Black scientist looking through a microscope

Program Between Columbia and United Negro College Fund Links HBCUs and CUIMC

Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) have created the Ernest E. Just Biomedical Research Scholars @ Columbia, a groundbreaking program that will provide college and graduate students at historically Black colleges, universities, and medical schools (HBCUs) with research opportunities and access to mentors at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and the HICCC. In turn, faculty at CUIMC will have access to a diverse and talented cohort of students to mentor, and faculty will collaborate on research projects ranging from epidemiological studies to new ideas for cancer therapy.

The program aims to increase the number of Black researchers in tenure-track positions at Columbia and other top-tier biomedical research institutions in the country by providing a critical link between young scientists in the pipeline at HBCUs and established researchers at Columbia University.

“The Ernest E. Just Biomedical Research Scholars Program is an opportunity to build mutually beneficial relationships between researchers at Columbia and HBCUs,” says Anil Rustgi, MD, interim executive vice president and dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and director of the HICCC. “The most innovative research comes when scientists from all backgrounds are represented and have a voice.”

Today, Black Americans represent approximately 13% of the U.S. population but less than 2% of tenure-track faculty at top-tier research institutions and only 4% of doctorates in life sciences.

“We are excited about this first-of-its-kind initiative that establishes a link between HBCUs and majority research institutions and centers like Columbia University,” says Chad Womack, PhD, senior director of STEM Initiatives and the founding director of the Ernest E. Just Life Science Initiative at UNCF. “This initiative leverages the phenomenal legacy of Dr. Ernest E. Just, a preeminent Black scientist who blazed a trail for other African Americans pursuing careers in the life sciences. The program with Columbia also represents an effort to address historical inequities and remove barriers that have kept many Black scientists from achieving their highest aspirations in life science research at top-tier research institutions.”

UNCF is a national nonprofit educational organization that supports HBCUs and helps Black Americans enter and complete college.

“Being a successful scientist is not just about doing science. Having access to experienced scientists as mentors and being connected to a vibrant research network are key to successfully navigating the academic world, attaining a tenured position, and thriving professionally,” Womack adds.

The Ernest E. Just Biomedical Research Scholars @ Columbia program developed from discussions about how students at HBCUs can connect with scientists at top-tier research institutions such as CUIMC. In addition to Womack and Rustgi, those discussions included Kevin Gardner, MD, PhD, senior vice chair of pathology & cell biology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Sandra Harris-Hooker, PhD, senior vice president for external affairs and innovation at Morehouse School of Medicine. 

“We are very excited about this program, which will grow over time,” Rustgi says. “I am grateful to Dr. Womack and UNCF, Dr. Gardner, Dr. Harris-Hooker, and our HICCC administration for collectively working with me.”

“More than ever, we need diverse voices, life experiences, skills, and knowledge in life science research,” says Harris-Hooker. “Developing and mentoring a pipeline of professionals through a program such as the Ernest E. Just Biomedical Research Scholars @ Columbia program has the potential to help solve some of our most daunting problems, such as health equity, and unlock new discoveries in life science research.”

The program began this past summer with 12 students from Morehouse School of Medicine who were paired with a faculty researcher at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, Mailman School of Public Health, or School of Nursing depending on the student’s research interests. Students were selected by UNCF and Morehouse School of Medicine and conducted their research with CUIMC faculty remotely in this initial cycle.

“When my medical school told me about the opportunity, I was rightfully excited as it means an opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading experts,” says John Degraft Hanson, an Ernest E. Just Scholar who is a second-year medical student at Morehouse School of Medicine.

Degraft Hanson is a graduate of the University of Florida and decided to pursue a career in medicine because of his concern for the health care inequity in American society that has left many people in want. He worked with Ana Emiliano, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, as his mentor, analyzing images to investigate how various bariatric surgeries affect the body.

Next year the program is anticipated to expand to students at other HBCU medical schools and undergraduate institutions. Students will work in New York City with their mentors. All students are provided a stipend as part of the program, which is funded jointly by the UNCF Ernest E. Just Life Science Initiative and the HICCC.