Undergraduate Research Internship Aims to Attract Underrepresented Groups to Anesthesia

URI program graduate at Anesthesia Research Day

As medical schools continue efforts to increase their enrollment of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, most have recognized that having faculty members with an intimate understanding of the challenges ahead is essential. 

Associate Professor and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Jennifer Lucero, MD, brings a lifetime of experience to this effort at the UCSF Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care. She has been the central figure in the creation of an undergraduate research internship in anesthesia and in the creation of programs for anesthesia residents who identify as underrepresented in medicine (UIM).

Bringing Firsthand Understanding

Lucero grew up in southern California, a first generation college student from a large Latino/Native American family. She wound up navigating Cal State Northridge, Yale Medical School, residencies at UCSF in both obstetrics and anesthesia and an obstetric anesthesia and anesthesia research fellowship.

But it wasn’t easy. Through those years, she experienced firsthand the many challenges facing UIM students and physicians, including open stereotyping, unconscious bias and the nagging belief that the worlds of medicine and research are reserved for those who are white and privileged. 

“It didn’t matter that my family thought I was smart or how I am perceived in the white world, I carry all the burdens of being a person of color,” says Lucero. “In my mind, I’ve too often believed I’m not smart enough…not cut out for this.” Lucero managed to work through that feeling, but many UIM students don’t and turn to other professions.

This helps explain why Lucero is so passionate about the undergraduate research internship (URI) in anesthesia. Part of a broader, joint program with Kaiser Permanente that the Department of Obstetrics initiated and leads, the URI offers undergraduate students from UC Berkeley mentorship, shadowing opportunities, research experience, and a virtual handbook for how they can make it to and through medical school.

Expanding the URI

Lucero’s first contact with the program was in 2010, after she had finished her anesthesia residency and was doing her OB-Anesthesia and research fellowships. At the time, she began teaching an informal class that wound up being about the nuts and bolts of applying to medical school, including practical questions about the debt incurred, which Lucero says can be “terrifying.”

She continued in the program as it began to grow and other departments joined. She also became more involved with medical school admissions, where it struck her that once in medical school, very few UIM students even consider becoming a specialist, perhaps because many have had little or no exposure to medical specialties. “I know I didn’t,” she says. “I had no idea.” 

This realization drove Lucero to focus her efforts on attracting UIM students to anesthesia. 

Creating a Place to Let Your Hair Down

She says that aside from the practical education, one of the most important ways the URI helps achieve the goal of greater diversity is that the students develop a camaraderie that takes them far beyond their internship and helps them sustain their interest in medicine. 

“It’s so important, to create a safe zone, because even in a liberal area like this, it can be hard for people who haven’t lived through it to understand the world these students walk in,” says Lucero. “Medical school and residency are hard enough, without this additional cognitive load and because you have all of this baggage, you need more than validation from the majority community; you need your own community, a place where you can detox, let your hair down and talk about these things.”

With that in mind, Lucero has gone beyond the URI to create a UIM welcome event and quarterly dinners for incoming anesthesia residents.         

“It’s all about the pipeline,” she says. “About getting more students of color through medical school and getting them excited about anesthesia early on.”

URI Program’s Measurable Successes

Since Dr. Lucero and the Anesthesia and Perioperative Care Department became involved in the program, a Year 1 URI-Anesthesia scholar is applying to medical school, and a Year-2 URI scholar is working full-time in Dr. Judith Hellman’s lab (Dr. Hellman is the Vice Chair for Reserach in the Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care). For the 2019-2020 academic year, we have matched three URI scholars with the following Anesthesia and Perioperative Care faculty members, for mentoring: Arthur Wallace, MD, PhD; Helen Kim, PhD, MPH; and Judith Hellman, MD. The countless hours of anesthesia mentorship of the URI scholars are a testament to our dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion in healthcare and to our diverse communities.