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CHOP BEST Program Building Better Communities Through Diversity, Inclusivity

Published on April 5, 2024 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 2 months 1 week ago
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The CHOP BEST Program provides support to researchers and staff seeking to improve diversity and inclusion within their fields.

The CHOP BEST Program provides support to researchers and staff seeking to improve diversity and inclusion within their fields.

By Kate Knab

From helping foreign national researchers acclimate to life in the United States to supporting minority populations as they navigate healthcare careers, the Building Excellence in STEM (BEST) Program has demonstrated the ways in which diverse perspectives and individual experiences improve communities and encourage robust research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute.

The Office of Academic Training and Outreach Programs created the BEST Program in 2022 and has funded projects designed by CHOP trainees, faculty, and staff to promote equity and foster inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and math. As a new grant cycle opens — the deadline to apply for this year's award is April 30 (login required) — several of last year's awardees reflected on the positive outcomes they have achieved with the BEST Program.

Research Day at PolicyLab

Shaun Armstrong Jenkins

Shaun Armstrong Jenkins

As the Workforce Development Director at PolicyLab, Shaun Armstrong Jenkins created the Visibility and Voice Committee (VVC) to help enhance the visibility and amplification of the voices of racially and ethnically diverse individuals. Their mission extends beyond CHOP to the larger Philadelphia community where they noticed a lack of diversity within public health research.

Amid the COVID pandemic, Armstrong Jenkins and her VVC team engaged their community through virtual panel discussions with the Philadelphia High School for Girls designed to introduce careers in research that do not necessarily involve the typical "white lab coat." Their success carried them into similar discussions with undergraduate, graduate, and medical students from a broad array of universities.

"We want these students to know that PolicyLab and other (Research Institute Centers of Emphasis) have internship and career opportunities they can apply for," Armstrong Jenkins said. "We thought the best thing we could do was bring the students in and expose them to the many types of public health research that we do so they could understand the impact we have on our community."

With support from the BEST Program, VVC held their first Research Day at PolicyLab in January and welcomed 17 undergrads from seven universities. Students received swag bags and a tour of the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research, and they enjoyed a catered breakfast and lunch. Throughout the day, they listened to presentations from early career specialists at PolicyLab, participated in interviewing and resume building workshops, and learned about the CHOP Research Institute Summer Scholars Program and PolicyLab internship opportunities. Overall, the day served to expose minority students to careers in public health they may have never considered before.

"The pride the group felt afterwards really helped us understand how we were impacting these students," Armstrong Jenkins said. "It brought us together, especially as people of color, helping them realize they can do anything they put their minds to. Everyone deserves an opportunity, and I am deeply appreciative that this grant has enabled us to concentrate on a diverse group of undergraduate students, with the aim of instilling an early interest in public health research."

CHOP Opportunity for Academic Careers in ResearcH Program

Bernarda Viteri, MD

Bernarda Viteri, MD

As radiology research continues to advance, the number of international medical graduates in the field continues to rise as well. Bernarda Viteri, MD, an attending nephrologist at CHOP from Ecuador, saw an opportunity to provide for future generations of scientists what she needed as a young research assistant: guidance.

"During my imaging research fellowship at CHOP, I realized there were resources not always available to other international medical graduates, often due to immigration status," Dr. Viteri said. "These resources were immensely beneficial to my academic career, so I wanted to find a way to help make this information more accessible."

After several design sessions with Savvas Andronikou, PhD, former Vice Chair of Pediatric Radiology Clinical Research, and with the guidance of Janet Reid, MD, Vice Chair for Pediatric Radiology Education, Dr. Viteri launched the CHOP Opportunity for Academic Careers in ResearcH (COACH) Program. The program invites Radiology research scholars and fellows to learn about CHOP resources, study imaging research, focus on career development, and build community. Using the group's feedback and ideas from the COACH Committee — comprised of Sydney Wieczkowski, Yadel Mekete, Tigist Hailu, Victoria Ramirez, and Hansel Otero, MD — Dr. Viteri tailors discussion topics to the Radiology research scholars' interests. The COACH curriculum covers anything from pediatric radiology post-processing imaging software to academic writing workshops.

This year, with support from the BEST Program and David Saide in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI), COACH hosted a workshop to promote cultural adaptation resources. Current research scholars and fellows in the Radiology program represent 12 countries, and Dr. Viteri sought a way to foster inclusion while celebrating their differences. During the workshop, international medical graduates acted out scenarios specific to their own experiences to develop best practices for troubleshooting and conflict resolution. Saide also provided information on the ODEI resources available and created a safe space for engagement.

"We want to let them know they are not alone," Dr. Viteri said. "Sometimes it's not easy, but it's important to acknowledge differences and how those differences are uniquely powerful as well. Our research scholars should embrace their different backgrounds and use it to contribute to their teams with more confidence."

Looking Inward: Obtaining Community Feedback to Enhance Study Procedures that Promote Inclusivity

Maxine Smith (left) and Krithi Ram-Junnarkar

Maxine Smith (left) and Krithi Ram-Junnarkar

As part of the study team for the Center of Autism Research's Social Coordination project, clinical research assistants Krithi Ram-Junnarkar and Maxine Smith expanded on the study's data and enhanced its potential impact for marginalized populations by first looking inward to better reach out. The Social Coordination study is a large-scale National Institutes of Health-funded study examining interpersonal social-motor functioning in adolescents who are neurotypical or have diagnoses of autism, anxiety, depression, and/or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.

Support from the BEST Program has allowed Ram-Junnarkar and Smith, along with their Principal Investigator Juhi Pandey, PhD, and other members of their team, to add an introspective component that analyzes the retention rates of families of color who participated in the initial study through a voluntary virtual interview. The interview collects feedback on parents' and caregivers' perceived accessibility of the Social Coordination study, their thoughts on mental health, and their general attitude toward participating in similar studies.

"With this part of our study, we're hoping to invite dialogue between researchers, community organizations, and the caregivers in our study about their wants and needs," Smith said.

Another key part of the interview asks families how they believe community outreach could be more effective and considerate of the needs of their community. So far, Smith and Ram-Junnarkar have identified a strong desire for community education that addresses stigmas around autism and mental illnesses, and where resources can be found for support. With this knowledge, they have begun to reach out to organizations who work largely with people of color to bring accessible resources and educational materials to the community. Most recently, Ram-Junnarkar and Smith partnered with the Free Library at Parkway Central to host an event for parents and caregivers of neurodivergent teens.

"Through this project, I've seen the power that community organizations have in building equitable systems of care that communities deserve," Ram-Junnarkar said. "We have a lot to learn from this community-focused approach, and I am hopeful that these organizations and studies like ours can come together to continue building these systems of care."