A mentoring program that provides support for research and education on neurology as early as high school could potentially be a powerful tool for increasing interest in the specialty among underrepresented students, suggests findings from such a program described during the 2021 virtual AAN Annual Meeting.
At the start of the seven-week MGH Youth Neurology Education and Research program, only 21 percent of high school and undergraduate participants said they were interested in pursuing a career in neurology. By the end of the program, 90 percent of students expressed interest in the specialty, reported Madison Ellin, MS, a program coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“Across the neurology community, we recognize that there are huge gaps in workforce diversity, and this limits our ability to eliminate health disparities that have been extensively documented in neurology. There's a growing movement to advance equity and justice in neurology," said Nicte Mejia, MD, MPH, FAAN, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of neurology community health, diversity and inclusion at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Mejia created and leads this program.
Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, women, and populations with low socioeconomic status are most affected by neurologic conditions, and they are the least represented in the neurology workforce, noted Ellin. Many students from these underrepresented groups may not know that careers in neurology are an option for them, she added.
Ellin and colleagues recruited 31 high schoolers and undergraduate students to participate in the paid virtual research and education program led by professionals across the field during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty-nine percent of the students came from immigrant backgrounds, 68 percent were Latino or Black, and 61 percent were first-generation students. All students came from the greater Boston area, with 96 percent of them residing in marginalized communities that have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The students conducted research at 11 neurology labs that focused on health services, clinical, basic, and translational studies on various neurologic conditions. Clinical and research faculty at Mass General and Biogen Foundation led the didactic sessions and taught students about leadership, career development, innovation, and discovery.
“We [often] hear there are no Latino, Black, or Indigenous students who are interested in neurology and that they are hard to find. Our success recruiting talented students from underrepresented backgrounds with an interest in neurology careers reinforces the importance of partnerships, as teaming up with organizations who support underrepresented students was very impactful," Dr. Mejia told Neurology Today.
Future pipeline programs should provide students with career support beyond just a few short weeks in the summer, but with long-term mentorship and sponsorship to ensure their continued interest in neurology and their continued success in pursuing their academic dreams, Dr. Mejia said.
Mentoring really works, said Carolyn Barley Britton, MD, MS, professor of neurology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and chief diversity officer for the department of neurology, who was not involved with the program or study.
These underrepresented students are often not exposed to neurology as a specialty and may lack formal understanding of what a neurologist does or what problems are addressed in neurology research, said Dr. Britton.
The results from the program suggest the mentors did a good job and that the young people who participated in the program enjoyed themselves, she said. “However, it is important to note that learning and decision-making in medicine are not based on a single intervention with someone but on a continuing interaction," Dr. Britton said. “The same is true with mentoring; it requires an ongoing relationship."
Ellin and Dr. Britton did not report any disclosures.
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AAN Abstract S23.001: Ellin M, Ayele A, Jobin J, et al. Feasibility and short-term outcomes of the MGH youth neurology education and research program.