Grant-funded program improving diversity in research

Produced by University Communications

In the header (from left to right): Dr. Damian Francis, Justine Savizon, Brittany Jones, Jasmine Harrison, Christine Hughes and Dr. Ernie Kaninjing. 

A t Georgia College & State University, a three-year program is in motion to provide underrepresented minority students access to research and mentorship in the biomedical field.

The Diversity in Cancer Research Institutional Development Grant, funded by the American Cancer Society, encourages students to join research activities, attend graduate school and either pursue careers in research or the biomedical workforce.

“The goal is to address the lack of diversity in the biomedical workforce by first engaging students early on in their educational pursuit,” said co-investigator of the program and Associate Professor of public health, Dr. Ernie Kaninjing. “By giving them the opportunity to participate in research and be mentored, we hope they will be pursuing careers, leading them into biomedical research.”

“So, they can actually become researchers themselves,” he said.

Initially the grant was offered to the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, but the school extended the program to Georgia College through a collaboration.

(From left to right) Jasmine Harrison, Dr. Ernie Kaninjing, Christine Hughes and Justine Savizon at the American Cancer Society conference.
(From left to right) Jasmine Harrison, Dr. Ernie Kaninjing, Christine Hughes and Justine Savizon at the American Cancer Society conference.

“We’re having our students interact with graduate students at Morehouse,” Kaninjing said. “They’re benefitting from seeing other students, role models not much older than them, pursuing research or a master’s program.”

“They can ask them questions, learn from them and see what it looks like to pursue something like this at the graduate school level,” he said.

The Diversity in Cancer Research program began this summer and provided mentorship to four students under the guidance of Kaninjing and Dr. Damian Francis, assistant professor of public health and co-investigator. 

To help them focus on their studies, program participants received a $2,000 stipend from the American Cancer Society.
Over the summer, chemistry and psychology graduate Brittany Jones, ’23, with senior public health majors Jasmine Harrison, Justine Savizon and Christine Hughes, trained to develop their research competencies. Fine tuning questions, collecting data, conducting and analyzing research, communication and career development were the focuses of the first year.

Jones wants to be a behavioral scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and she thinks this experience set her up for that future. Now at Emory University for her master’s in public health, it would seem the program is already a success. 

“I have noticed that I am very rare in that I got a lot of research experience in my undergrad at Georgia College,” she said. “Reading research papers and doing your own writing is very new to my classmates. I was very lucky that I got that experience firsthand.”

After developing their concept and conducting research, students presented their work twofold. Once in July at a one-day symposium in Opelika, Alabama, and a second time in October at the American Cancer Society Atlanta forum.

“To see them capture what they learned during the course of those eight weeks and present that poster at an academic event was really gratifying,” Kaninjing said.

Harrison, a public health and French double major from Fayetteville, Georgia, conducted research on racial disparities in care and post-treatment complications for breast cancer survivors. That’s why it’s important to improve diversity in research, she said, so researchers better understand the population they’re studying. 

“Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the United States, and I’m also a Black woman,” Harrison said. “Looking at the numbers and seeing racial health disparities really motivated me because it’s something I could see in my life, my family members and my friends. That’s what got me started.”

After conducting her research this summer, Harrison presented for the first time. The program prepared her to stand out in a place where everyone’s research matters. Now, she’ll pursue this research for years to come, hoping to have it published.

“I really just want to create awareness, even if I’m unable to make a great difference,” Harrison said. “I want this information to be available so other people with more funding or different resources can look at this research and work with it, as well.”

“I really loved this experience, and I think it’s a great opportunity for public health students at Georgia College,” she said. “I loved the collaboration with Dr. Francis and Dr. Kaninjing—it shows how much of a collaborative effort public health is, and how different minds bring different things to the table.”