Taking Diversity Seriously: Q&A with Ruth O'Regan

Feb. 25, 2022
Ruth O'Regan, M.D.

As Wilmot Cancer Institute’s associate director for the Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination (CRTEC) programRuth O’Regan, M.D., realizes that building a more diverse workforce means reaching out to bright minds and persuading them to embrace the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. Aspiring doctors face a lot of choices in their careers, and O’Regan is confident that Wilmot leaders will coax new faces aboard. Here are some of her thoughts:

What are your main challenges?

In regions where you have a predominantly white population, the faculty tend to be not very diverse. This is a problem everywhere, not just in the broader Rochester region. It’s also important to get as many training grants, such as T32 grants, as possible. When physicians are coming out of fellowship training, these grants allow them to have more protected research time and to fund their salaries early on. Those first few years are the most critical time for early-stage faculty, and likewise for PhDs. A big focus for getting these grants is: What is the diversity of the trainees who will benefit? The institution needs to show it’s making a strong effort in that area, to be taken seriously.

What is Wilmot doing to take things to the next level?

We actually have a couple of very strong programs to begin with, including our postdoctoral fellowship program. And then in the past year or so, Carla Casulo and the team at CRTEC obtained the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) summer internship grant, and I think the students who participated found it to be very rewarding. Continuing this fellowship is of critical importance and funding will be provided by Wilmot when ASCO no longer sponsors it. We’d love to keep these students as residents and ultimately as fellows. Additionally, our Deaf internship program for high school students offered time with cancer physicians and they also got to spend a week in a lab for a science perspective, doing things like extracting DNA. It’s been very inspiring to see this, and how the students responded.

Why are these students inspiring to you?

Oh, because they are just all very ambitious and engaged in the whole process. We talked with them about their backgrounds and they really have a lot of hurdles to climb. For that reason, it’s important to try to support them in their careers as best as we can. 

Describe some future initiatives.

A lot of exciting things are happening. We’ve developed a new curriculum with a cancer biology focus for bringing new students into an academic cancer research career, and we’re putting resources into recruiting a diverse population. We are also reaching out to community oncologists and are planning educational sessions, including speakers from other area institutions such as Roswell Park. We’re also working with the state medical society, which helps to build relationships with other oncologists and spread the word about what we’re doing at Wilmot. I think we have a lot of strength in education and look forward to steering it into the future.