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In the fall months of 2019 into the early weeks of 2020, Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC) Training Program Director, Ann Smith, and Program Manager, Dawn Fizer, prepared for another year of summer curricula. Between Ann and Dawn’s 30 years’ experience managing MHRC programs, neither could have been ready for the changes they would encounter in 2020. As COVID-19 got closer and closer to home, many programs received instructions from national offices on whether or not they would be proceeding with their annual events. When necessary, it was left to individual schools and research centers to determine how they would be moving forward with their summer programs.

The MHRC offers four different training programs—geared toward undergraduate, graduate, and junior faculty & post-doctoral fellows. Click one of the groups below to learn more about the program(s) available.


  • Undergraduate
    Short-Term Research Experience for Under-Represented Persons (STEP-UP) aims to build and sustain a biomedical, behavioral, clinical, and social science research pipeline focused on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases’ (NIDDK) core mission areas. STEP-UP provides a 10-week full-time summer research experience at an institution of the students’ choice, usually near their home, across the U.S. STEP-UP students are linked with research mentors and work with research teams throughout June and July. They travel to the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, for the annual Research Symposium and present their work.

    Cancer Research Immersion Student Program (CRISP) is sponsored by the partnership of the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM), Tuskegee University (TU), and O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, for undergrad students at TU. CRISP students go through a hands-on research experience under the supervision of senior research investigators during the summer, and pursue cancer research courses during the academic semesters at TU. In July, the Cancer Research Symposium takes place—a time when each student can present their findings from the summer.
  • Graduate
    Summer Cancer Research Education Program (SCREP) helps graduate and medical students gain practical skills in hands-on research. The SCREP has taken place for eight weeks in June and July since 2002, and includes students at each of the three campuses. It is sponsored by the MSM/TU/UAB Cancer Partnership, funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). SCREP students participate in workshops in Cancer Biology, Scientific Writing, and Bioethics. Participants learn to integrate the Bioethics Shared Resource to ensure cancer research, outreach, and partnership with underserved and racial/ethnic minorities follow ethical guidelines. Throughout this program, participants are encouraged to choose careers that help close the gap in cancer incidence, morbidity, and mortality between minorities and the general population. At the culmination of the program, SCREP students also participate in the annual Cancer Research Symposium.
  • Junior Faculty & Post-Doctoral
    The Health Disparities Research Education Program (HDREP) scholars are mentored in research training and career development and take courses on bioethics, biostatistics, epidemiology, and minority aging. During the one-year program, participants focus on preparing a research proposal for a grant application to an external funding agency, such as NIH. Scholars present their plans at a Grant Review Session and receive feedback essential in the ultimate success of their project. The HDREP scholars are sponsored by several grants as well as their departments and institutions, and those sponsored by the MSM/TU/UAB Cancer Partnership also participate in presenting their research at the Cancer Research Symposium in July.

When it became clear a new strategy was needed for teaching and research during the pandemic, the MHRC team quickly jumped into action. Using technology primarily used for traditional academic coursework, online platforms such as Canvas were retooled for the needs of summer program learning. They created a new SCREP site in Canvas. Using this software, learning materials were broken down into modules that included readings, videos, discussions, and more—making it an effective way to review and give feedback on key learnings.


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While tools like Canvas helped with the educational component of these programs, there was still the mentorship and in-person interactions needed to create well-rounded summer research experiences. For STEP-UP, the nature of the pandemic didn’t allow participants to complete the full program during the traditional summer timeline. To maintain an equal and safe learning environment for all, the STEP-UP national office decided to postpone the mentored research experience initiatives until the fall semester.

For CRISP, SCREP, and HDREP, the MHRC Training team used a tool that everyone has become all too familiar with, Zoom. Using Zoom, students, speakers, and program leaders can attempt to replicate the face-to-face interactions and experiences that participants would have as if they were on campus. Additionally, Dawn shared that from the student perspective, “for at least the next year, students will have to do medical school interviews and college interviews in the Zoom setting. Having this experience helped them learn best practices for using the tool—like how to ignore their little picture in the corner.”

Most notably, the MHRC team used Zoom to host the Cancer Research Symposium (pictured below) for the MSM/TU/UAB Cancer Partnership investigators and scholars. Similar to how it would work in a traditional year, students were tasked with researching their topic, developing a poster and/or PowerPoint, and presenting. To keep everything running efficiently, participants pre-recorded their 3-minute “Lightning Talk” presentations. Individual videos were compiled into one and played in their applicable sessions.

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Using this technology, and teamwork with the MSM/TU/UAB Cancer Partnership leaders, Ann and Dawn were able to keep the Cancer Research Symposium—a cornerstone in MHRC summer programs—running without missing a beat.

Throughout this summer’s challenges, the MHRC team was forced to pivot and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Now, with a grant renewal ahead, and a year of digital programming under their belts, Ann and Dawn will move forward with the key learnings of 2020 for even better student experiences in the future.