Cultivating a More Diverse Scientific Work Force

Guest post by Amelie G. Ramirez, DrPH

Interim Chair and Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research, UT Health San Antonio


The U.S. Latino population surged 243 percent from 1980 to 2010.

But in the same time span, the Latino physician work force dropped from 135 to 105 physicians per 100,000, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This decline is alarming. It means that the growing Latino population does not get culturally competent care needed to improve patient health outcomes, exacerbating disparities in many illnesses, including numerous types of cancer. Disparities in cancer incidence and mortality are the focus of the 10th AACR Conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved, held today through Sept. 28 in Atlanta.

The Latino population is facing dramatically higher rates of cancer incidence in the next few years. Cancer is the No. 1 killer of Latinos, who typically suffer higher rates of cervical, liver, stomach, and gallbladder cancers. Latinos also have among the highest rates of obesity and related health complications, such as diabetes, which in turn heightens their risk of certain cancers. And they have lower rates of preventive care and cancer screening uptake.

There is a huge need for more Latino doctors and researchers to develop culturally infused, linguistically relevant educational messages, preventive care, and cancer therapies and survivorship plans. That is why, in 2011, I started Éxito! Latino Cancer Research Leadership Training at UT Health San Antonio, with support from the National Cancer Institute.

The word “éxito” is the Spanish word for “success,” and our goal is to push promising candidates toward success in the field of cancer research. Through Éxito!, we recruit Latino master’s-level students or health professionals to engage in a summer institute and receive ongoing support that provides culturally relevant tools, role models, internships, and motivation to apply for a doctoral degree and start a career in cancer research.

The Reasons for Éxito!

There are many reasons why Latinos earn just 3.9 percent of all science and engineering doctoral degrees conferred in the U.S.

For some, finances are a barrier. For others, family responsibilities come first, before higher education. Also, the lack of existing Latino doctors and researchers often makes it hard for aspiring Latinos to find mentors and people to emulate.

Esteban Lopez, who moved with his family from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the U.S. when he was a child, often served as an interpreter at his mother’s medical appointments. His older brother became a doctor, and Lopez decided that he would like to be a doctor, too. But aside from his brother, he didn’t meet another Latino doctor until he got to college.

Through a health careers opportunity program, Lopez shadowed a Latino physician and gained clinical experience, got help preparing for medical school tests and interviews, and went on to become a successful doctor. Today, he is Texas Chief Medical Officer and Market President Southwest Texas at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas.

“I was lucky. Despite never seeing a Latino physician growing up, I had family role models to help guide my path to becoming a medical professional,” Lopez said in a riveting article. “Other kids aren’t so lucky. The quest to become a doctor is hard.”

That’s why programs like Éxito! are so vital. The program has three key parts:

  • A summer institute that provides culturally relevant education, tools, and Latino role models to enhance participants’ understanding of: Latino cancer health disparities; the power of research to affect change; research methods, theory and interventions; cancer control; and networking and skills to successfully apply to and succeed in a doctoral program.
  • An internship component with a stipend that enables participants to work with a mentor at their university or institute on a research project on Latino cancer.
  • Ongoing support through webinars for alumni, interns, and doctoral students, as well as constant support, networking, and career-building through our publications—such as our annual newsletter—and our real-time communications—like our Facebook page.

Between 2011-2017, Éxito! recruited 151 participants for its summer institutes. Nearly 25 percent of these participants already have applied for and been accepted into a doctoral program.

Survey results also demonstrated a significant improvement in academic self-efficacy, as well as improvements in confidence about applying to a doctoral program in the next five years. Survey findings for internships demonstrated significant improvements in students’ research skills.

Jose Ramos, a 2016 Éxito! graduate, was already the first in his family to graduate from high school and college. Inspired by his mother, who beat breast cancer, Ramos is aiming high for an MD/PhD. He is currently studying global disease as a master’s student at Columbia University. He has an internship with the Brazilian Health Association to work on community-based cancer and disease research.

“The [Éxito!] summer institute has inspired me to believe in all possibilities,” Ramos said. “I am more than ever convinced that a dual MD/PhD is more than possible. ¡Si se puede!” (Yes, we can.) 

The future

More work is needed to solve Latino health disparities. We need to work together to help build a culture of health for Latinos with a diverse health care work force that understands their culture, language, and needs.

We need to work on getting Latino kids interested in STEM careers early. We need more Latino role models, like Jose Ramos and Esteban Lopez. Please watch our video or visit Éxito! to learn more.