Four first-year medical school students got a valuable introduction to cancer research this summer, thanks to Walmart’s years of supporting the MD Anderson’s Boot Walk to End Cancer®.
Walmart, its employees and customers have been enthusiastic fundraisers for the Boot Walk since its inception, raising more than $2.3 million since 2017 for MD Anderson’s mission to end cancer. The annual fundraising tradition resumed in August for the 2021 event, which will take place virtually Saturday, Nov. 6. More than 180 Walmart stores across Texas are participating by collecting change at every register and encouraging customers to visit stores and donate to the event.
In 2020, Walmart representatives donated $625,000 from its Boot Walk fundraising proceeds to MD Anderson’s Partnership for Careers in Cancer Science and Medicine, which nurtures high school, college and medical school students from underrepresented groups and helps them explore careers in oncology. The donation endowed the Walmart First Year Medical Students Summer Program, which will allow first-year students from Houston’s McGovern Medical School at UTHealth to spend 10 weeks each summer working on research projects with MD Anderson faculty mentors.
Students gain valuable experience
The first four students to benefit from the endowment concluded their experience in August, following a robust summer exploring topics related to pancreatic, hereditary kidney and colorectal cancer syndromes and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Breanna Alonzo, from San Antonio, worked with Niki Millward, Ph.D., assistant professor of Urology-Research, to develop animal models and study hereditary mutations that lead to renal cell carcinoma.
- Rosheem Browne, from the island nation of Grenada, worked with Sharon Giordano, M.D., chair of Health Services Research-Clinical, to assess how the pandemic affected colorectal and breast cancer screening rates in different patient populations.
- Gabriel del Carmen, from Dallas, worked with Eduardo Vilar Sanchez, M.D., Ph.D., deputy chair of Clinical Cancer Prevention, to analyze a database of patients with Lynch syndrome, an inherited disorder that can cause colorectal cancer.
- Krystal English, Ph.D., from Dallas, worked with Raghu Kalluri, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Cancer Biology, to examine whether exosome “bubbles” from pancreatic cancer lead to poor brain health and memory problems in patients.
Medical school curricula generally offer limited exposure to the complexities of cancer biology and cancer research, and the MD Anderson program helps fill that gap, says program director Elizabeth L. Travis, Ph.D., professor of Experimental Radiation Oncology and Pulmonary Medicine and associate vice president for Faculty Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“Participating in our MD Anderson summer program has allowed these students to connect or reconnect to cancer research,” she says. “Without the Walmart endowment, this opportunity wouldn’t have been possible.”
Supporting diversity in medicine
“MD Anderson is offering a wonderful educational experience to students from our underserved communities and helping to build a diverse workforce to serve our increasingly diverse society,” says Nick Berkeley, vice president, regional general manager, Walmart U.S. “We are honored to have a role in such a worthwhile program that helps build the foundation for promising young professionals and the discoveries they will make during their careers.”
English, a first-generation college student who already has a doctorate in neuroscience, will continue research with Kalluri during her second year of medical school as she works toward becoming a physician-scientist. She gained important career insights this summer, she says.
“The program has offered great lectures from faculty who have balanced their research and clinical work and have provided insightful advice on a successful path to continue my training,” English says.
Alonzo, also the first in her family to attend college, says the 10 weeks were “an eye-opening experience” that provided her first chance to work with laboratory models.
“I got to take baby steps toward doing surgical procedures on my own,” she says. “These are things I would not have had the opportunity to do without the generous donation from Walmart.”
For Browne, the program provided his first experiences in designing and conducting experiments. “These are things I know I will keep with me as I move forward in my career,” he says. “This was an amazing opportunity.”
Students had special thanks for the learning environment at MD Anderson. Vilar Sanchez and his staff were welcoming and helpful, del Carmen says. “I truly have developed such a passion for our research focus and feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to work with them during this time.”