A National Institutes of Health-funded program will prepare undergraduate students for postgraduate education, paving the way for careers in research.
A new program at the Center on Aging at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson aims to increase the number of researchers trained to study older adults with the goal of improving the well-being of older adults in diverse groups.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national median age is rising, as is the diversity of the population. At the same time, there is a shortage of scientists and health care providers trained in the issues affecting older adults. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services projects the demand for geriatricians soon will exceed the supply, with the western U.S. experiencing the most severe shortage with a deficit of 14,530 geriatricians by 2025.
“There’s far and away not enough people with aging knowledge and skills to recognize the unique aspects of older adults, and the research skills to make a difference,” said Mindy Fain, MD, professor of medicine and co-director of the Arizona Center on Aging.
The Arizona Center on Aging/MSTEM (Medicine, Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) THRIVE Program will prepare undergraduate students for postgraduate education and research careers focused on aging.
THRIVE is funded by a $1.8 million, five-year National Institutes of Health grant awarded to co-principal investigators Dr. Fain and Linda Phillips, PhD, RN, professor of medicine and senior director of research and innovation for the Arizona Center on Aging.
“There are persistent health disparities with older adults, particularly in underrepresented groups, and there is a dearth of individuals from underrepresented groups in the health sciences, particularly in the research workforce,” Dr. Phillips said.
THRIVE will recruit undergraduates from disadvantaged populations, including students from rural areas and the U.S.-Mexico border region; those with disabilities; and students of Latino, Black or Native heritage. Students will have access to mentors, advisers and other personnel through the program, which is adaptable to each student’s individual major requirements.
Thanks to the program’s small size of only five to 10 students per year, students will have robust one-on-one contact with faculty and staff guiding them toward graduate school. Additionally, students will attend national conferences, complete service-learning projects and receive guidance from mentors.
“We have strong researchers who will take on a student or two. They will design research experiences and mentor them in the research process,” Dr. Phillips said. “We can demonstrate ways to be a scientist, get them to identify as scientists and see themselves in a future that they never imagined.
“Connecting young students with the knowledge about the issues in their particular community, and how they can individually make a difference for their community, can help cultivate a passion for working with and on behalf of older adults,” she added.
Dr. Fain says research in older adults is different from research in other populations, necessitating specialized training for anyone working with these communities.
“Research in older adults is different. Can they hear us over the phone? If transportation is an issue, do we go to their homes? If you’ve got a certain prevalence of dementia or cognitive impairment, how often do you have to readdress consent?” she said, adding that research is complicated by the likelihood that older adults have multiple health issues, making it difficult to isolate variables when attempting to study a single disease state.
Drs. Fain and Phillips say THRIVE will provide students with skills and credentials to be highly employable in a growing field.
“We are fully confident that if they love this field, they will have a career that will be very fulfilling,” Dr. Fain said.
This program is supported in part by the National Institute of Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health (R25AG076387).