A new internship program aims to alleviate a shortage of African American physicians.
North Carolina Central University (NCCU) and Duke University jointly developed the Mentored Internship Program. Starting in September 2023, an undergraduate from NCCU began as an intern in the division of nephrology (kidney) at Duke University School of Medicine for one year.
Gentzon Hall, MD, Ph.D., of Duke University, who came up with the idea, said increasing the number of African American physicians is a challenge.
“People in underrepresented groups don’t see African American physicians or they don’t see themselves fitting into elite institutions,” said Hall, vice chief of diversity, equity and inclusion in the division of nephrology at Duke University School of Medicine.
“The motivation to pursue it, to stay engaged once they have made it into medical school, these are areas of significant weakness.”
Statistics show a definite shortage. In 2021, only 5.7% of doctors in the United States were African American, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In the area of nephrology, it is 6%. Meanwhile, in 2022, 13.6% of the U.S. population is African American, according to the U.S. Census.
The original idea for the Duke/NCCU Mentored Internship Program came from Hall, who wanted to honor his mentor, Dr. Michelle Winn, who died in 2014. The idea then expanded to include honoring Dr. Charles Johnson, the first African American member of the medical faculty at Duke School of Medicine, who influenced Winn in her career, Hall said.
Dr. Johnson, an endocrinologist, was also the father of Charles D. Johnson, Ph.D., chair of the history department at NCCU. Hall reached out to department chair Johnson who in turn reached out to Nina Smith, Ph.D., associate dean in the NCCU College of Health and Sciences (CHAS).
The three worked as a team to plan the internship.
“We wanted to make sure that the experience is immersive,” Smith said. “Examples include time in the laboratory, participation in a speaker seminar series and conference presentation. All of these elements are built into the internship.”
Hall agreed. “The goal is not for her to be another pair of hands in the lab.”
Smith pitched the internship to Dean Mohammad Ahmed, Ph.D., of CHAS and disseminated information about the internship to faculty and departments, who in turn helped recruit student applicants. She arranged for the intern to gain school credits, reviewed applications, took part in interviewing candidates and arranged meetings of the three organizers to discuss what the internship would look like.
Department chair Johnson offered his insights on developing the internship. “I gave a sense of who my father was so we could be true to what his mission was as a physician,” Johnson said, adding that “the internship is to create opportunities for students who might not otherwise have a chance to go to a really good medical school. In ‘The Eagle Promise,’ we talk about making sure students have experiential learning opportunities that are unique.”
The inaugural intern is Monique Armelle Dacanay, an NCCU junior in biomedical sciences. For 12 hours a week, Dacanay will work in a lab researching apolipoprotein L1 (APOL1)-mediated kidney disease.
“Certain variants of APOL1, which are found in African ancestry, are linked to an increased risk of kidney disease,” Dacanay said.
She will also shadow researchers, network, attend research conferences, learn about research and visit clinics to learn how to interact with patients. A $25,000 stipend will accompany her experience.
Perhaps most important is an emphasis on mentoring.
“How woefully deficient mentoring is in medicine, particularly for underrepresented students,” Hall said. “What we lack is a sherpa. We don’t have anyone to help us climb this mountain. I wanted this to be a yearlong process because I want the intern to develop relationships with the people mentoring.”
Mentoring is part of the attraction for Dacanay. A Cheatham-White Scholar, honor student and member of the Phi Beta Honor Society, Dacanay says that “throughout the year, I wouldn’t have made it without mentors.”
While the 2023-2024 internship is for one undergraduate, Johnson said that they plan to have two interns – each with a stipend of $25,000 – in future years.