is an assistant professor at the New Jersey Medical School, socioeconomic issues are a major reason why people from minority groups stay away from academic medicine. "A lot of minority students come from low-income families," he said. "They want to make money. Science doesn't pay well."
But lack of role models is another deterrent to prospective minority medical faculty and researchers, says Aaric Queen, a fellow at the University of Chicago. "As a kid, you look up to your family doctor. No one really knows what researchers do," he said.
Within the confines of a lab, graduate student Ramos says, culture and ethnicity don't play a big role. "We use the language of science." But he and Molina were initially drawn together by their common Puerto Rican heritage. "It opened the door for me," said Ramos. Molina encouraged Ramos to join him in the study of cancer cell growth and repression. Both have won awards and recognition for their work.
At a recent symposisponsored by Bristol-Meyers Squibb, fellows from across the country presented their research with their mentors looking on. "It was the first conference I've been to with so many minorities presenting," said Ramos. "Usually there are none."
Of the more than 280 students who have participated in the program since 1984, two-thirds have continued in academic medicine, citing their mentors' influence as one of the most important factors in their career choices.
Beyond supporting individual minority students, fellowship sponsors hope the program will help develop minority leadership within medicine. Molina says that diverse perspectives will inevitably strengthen the medical research field. "We all have different experiences and different approaches. These differences broaden the range of possible solutions to all the scientific challenges we face."
Pub Date: 6/18/98