Duke, NCCU partner for physician internship program to improve representation in medicine

A new program launched by Duke and North Carolina Central University is looking to introduce students from underrepresented backgrounds into the medical field.

The Mentored Internship Program provides internship opportunities for undergraduates at NCCU, a historically Black university. Interns are paired with research faculty in the School of Medicine’s Division of Nephrology with the aim of promoting diversity and inclusion in health science. 

“This internship opportunity is precisely the type of partnership that we feel is important to nurturing the success of our students,” said Nina Smith, associate dean of NCCU’s College of Health and Sciences. 

A legacy of diversity

Gentzon Hall, vice chief of diversity, equity and inclusion in the division of nephrology, established the program in honor of his mentor Michelle Winn, whom Hall worked with while studying nephrology and human genetics. 

“It was a quality to the way that Michelle interacted with people in her lab that I felt was so warm and inviting and encouraging,” Hall said. “It just made it possible for you to see yourself doing that work, and I wanted to recreate that for NCCU students.”

The program was later expanded to also honor Charles Johnson, the first Black faculty member in the School of Medicine and a close colleague to Winn and Hall. 

“Dr. Johnson’s legacy on Duke’s campus is enormous, mainly through the transformation of the landscape,” Hall said. “When you look at [his] impact from 1970, when he first came on faculty to the present day, what you'll see over time is sort of the gradual infusion of faculty trainees of diverse backgrounds."

Charles Denton Johnson, chair of NCCU's history department and Charles Johnson's son, joined Hall and Smith in leading the program. 

Denton Johnson and other MIP leaders established two additional awards within the program: the Charles Johnson Clinical Research Training Award and the Michelle P. Winn Basic/Translational Research Training Award. 

Increasing representation

The 2022 Physician Specialty Data Report by the Association of American Medical Colleges found that fewer than 6% of active physicians in the United States were Black, even though Black people make up 14% of the U.S. population

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reports that 30% of people with end-stage kidney disease are Black.

“We don't have the representation in medicine, as African Americans, to address the needs of kidney patients in the way that the margins exist,” Hall said. “So what this program is intended to do is to address that pipeline deficit.”

Hall mentioned that there are "complex interpersonal dynamics" influenced by culture that affect patients' needs and responses, including how physician advice is heard and received.

"The evidence is that doctor-patient interaction communication between doctors and patients is improved when there is some shared common aspect to culture," he said. "... It punctuates how important this is, particularly with a problem like kidney disease that is so disproportionately a burden on African Americans relative to other ethnic groups."

Hall and Smith agree that among students of underrepresented communities, a lack of support and belonging erodes self-confidence in fields such as medicine, reinforcing the need for mentors. For them, the MIP serves as an "extra net of support, an assurance and preparation for students that typically won't see many like themselves in environments like this." 

Student learning 

This year, senior Monique Dacanay is the only NCCU student participating in the MIP, working with Opeyemi Olabisi, associate professor of medicine in nephrology. 

Olabisi’s lab, which now includes Dacanay, is studying APOL1-mediated kidney disease, a genetic disease that appears more frequently among the Black/African American population. 

“It's not just that they would be in the lab and work with the lab group that they've been assigned,” Hall said. “We really want to integrate them into the workflow of the division.” 

With opportunities to participate in division meetings and national or international meetings like the American Society of Nephrology’s Kidney Week, MIP faculty members intend to have participating students build confidence through discussion with professionals and become a part of a larger research community. 

Future steps

In the near future, MIP leaders hope to include more mentors and expand intern locations across more fields of medicine, potentially even to other institutions and laboratories. 

The MIP faculty members also plan for more HBCUs, such as North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, to participate in the program. 

“The hope is that in future years, we will have multiple interns,” Smith said. “... We plan to beef up our recruitment efforts and spread the word more widely.”

Winston Qian

Winston Qian is a Pratt first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.    


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