CUPID program places students in underserved communities

By Brian Hartz

Shortly after settling into his new job as chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the IU School of Medicine in January 2015, Richard Zellars, M.D., already began thinking of duplicating his successful summer program -- Cancer in Under-Privileged, Indigent, or Disadvantaged (CUPID) -- at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center that he started at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore 12 years ago.

Just 18 months after arriving at IU, Dr. Zellars saw his seven-week summer program up and running in the summer of 2016, providing four second-year IU School of Medicine students the chance to shadow medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and surgical oncologists as they worked with patients from under-served communities in the Indianapolis area. During the program, students also attended daily lectures delivered by IU and Johns Hopkins faculty and conducted research and basic science lab work alongside faculty mentors. They received a $5,000 stipend and, depending on need, housing for the summer.

Dr. Zellars, a researcher at the IU Simon Cancer Center, said the students who successfully applied and completed  the CUPID program – Justin Michael, Mirian Okoye, Adam Stepanovic, and Janefrances Egbosiuba – were chosen because of their pre-existing inclination toward working to correct health-care disparities.

“They’re already interested in caring for under-served populations,” he said. “They already have that gene. What we are trying to do is say, ‘We’re glad you’re interested in taking care of under-served populations. Please consider taking care of them with respect to oncology and cancer, because that group – cancer patients – are really in need.’ ”

Dr. Zellars and the program’s associate director, Joesph Dynlacht, Ph.D., professor of radiation oncology, attended lectures with the students so they could answer questions and guide discussions. That way, Dr. Zellars said, “Students get as much as they can out of the lectures and their interactions with the clinicians.”

He added that it’s a big deal for second-year medical students to sign up for a summer program like CUPID.

For medical students, they have the summer off after their first year of medical school, but that’s it. After that, they go to school year round. So we really only have a chance of getting them into this program between their first and second years of med school. And it’s a big sacrifice on their part to give up their summer.Richard Zellars, M.D.

“For medical students, they have the summer off after their first year of medical school, but that’s it. After that, they go to school year round. So we really only have a chance of getting them into this program between their first and second years of med school. And it’s a big sacrifice on their part to give up their summer,” he said.

For that reason, Dr. Zellars went to great lengths to augment the program with a social and extra-curricular element. He took the Indianapolis CUPID students to Baltimore to network with their counterparts in the Johns Hopkins program, which ran concurrently with IU’s. While out east, the students paid a visit to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where they lobbied Indiana’s senators to back the Planning Actively for Cancer Treatment (PACT) Act, a bill that, if passed, will benefit both cancer patients and oncologists.

Justin Michael, who is part of the Rural Medical Education Program at IU School of Medicine - Terre Haute, initially had doubts about pursuing a career in oncology, but CUPID appears to have changed his thinking.

“I have always wanted to bring equality into medical care but oncology seemed to be a very morbid field to enter,” he said. “I asked Dr. Zellars, ‘Why would I want to treat patients that I will never be able to cure?’ I will never forget his response: ‘I get to develop some of the longest, most personable relationships with my patients. It’s the bond I get to develop that keeps me coming back to work in oncology every day,’ he told me. Here was a person who had challenged everything I believed about oncology, and I had to find out what I had missed.”

Mirian Okoye, who said at age 12 she found out her grandmother had ovarian cancer, also seems to have been persuaded to think seriously about pursuing oncology as a calling.

“I am still undecided on what field of medicine I want to go into, but I know that I want to practice medicine where I can work with Spanish-speaking and underserved populations. Initially, oncology was out of the question, but after this summer research experience, it has definitely been added to my list.”

Okoye also appreciated the unique opportunities presented by CUPID.

“It was quite powerful to present the PACT Act with input from cancer survivors and us as medical students speaking for the future of medicine. To be on the front lines of healthcare reform speaking with staffers from Capitol Hill was nothing short of incredible. All in all, CUPID was the only program that could provide research complemented by clinical shadowing and public policy,” she said.

Another student, Janefrances Egbosiuba, said her favorite part of the CUPID experience was the clinical rotation, in which participants got the chance to work alongside oncology professionals.

“I had the opportunity of shadowing both a medical and radiation oncologist. My experience shadowing Dr. Sara Grethlein (Dr. Grethlein is a professor of clinical medicine) was amazing. The relationship that she has with all of her patients was admirable, and I only hope to be as good as she is one day. While shadowing Dr. Zellars, he taught us the history of radiation oncology and the methods he uses to target different types of tumors effectively.”

Adam Stepanovic said the CUPID program “opened my eyes and made me more considerate of the socioeconomic and cultural factors that affect medical care.” Stepanovic’s career interests range from oncology to urology and orthopedics, so he’s keeping an open mind for now, but he heaped praise on CUPID as being a great way to spend his summer, calling it “the perfect mix” of his interests.

“I’d like to encourage first-year medical students to apply to this program,” he added. “It has been an incredible experience, and I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities in seven weeks. I’d also like to thank Dr. Rich Zellars and Dr. Joe Dynlacht for directing the program and making this all possible.”

Summer educational offerings

In addition to the CUPID program, the IU Simon Cancer Center offers summer educational programs for high school and college students.

Do you know of a young person interested in pursuing a possible career in biomedical or behavioral science? If so, encourage them to apply to the IU Simon Cancer Center’s Summer Research Program. Applications for the 2017 program are due Feb. 28. Learn more about the program.

The Future Scientist Program is a summer science program for high school juniors at Indianapolis Public Schools, providing them the opportunity to spend six weeks on a research project under the mentorship of a university researcher. Learn more about the program.