UK HealthCare

Markey STRONG Scholars Program Provides Mentorship, Support for Future Medical Leaders

Video by UK Research Communications.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 22, 2021) Growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, University of Kentucky senior Daniela Nakinoja says her family always practiced traditional medicine that had been passed down through generations of their family. But when her grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed more complex care, the family turned to Western medicine to keep her alive.

“A lot of people didn’t understand her decision because we’re very traditional,” Nakinoja said. “We just knew she was diagnosed with cancer and all I thought was, ‘She’s going to die.’ We didn’t have (many) resources.”

During her grandmother’s treatment, doctors discovered that the cancer was hereditary, meaning Nakinoja and her immediate female family were all at an increased risk for the disease. This experience inspired the current UK College of Public Health student to join the Markey STRONG Scholars Program, where she began learning more about the mechanisms of cancer under the mentorship of cancer researcher Tianyan Gao, Ph.D.

The Markey STRONG Scholars Program, created by the UK Markey Cancer Center in 2021, fosters diversity in cancer research. The 10-week program that aims to provide career and professional development for college sophomores, juniors, and seniors who are interested in cancer research and who come from historically underserved or underrepresented ethnic and racial backgrounds. The program is led by researcher Kathleen O’Connor, Ph.D., associate director of cancer education and mentoring at the UK Markey Cancer Center.

Participants in the program gain valuable experiences that will help them further their future medical careers: Personalized mentored research experiences with cancer mentors and near-peer mentors, interactive cancer research lectures from Markey faculty and trainees, clinical shadowing experiences with Markey oncology specialists, and networking and career development activities with Markey faculty and trainees.

“A fundamental part of our program is actually to create opportunities for people to interact and to network,” O’Connor said. “This allows our students to have access to mentors and for our mentors to actually have an influence over the development of careers very early on. Those relationships can last a lifetime.”

Learning from a variety of health care providers also helps these students narrow their career focus. Western Kentucky University senior Kennedy Palmer was mentored by Lovoria Williams, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UK College of Nursing and the assistant director for cancer health equity at Markey. Palmer says the Markey STRONG Scholars program has helped her set goals for her career and helped her figure out a path forward to accomplish those goals.

“I knew I wanted to pursue a degree in health sciences, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go — I needed guidance,” said Palmer, who wants to help increase health literacy and be an advocate for the African American community. “The most valuable thing I learned from joining the program was that there are many ways to help people in health care ... the paths that you can take are practically endless.”

The program’s focus on diversity was also an important factor for participating students and staff alike. UK College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Andrea Hernandez researched pediatric brain cancer during the program and was mentored by researcher Jessica Blackburn, Ph.D.

“As a women of color in STEM, it’s been difficult to find a community where I can be myself and explore with a team that looks me,” Hernandez said. “I’m from a rural town in Kentucky, so there weren’t many people who liked like me. But here, I got a chance to meet with other scholars that wanted to go into the science fields.”

This program is supported by the American Cancer Society as well as the University of Kentucky UNited In True racial Equity (UNITE) Research Priority Area and the University of Kentucky College of Medicine Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

“For many years, I’ve wanted to create an undergraduate program in cancer research, but unfortunately, funding opportunities weren’t available,” O’Connor said. “We're very grateful to the American Cancer Society, the UK College of Medicine Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and to the UNITE Research Priority Area to give us the opportunity to apply for, receive funding for, and expand this very important program that allows us to increase our diversity in cancer research.”

To learn more about the Markey STRONG Scholars Program, please contact program coordinator Erin Oakley at 859-323-0474 or

Elaf Ghoneim
Krystle Kuhs and Meron Lemma
Kennedy Palmer
Markey STRONG Scholars Program

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