University of Virginia Joins Virginia-Nebraska Alliance to Increase Ranks of Minority Health Professionals

May 2, 2006 — The University of Virginia officially joined the Virginia-Nebraska Alliance, a partnership between colleges in the two states that was created to expand the ranks of minority health professionals and researchers nationwide during a signing ceremony on Monday, May 1, in the Rotunda Dome Room.

The alliance offers talented minority undergraduate students a summer fellowship working in a research laboratory at a participating academic health center. During the fellowship, the students, drawn primarily from Virginia’s five historically black colleges and universities, gain a better sense of what is involved in a health career and the requirements for entry into a health professions program, and they improve their proficiency in the sciences, explained Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, chairman of the alliance.

Initial participants in the alliance, which was created in the fall of 2004, are already seeing the fruits of the program. Virginia State University senior Makena Hammond was recently accepted to Howard University’s medical school after doing an alliance summer fellowship at the University of Nebraska Medical Center where she studied nanotechnology and drug delivery systems and authored a paper that was published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

The three participating universities with medical schools—U.Va., the University of Nebraska and Virginia Commonwealth University—also will sponsor summer research fellowships for rising faculty researchers from the HBCUs, which will “enhance the environment in which these students do their learning and teachers do their teaching,” said Sullivan, the founder and president emeritus of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President George H.W. Bush.

Summer fellowship enrollment is rapidly increasing as U.Va. and other member institutions bring new resources to the program. At least 45 faculty and students will participate this summer—seven of them at U.Va.—tripling the numbers from 2005, said Martin Brown, a coordinator for the alliance. U.Va. plans call for including as many as 80 students and faculty in the coming summers, he said.

State Senator Benjamin J. Lambert III, an ophthalmologist and one of Virginia’s first black lawmakers, was spurred to take a pivotal role in creating the alliance when he learned a few years ago that only 70 black men were accepted to the nation’s predominantly white medical schools for the fall semester of 2003. While various minority groups together constitute about 25 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise only 9 percent of nurses, 6 percent of doctors and 5 percent of dentists, according to Sullivan, former chairman and namesake of the Sullivan Commission on Diversity in the Healthcare Workforce that originally reported those statistics.

This underrepresentation affects the quality of health care, explained Sullivan. “To be a successful health professional you not only need a body of knowledge that you can implement. You also need to be able to communicate with your patients, develop their trust, so that they will comply with your recommendations. So you need both. The reason for diversity in the health professions is based in that fact,” said Sullivan, who currently serves as the chairman of the President's Board of Advisors on HBCUs.

University President John T. Casteen III noted that U.Va. shares a “fundamental concern” about “preparing undergraduate students from underrepresented parts of our communities to pursue careers in the life sciences.” This program is the newest addition to a number of U.Va. programs, including separate initiatives in the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing, that aim to increase student and faculty diversity and to address “areas of concern for all sorts of underserved populations,” Casteen said. U.Va.’s tradition of concern for those populations was displayed in the mid-1990’s in response to the “de-funding” of Virginia’s public health system. “Members of our nursing faculty became the public health department in a total of about 10 Virginia counties that had seen the collapse of their departments. Student nurses and faculty members and other nurses joined with our nurses—for a period of time until the state got back on its feet—to provide those services.”

Sen. Lambert, vice-chair of the alliance, said, “I’m so happy that Thomas Jefferson’s school, the University of Virginia, has opened its doors to welcome the alliance and its students.”

Sullivan, whose son Halsted graduated from U.Va. in 1989, explained why the alliance is an “historic” effort. “There’s no other effort like it elsewhere in the United States. We’re hoping that a year from now, or two years or three years from now, we won’t be able to make that statement. We’d like to see initiatives like this develop around the country.”