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Cedars-Sinai Internship Helps Undergrads Pursue Science Careers

Inaugural Class of U-GROW Program Looks Forward to Grad School and Beyond

Aaron Denmark always wanted to be a doctor but assumed he didn’t have what it would take to get into medical school. After graduating from California State University, Dominguez Hills, in 2021, he enrolled in an internship with Cedars-Sinai, thinking it might help him explore other careers in science. Instead, the internship made him realize being a doctor and a public health investigator is exactly what he should do.

Denmark is one of nine college students to graduate from the new Undergraduates Gaining Research Opportunities for the Cancer Workforce (U-GROW) internship program.

A partnership with Cedars-Sinai and eight California State University (CSU) campuses, U-GROW was started in 2022, and its inaugural class graduated this April. The year-long program offers an introduction to cancer health disparities research and prepares undergraduate students to study and work in science.

Denmark, for example, will start a post-baccalaureate program at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine that will help him prepare a competitive application for medical school. At a graduation ceremony held at Cedars-Sinai on April 24, he thanked U-GROW leaders for allowing him to see firsthand how physicians and scientists work together to improve care—and for instilling him with confidence that he belongs in that environment.

Denmark interned in the laboratory of Megan Hitchins, PhD, research associate professor of Biomedical Sciences at Cedars-Sinai. He learned about rising rates of colorectal cancer among young people, particularly young African Americans, and worked on new methods to detect colorectal cancer early through blood tests.

“Everyone in this program has motivated me so much,” he said. “It’s surreal; I never thought I would turn back to medicine because of the fear and doubt that I had, but I’m doing it.”

Students interned with a Cedars-Sinai investigator studying cancer disparities last summer for a minimum of 20 hours per week for nine weeks. During the school year, they attended virtual workshops on writing, speaking and presenting about science. They also workshopped the required applications for acceptance into a graduate or professional school.

The program is funded by the Samuel Oschin Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai and by the Concern Foundation.

U-GROW Project Director Darrah Goo Kuratani, PhD, modeled the program after one she participated in when she was a graduate student. The Minority Training Program in Cancer Control Research at University of California, San Francisco/UCLA taught her the writing skills she would need in her career. Most importantly, it helped her establish a support system.

“Knowing that there were people whom I could reach out to at any time gave me more confidence,” she said.  

A few of the scholars spoke at the ceremony about how U-GROW helped them overcome imposter syndrome.

Diana Venegas, a recent graduate of CSU Northridge, said U-GROW mentors helped them realize they could become a scientist.

“To be a part of a group that wants to find an answer to a problem is my dream,” they said.

Because of their internships, several scholars are now published authors on scientific papers.

Brennan Spiegel, MD, director of Health Services Research for Cedars-Sinai and a pioneer in medical virtual reality, was one of eight mentors this year. Spiegel, who also holds the Dorothy and George Gourrich Chair in Digital Health Ethics, said he was impressed by how much the scholars progressed over the course of their internships.

“Students not only learned to conduct research, but they also started thinking about how to advance the field,” he said.

This year’s U-GROW scholars and mentors include:

Other U-GROW program leaders include Patricia Thompson, PhD, professor of Medicine and co-director of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at Cedars-Sinai; Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD, the PHASE ONE Distinguished Chair and Director at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute; Stephen Freedland, MD, the Warschaw, Robertson, Law Families Chair in Prostate Cancer at Cedars-Sinai and associate director for Training and Education at Cedars-Sinai Cancer; Katherine Isokawa, PhD, visiting scholar at Cedars-Sinai; Annalyn Valdez-Dadia, DrPH, assistant professor of Human Services at CSU Dominguez Hills; and Sherry Kidd, U-GROW internship coordinator.

U-GROW will begin accepting applications for its summer 2024 internship on Nov. 1, 2023. Learn more about internship opportunities at Cedars-Sinai.