New program inspires underrepresented young women to cancer research

For two weeks in July, a computer screen gave 18-year-old Bintou Samassa a glimpse of what she wants her future to look like. She watched Yehoda M. Martei, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine, talk about health disparities one day, while Armenta Washington, a senior research coordinator at the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC), discussed community engagement on another. Before that, Donita C. Brady, a Presidential Professor of Cancer Biology at Penn, had walked through what it’s like to work in a lab.

Screen capture of 11 participants in a Zoom call.
The Abramson Cancer Center’s Summer Health Experience, or SHE program, exposes students like Bintou Samassa (bottom left) to a career in cancer research. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Enrolling in the ACC’s Summer Health Experience, or SHE, program that introduces young women to careers in cancer, had placed her virtually in front of a group she doesn’t often see: Black women in medicine.

“Seeing these women playing important roles, especially in something as deep as cancer, was very inspirational,” says Samassa, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia with her family. “I feel like I really related to Dr. Martei, too, because of where she is from.” Samassa’s parents emigrated from Senegal, Africa. Martei was born in Ghana and immigrated to the United States for college. “I thought she was inspiring and told me to keep going in the right direction. She pushed me to be dedicated.”

Statistics show that Black and Latinx women are severely underrepresented in the health sciences. Latinas represent less than 4% of doctors and 2% of people in STEM careers in America, while Black women make up less than 3% in both, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges and National Science Foundation.

The SHE program aims to help change that by introducing high school students to a wide range of cancer-related career experiences, including in research, clinical care, survivorship, and community engagement, and the women who have them.

“There are not many people like us,” Samassa says, “who are able to do stuff like that.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.