By Rehema Thomas, MD candidate, Class of 2022
Going into medical school, I knew that treating cancer was what I was called to do. With my eyes set on oncology, I was aware that there were still options when it came to choosing a specialty. There was surgical oncology, medical oncology and radiation oncology. What road would I choose in the end? As my first year of medical school went along, our preclinical curriculum covered aspects of medical oncology, chemotherapies and surgical techniques. However, I realized I was not getting much exposure to radiation oncology, and I wanted to know more. With that and a growing love for imaging, I knew I wanted more experience in “rad onc” and decided to find out how I could secure it. With a simple internet search for summer research opportunities in radiation oncology, the ASTRO Minority Summer Fellowship (MSF) was the first result I saw. It was perfect! I reached out to my mentor, Curtiland Deville, MD, via email, scheduled a meeting with him, completed the application and ― the rest is history.
Being a recipient of the ASTRO MSF Award provided me with one of the most rewarding experiences in my medical training that I have had to date. My summer experience truly cemented my choice to pursue radiation oncology as a specialty. Throughout my summer working at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center with Dr. Deville, I was exposed to many different facets of radiation oncology. I was able to witness firsthand what goes into a complete course of treatment ― from the consultation to treatment planning, to treatment delivery. I had the opportunity to spend time with nurses, dosimetrists, physicists, therapists and physicians and see just how much each member of the team contributes to patient care. I sat in on several consultations with Dr. Deville for his prostate and sarcoma patients. I really appreciated how much patient education goes into consultations and how there is a visible alleviation in the uncertainty patients feel after having a conversation with the physician and getting a better understanding of their options.
Not only did I get to observe prostate and sarcoma consultations, but I was able to sit in on breast, lung and gynecologic consultations with other radiation oncologists in clinic. In my observation of on-treatment visits, I was able to gain more insight into the radiation-associated side effects that patients experience throughout treatment and how they are managed. Patient simulations, treatment set-up and treatment delivery were also exciting elements of my clinical exposure. Although the majority of my experience was in Washington, D.C., I did get the chance to travel to Baltimore and participate in Johns Hopkins’ Prostate Cancer Multidisciplinary Clinic. I thoroughly enjoyed that experience, as I value the shift medicine is taking toward multidisciplinary individualized care. Outside of the clinical visits and research, I had the opportunity to contour volumes for patient organs at risk and through that, gain familiarity with treatment planning systems used by the team.
Most importantly, I was able to foster a meaningful mentorship and complete significant research throughout the eight weeks of the fellowship. Dr. Deville was and continues to be an excellent mentor. I am very proud of how much I was able to learn and what we produced in the eight weeks. My poster, “Comparative in Silico Analysis of Pre-operative Scanning Beam Proton Therapy, Intensity-Modulated Photon Radiation Therapy, and 3-D Conformal Photon Radiation Therapy in Adult Soft Tissue Sarcoma,” was presented at the 2020 ASTRO Annual Meeting.
I enjoyed all aspects of the fellowship, and it confirmed my choice to pursue radiation oncology as a specialty. I extend my sincerest thanks to the ASTRO Committee on Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the invaluable opportunity.
Share this opportunity with medical students and colleagues. See the eligibility requirements and access the application for the ASTRO 2021 Minority Summer Fellowship.
Rehema Thomas is an MD candidate in the Class of 2022 at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She is a METEOR Research Fellow and president of the GW SMHS Women in Radiology.
By Michael LeCompte, MS
The Committee of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (CHEDI) of ASTRO developed the Minority Summer Fellowship (MSF) as an opportunity to introduce medical students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in medicine to the field of radiation oncology. The program provides a framework for medical students to gain meaningful early exposure to the specialty that both encourages interest and provides mentorship within the field. MSF awardees work with a mentor on a research project and are required to submit their work for presentation at the subsequent ASTRO Annual Meeting. For the 2020 cycle, four students will be offered a package of $5,000: a $4,000 stipend for the eight-week training program and a $1,000 grant toward travel to the 2021 ASTRO Annual Meeting.
I first learned of the MSF through my school’s Student Affairs office. At this point, I had previously shadowed within the Wake Forest Department of Radiation Oncology and had collected data for a few residents’ research projects. I had a basic understanding of certain elements within radiation oncology and was fascinated by all I had seen thus far. Radiation oncology allows physicians to help patients process the uncertainty associated with a cancer diagnosis and build actionable, evidence-based treatment plans. This blend of social support and scientific application resonated with what I was looking for in a specialty, and the MSF was the avenue that would permit me to explore this specialty further.
The MSF allows the recipient to design a research project with a mentor to be completed over the eight-week training program. I was fortunate to find mentors who empowered me to identify my own research questions. Through conversations with Dr. Karen Winkfield and Dr. Michael Chan, we found ways to leverage my prior knowledge within diabetes research and investigate topics I was already personally interested in. This allowed me to more easily take an active role in designing our research project. We investigated the impact of diabetes mellitus and anti-diabetic drugs on the clinical outcomes of brain metastasis patients treated with stereotactic radiosurgery. The research completed through this experience was presented at the 2018 ASTRO Annual Meeting and has been published in the Red Journal and the Journal of Radiosurgery and SBRT.
The MSF training program may last for just a summer, but the connections I made during this experience continue to influence my career plans. I was able to make lasting connections with mentors both inside and outside my home institution. During the training program, I continued shadowing Dr. William Blackstock, who has always been there to offer advice and guidance along my path in medicine. Under the guidance of Dr. Chan, I have continued my research in clinical outcomes of brain metastasis patients, specifically the study of the concept of brain metastasis velocity. My project with CHEDI served as a stepping stone to a research experience that has seen me present at the inaugural Conference on Brain Metastases sponsored by the Society of Neuro-Oncology.
CHEDI also provides MSF awardees a liaison. For me, that person is Dr. Christian Okoye of St. Bernards Cancer Center, who has been there to check in on my progress in medical training and offer encouraging words. Other members of CHEDI have also served as mentors. I have been able to discuss my research and career plans with members of CHEDI over phone calls and in person at national meetings. Through mentorship, the MSF helps medical students further develop their career goals and grow toward their true potential.
This experience affirmed my fascination with the specialty and ultimately helped me in choosing to apply for residency in radiation oncology. I cannot express how appreciative I am to the members of CHEDI for offering me this wonderful opportunity, and I encourage others to apply. The application for the 2020 cycle is currently open with a deadline of Friday, February 7, 2020.
Michael LeCompte, MS, is a fourth-year medical student at Wake Forest School of Medicine. He was one of two recipients of the 2017 ASTRO Minority Summer Fellowship Award.
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.