Leveraging FDA Resources to Encourage Students to Pursue STEM Careers

By: Richard Pazdur, M.D.

When I was in high school, I spent summers working as a restaurant dishwasher, grocery store stock boy and gardener in northwest Indiana. The idea of spending those weeks learning about science and medicine would not have been an option for me at that time.

Dr. Rick Pazdur and Members of Summer Scholars

Richard Pazdur, M.D., Director of the FDA Oncology Center of Excellence, poses with the first class of the OCE Summer Scholars Program. Sara Horton, M.D., project lead, (far left) and Alice Kacuba, project coordinator, (second from right) joined the group, which includes a variety of backgrounds, including two childhood cancer survivors interested in biomedical careers.

Yet, it is precisely those students who may not have access to specialized learning opportunities that we need to attract to science, technology and medicine to continue progress in these fields and ensure the diversity of our scientific workforce.

In particular, oncology and hematology are falling behind other areas of medicine in the adequate representation of racial and ethnic minorities in the physician workforce. Only 2.3% of practicing oncologists self-identified as black or African American, and 5.8% self-identified as Hispanic in a 2016 survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). According to census figures, 13% of the U.S. population is black or African American, and 18% is Hispanic.

That’s part of the reason why the Oncology Center of Excellence recently launched its pilot Summer Scholars Program, designed to introduce students to oncology drug development and career opportunities in government, regulatory medicine, and cancer advocacy. With the cancer incidence expected to increase 45% by 2030, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), we will need the talents of many more tech-savvy students from diverse backgrounds furthering their studies in our medical schools and university science labs.

Dr. Rick Pazdur and two Summer Scholars

Richard Pazdur, M.D., Director of the FDA Oncology Center of Excellence, asks Diamond McCoy, 17, of H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, D.C., and Camden Wiseman, 17, of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Alexandra, Va., about their plans for the upcoming academic year. The two were part of OCE’s first Summer Scholars Program, which seeks to encourage tech-savvy students to pursue their studies in medicine and other STEM fields.

We recently welcomed 11 Washington, D.C., area high school students to FDA’s main campus in Silver Spring for six weeks – from June 26 to August 4. The group includes students with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, including some who are part of a STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — program at their schools and two who are childhood cancer survivors interested in biomedical careers. Our requirements for the program include that they be in good academic standing and at least 16 years old.

Sara Horton, M.D., a breast cancer clinical reviewer and one of three staff members in the FDA Office of Hematology and Oncology Products (OHOP) who collaborated to develop the Summer Scholars Program, says that partnering with the D.C.-area public schools was the first thing that came to her mind in planning this program.

She told me that we decided to focus on students who may never have had an opportunity like this, as well as childhood cancer survivors. Dr. Horton reminded me that high school is a very special stage of development when students typically start thinking about where they fit in the world, what should they do, and who should they be.

We’re excited about introducing young people with STEM aspirations to professions in science and medicine they may have never known existed.

The curriculum includes basic and translational science, drug manufacturing, clinical trials, regulatory review, patient advocacy, and marketing. Lectures in those areas will be augmented by field trips to the NIH Clinical Center, NCI, Howard University College of Medicine, and ASCO.

In addition, students will be introduced to patient advocacy lobbying with Kids v. Cancer and accompany that group on a trip to Capitol Hill. They also are invited to a workshop at the drug manufacturing company AstraZeneca. Even medical students usually don’t have this type of opportunity to learn about the work we do at FDA until they are out of medical school.

Gregory Reaman, M.D., associate director for oncology sciences in OHOP and one of the program organizers, says the program is as interactive as possible for this age group. Most of the students will not have had much, if any, exposure to the field of oncology, while the cancer survivors will have had the experience of receiving treatment. We hope they will bring their experiences to us so we can all learn to be better advocates for patients.

Dr. Reaman, a pediatric oncologist, worked at a state mental hospital one summer. He says it confirmed his interest in medicine – just not psychiatry! We hope this experience will be as transformative for these students.

The lecture curriculum covers what we are calling the “Basics of Oncology,” including cancer treatments, endpoints for clinical trials, data analysis, statistics, pharmacy, microbiology, genetics, genomics, drug promotion, and patient advocacy.

Students also have the opportunity to work on professional skills such as writing, networking, and communication, and meet regularly with their mentors from FDA staff. At the end of the program, students will give short presentations to the OCE on a topic of interest to them.

Alice Kacuba, R.N., M.S.N., chief of regulatory project management staff in OHOP’s Division of Oncology Products 1 and one of the program organizers, told me that she hopes the agency’s diverse staff will leave a lasting impression on the students. She said she excelled in science, but saw very few female role models in science in the 1970s. Since becoming a nurse, “STEM education has become my passion, as my nieces and nephews can attest,” she said.

The OCE Summer Scholars Program is a pilot this year, but could be expanded next year to high school students nationally. Cooperation with offices within FDA and external organizations has been exceptional. We hope this will be a one-of-a-kind experience for the students as well as our oncology staff here at FDA.

Richard Pazdur, M.D., is the Director of the FDA Oncology Center of Excellence