The transition from high school to college can be an overwhelming experience for many, and for Beatriz Duran-Becerra it was that, plus a dose of self-doubt.

As the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first to attend college in her family, Duran-Becerra, who navigated the college admission process mostly on her own, felt out of place when she first arrived at Columbia University in the fall of 2014. She sought support and guidance from a program, called CURE, that helped give students with a knack for science the boost they needed to blaze their own trail. 

“The CURE program was a highlight of my time at Columbia,” says Duran-Becerra, who graduated from Columbia College in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “I came in as a very insecure freshman, a first-generation college student from a low-income family. The program helped build my self-confidence and also pushed me to think of even bigger goals to set for myself.”

Beatriz Duran-Becerra (right) pictured with mentor, Dr. Jasmine McDonald, who co-directs the CURE program at the HICCC.

CURE, which stands for Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences, was an NIH-funded program within the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) but since 2017 has been funded by the HICCC and now sits within the Cancer Research Career Enhancement Core (CRCE) and closely partners with the Community Outreach Engagement (COE) Office. For the past six years, the HICCC has offered CURE to Columbia freshmen and local high school students, with an emphasis on under-represented people of color, low socio-economic status, or first generation college, as a way to expose them to hands-on experiences in science, medicine and research. The two-year program provides resources that benefit all young students, including mentorship and assistance with the college application process.

CURE is typically offered to up to 12 qualified students—six undergraduates and six high schoolers—who gain direct experience working in a lab, participate in current scientific research, connect with a Columbia faculty mentor, and get exposed to a slew of guest speakers who are leading scientists and physicians. This year, CURE operated a bit differently due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stronger engagement despite a global pandemic

When the COVID-19 outbreak hit New York City in the spring many people, including school-age children, were forced to turn to a daily routine of remote working and online learning. And while cases of the novel coronavirus have decreased in the New York Tri-state area, for many students, summer placements, camps, and activities remained virtual.

In June, CRCE and COE held an online-only science, humanities, and career enrichment week and in July, a month-long program that mirrored the CURE program but reached a wider audience. Over 120 students registered for this program and approximately 100 students logged on daily throughout June and July for a variety of courses, including how to develop a hypothesis and  design a scientific study, and programming centered on career advice in science and medicine. The students were also exposed to lectures about cancer research, cancer health inequities, and COVID19. Students had the opportunity to engage in working groups to develop anti-vaping campaigns and HPV vaccination outreach through social media. The culmination of the program introduced students to COE community partners who inspired them to ground their research in community relevant health concerns.

“We didn’t expect to see that many students consistently each day. They were so engaged,” says Jasmine McDonald, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and co-director of CURE. “These are students who love science, who love research and perhaps don’t get enough hands-on opportunities at their schools.”

One high school student who logged on every day in July says she appreciated hearing from and learning from a diverse set of guest speakers. “All of my science teachers have been men except for fifth grade,” says budding doctor Oriana Parsa, a rising sophomore who attends the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering in upper Manhattan. “It was powerful to see that there are so many women in the cancer research field. We got to discuss gender inequalities in STEM and hear from some scientists about how they’ve overcome hardships to get to where they are today.”

Through its programming, COE underscores the benefits of exposing young students to science and research, giving them an authentic experience of what the field is like, either as a college student or as a career choice.

“Even virtually, it was wonderful to see the level of  engagement in the attendees this summer,” says Mary Beth Terry, PhD, director of COE and professor of epidemiology at Mailman. “The online programming provided us the opportunity to expand CURE to a much larger group and develop into a program that now extends beyond the research lab experience but one that provides outreach to middle school and high school students about cancer education specifically, in addition to general career enrichment and local community programming for schools in our Washington Heights neighborhood.”

For Duran-Becerra, who worked full-time as an outreach navigator at COE following graduation, CURE helped her solidify science as a career choice. This fall, she plans to attend Yale graduate school for a master’s degree in public health.

Duran-Becerra reunited with Luis Valencia Salazar, a fellow Columbia College and CURE alum, to co-lead one of the sessions this summer on “Peer Voices from the Field of Cancer Research”. Also a first-generation college student, Valencia Salazar’s main takeaway from CURE was the mentorship component.

“It is really valuable to be around people who are in the position that you want to be in eventually, and to learn from them,” says Valencia Salazar. Valencia Salazar works as a manager in the lab of HICCC member Dr. Piero Dalerba and is currently applying to dual MD/PhD programs.

“Drs. Terry and McDonald were intentional with their mentorship—always following up and checking in on my progress,” adds Duran-Becerra. “They would constantly remind us that we had a place in research and that our voices are important.”

-Melanie A. Farmer