By Kekoa Taparra, PhD, and Nadia Laack, MD
The American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) has long supported avenues for building prosperous mentor-mentee relationships. As a relatively small specialty with nearly 6,000 physicians, fostering strong communities through mentorship is imperative. With recent data highlighting the disparities in geographic, gender and ethnic representation of radiation oncologists, ASTRO has made great strides in promoting scholastic mentorship programs, particularly with the intention of promoting diversity.
One such program is the ASTRO Minority Summer Fellowship (MSF) program. Established a decade ago, more than 20 scholars have been awarded this research fellowship designed to support medical students interested in conducting either original clinical or basic science research in radiation oncology.
From the mentee: Kekoa Taparra, PhD, Mayo Clinic, MS4
I was first introduced to the radiation oncology community from my graduate school advisor, Phuoc Tran, MD, PhD, at Johns Hopkins. He was one of the first physicians I had ever met in my life and he encouraged me to consider a career in medicine. Despite knowing little about medicine at the time, Dr. Tran introduced me to other inspirational radiation oncologists, including current ASTRO President Ted DeWeese, MD, FASTRO.
I first learned of the MSF program through my medical school. Through a recent graduate, Chika Nwachukwu, MD, PhD, I had the fortune of meeting Nadia Laack, MD, who graciously agreed to serve as my ASTRO fellowship research mentor. I am incredibly grateful for Dr. Laack for her commitment to advancing research projects to the next stage. Dr. Laack remains an important advocate and role model in my life as an aspiring radiation oncologist. Dr. Laack truly cares for me as a mentee, ensuring I am on track for my maximum success going into fourth year and the MATCH.
After the fellowship, I had the privilege of presenting two oral abstracts at the 2018 ASTRO Annual Meeting. I shared our team’s research on cardiac substructure sparing optimization comparing proton and photon treatment planning for patients with mediastinal Hodgkin Lymphoma. The fellowship exceeded my expectations and even provided a $4,500 package that provided travel funding for the Annual Meeting. This experience provided me with vital research opportunities and clinical experience in the department with Dr. Laack and senior resident Scott Lester, MD.
Particularly as an indigenous Native Hawaiian, this fellowship symbolizes a step closer in my path toward caring for my people back in the islands. Having 10 Native Hawaiian family members who struggled with various malignancies, from neuroblastoma to endometrial cancer, I have seen firsthand the negative connotation radiation can have for some cancer patients. Native Hawaiians have statistically the worse cancer rates and outcomes among all ethnicities in our islands. Unfortunately, Native Hawaiians are also the least represented in this specialty and medicine as a whole. Thus, this fellowship allowed me the opportunity to further engage in a field highly pertinent to my family back home. I continue to be so grateful for ASTRO and all the radiation oncologists who have helped me get to where I am today.
From the mentor: Nadia Laack, MD, Mayo Clinic Department of Radiation Oncology, Chair
I find that mentoring students interested in radiation oncology is an incredibly rewarding experience. This is especially true when you have enthusiastic, motivated students like Kekoa that search out scholarship opportunities like the ASTRO Minority Summer Fellowship Program. Applying for the fellowship is an excellent experience for a mentor as it forces you to get to know your mentee and helps refine and focus their project.
Mentorship is extremely important in a field that students have little exposure to, like radiation oncology. Sharing why I chose radiation oncology reminds me of why I love all aspects of radiation oncology and how thankful I am to have found a career that is the perfect combination of meaningful patient interactions, multi-disciplinary collaboration, technical challenge and research focus.
Research is so integral to our field and it is critically important that students have research mentors who take time to help them develop a strong foundation of research methods and ask important questions. This relationship can ignite the spark to fire up in the next generation of brilliant radiation oncologists who will advance the field further than we could ever imagine.
For those who are interested in mentorship, I would encourage you to work with your medical student clerkship director who can help you share your project ideas. Medical students often rely on the radiation oncology residents for advice and information about what staff or projects would be a good fit, so it is also helpful to have a history of mentoring residents. Although it is a significant time commitment, the rewards personally and to our field are well worth the effort.
Have you participated in a mentorship? Share your story in the comments below.