Diversity in Cancer Research

Indiana University receives American Cancer Society grant to improve diversity in the field of cancer research

July 29, 2022

Diverse perspectives in research are an essential component of driving innovative problem-solving that accelerates new approaches to the prevention and treatment of cancer.

To improve diversity in the field of cancer research, Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center is offering the Diversity in Cancer Research (DICR) internship program for undergraduate students, supported by the American Cancer Society. Funding for the DICR program is via a supplement to an ACS Institutional Research Grant awarded to Mark Kelley, Ph.D. IU is one of 12 universities to implement this American Cancer Society internship program for 2022. 

This summer, eight interns have been paired with a cancer center researcher as a mentor. The students are experiencing the day-to-day world of cancer research, participating in research projects in a collaborative environment with other scientists, and engaging in career development and networking activities. Four of the eight interns are from universities outside of Indiana. The 10-week program will end Aug. 5.

Maria Casiano working in the lab.

Among the interns is Maria Casiano, an incoming junior at Indiana University Bloomington studying microbiology and chemistry. She hopes to attend IU School of Medicine and become a physician.

This is the second summer Casiano has conducted research with John Turchi, Ph.D., the Tom and Julie Wood Family Foundation Professor of Lung Cancer Research and cancer center member.

As part of the internship, Casiano is making derivatives of a drug candidate and testing their potency on lung cancer cells to see if they are more or less effective. Turchi recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to develop a novel therapy to treat lung cancer.

“I like having a diversity of people in the lab – everything from age to interests – it gives you a better perspective, and everybody has something different to contribute,” Turchi said. “This program brings in younger folks into the lab, and with youth comes enthusiasm which makes the lab better.”

Casiano says the DICR experience has widened her career options. Since she has enjoyed the laboratory research, she may consider an M.D/Ph.D. program that would allow her to practice medicine and conduct research.

Casiano says she is motivated by her grandfather, who was Mexican American and a Vietnam veteran. He had dementia for 10 years before dying during the COVID pandemic, she said. Seeing him in a nursing home inspired her to pursue a healthcare career to improve care for others.

“That’s been a personal motivation for me because he had a really tough life, and he worked really hard to get my family where we are,” she said. “As a physician, I would want to make my patients feel comfortable and confident in the care they receive. I believe as a researcher or physician, it is critical to understand that if my goal—and the goal of the field as a whole—is truly to help all people, then we need to ensure all voices are a part of the process.”

The DICR internship at IU is designed to serve students from populations underrepresented in biomedical and clinical research in the summer after completing their first or second year of undergraduate coursework. Learn more about the internship.

The 2022 DICR interns are:

  • Andree Kolliegbo, Purdue University
    Mentor: Kun Huang, Ph.D.
  • Aniya Crowner, Clarke Atlanta University
    Mentor: Elliot Androphy, M.D.
  • Ariana Hampton, Johns Hopkins University
    Mentor: Amber Mosley, Ph.D.
  • Maria Casiano, Indiana University - Bloomington
    Mentor: John Turchi, Ph.D.
  • Monserrat Ortega, IUPUI
    Mentor: Uma Sankar, Ph.D.
  • Siji Ketiku, Howard University
    Mentor: Edward Motea, Ph.D.
  • Simone Wickware, University of Indianapolis
    Mentor: Shannon Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Zawge Daniel, University of Texas - Dallas
    Mentor: Jill Fehrenbacher, Ph.D.
Summer program interns presented their research during a poster session on July 27.

More about the Diversity in Cancer Research internship program

Made possible by a $5 million grant from the Elizabeth and Phil Gross Family, the American Cancer Society Diversity in Cancer Research pilot launched in 2021 with 32 interns at eight universities. The program’s goal is to enroll 100 interns per year over 10 years.

This year, 12 universities received Diversity in Cancer Research Internship grants: Yale University School of Medicine; Emory University; Case Western Reserve University; The University of Chicago; Indiana University; University of Kentucky Research Foundation; University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus; University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center; Georgetown University; Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center; University of Maryland, Baltimore; and Washington University in St. Louis.

Each participating university receives funding to provide training and educational opportunities that encourage underrepresented undergraduate students to pursue biomedical careers.

African Americans and Black people, Hispanics and Latinos, Indigenous people, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are underrepresented in science and research grant funding opportunities. According to data gathered from the National Institute of Health’s principal grant program in 2013 and 2018, only 7% of applicants were part of these diverse communities, and in the American Cancer Society’s fall 2019 and spring 2020 peer review cycles, diverse applicants were only 6% of the applicant pool. 


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