Jenny Ruiz, MD, the recipient of a 2013 Conquer Cancer Medical Student Rotation Award (MSR) and a 2018 Resident Travel Award (RTA), reflects on how and why she is dedicated to driving equitable cancer care and how investing in researchers helps patients everywhere.
What initially drew you to a career in oncology and cancer research?
I was first drawn to a career in pediatric oncology in college when my baby cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. During winter breaks, I would return home and visit my cousin in the hospital. I saw how seamlessly a multidisciplinary team of oncologists, nurses, social workers, and psychologists worked together to guide my aunt and her family through the most difficult time of their lives. I was further attracted to the field given the meaningful long-term relationships that were forged between the oncologist and her patient, even after completion of therapy.
Why does improving care for young patients with pediatric cancers matter to you?
Improving care for patients with pediatric cancers is important to me because children have their whole lives ahead of them. A cancer diagnosis should not limit their future. Additionally, there are racial disparity outcomes in pediatric oncology which I am particularly interested in addressing.
How did your 2013 MSR and 2018 RTA help accelerate your career as a cancer researcher? What tangible resources and experiences were you able to access that you otherwise may not have had access to before?
The MSR facilitated my introduction to clinical oncology research. It was instrumental as I explored a career in pediatric oncology both as a clinician and as a researcher. This award allowed me to work closely with amazing researchers who provided excellent mentoring. This experience made me believe I could be a pediatric cancer researcher, and for that I am forever grateful.
The RTA allowed me to attend the ASCO Annual Meeting without having to worry about funding. I remember meeting my fellow RTA peers and feeling inspired by their journeys and interests in cancer research. I was also able to network with established oncology researchers from across the country. The RTA facilitated my finding a community of like-minded individuals pursuing careers in cancer research.
How would you describe the impact of the MSR and RTA programs on patients? How does investing in early-career researchers ultimately help patients?
Programs like the MSR and RTA are invaluable in diversifying the medical workforce, which improves outcomes for all patients. Patients benefit from programs that invest in early-career researchers because these researchers bring unique and diverse ideas that push science forward and improve patient outcomes.
How did your MSR experience prepare you to apply for - and receive - an RTA?
The MSR enabled me to fund my first cancer clinical research project, which I subsequently presented at the ASCO Annual Meeting. This experience elevated my awareness of additional Conquer Cancer programs and opportunities like the RTA. I continued my cancer clinical research in residency, so it made sense for me to apply to the RTA to attend ASCO Annual Meeting.
Did you pair with a mentor and/or ASCO member during your RTA experience? If yes, can you talk about a moment you shared with your ASCO mentor that was meaningful to you? What did they say or do, and how did it make you feel?
My MSR mentor, Dr. Julia Glade Bender, was also my RTA mentor. Dr. Glade Bender was very generous with her time and intentional in introducing me to her colleagues at other institutions. This was excellent timing as I was preparing to apply to fellowship. Such meaningful interactions made me feel like Dr. Glade Bender truly believed in me. Her support equipped me with confidence and encouraged me to believe in my ability to pursue a successful career in pediatric oncology.
What are some challenges you’ve experienced in terms of structural and institutional racism and sexism in the healthcare and cancer research space? How do you overcome these obstacles?
Institutional and structural racism has a long history in medicine and research. In the healthcare setting, I’ve seen medical teams exhibit implicit and explicit bias towards minoritized patients and their families, resulting in sub-optimal care. When it comes to research, racial disparities in NIH funding is a well-documented problem, and this has downstream effects at our academic medical centers and research institutions. As the only Latina physician in my division, the lack of diversity of our researchers is something I see every day. That can be isolating. However, I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors and funding to pursue my research interests.
I’m happy more attention is being placed on dismantling institutional and structural racism. This is not easy work. It will require drastic and uncomfortable changes. I’m doing my part by being active member of groups like my division’s cancer center diversity committee, where we actively hold conversations on how to address implicit and explicit bias towards our patients. I’m also very passionate about diversifying the medical and research fields and am involved in several mentoring programs for underrepresented minorities in medicine, from students to trainees.
What is one change you’d like to see in the cancer research space 10 years from today?
In 10 years, I would love to see increased diversity of cancer researchers so the field is more representative of our patient population. I would also like to see cancer health disparities reduced by 50% for both pediatric and adult patient populations.
Can you share a story about a time you experienced a meaningful moment with a patient? What did they say, and how did it make you feel?
I’ve known one of my patients since he was first diagnosed around 1 month of age. His disease unfortunately spread, however he continues to have an excellent quality of life. At one point, I was helping his parents obtain second opinions for their son’s rare cancer. After hearing recommendations for other hospitals, his mother said, “Dr. Ruiz, what do you think about the recommendations? You know him best and we trust you as his doctor.” Even though I’m a fellow in training, this family connected with me. Her statement affirmed I chose the right field and that I am making a difference.
The MSR provides financial support for U.S. medical students from populations underrepresented in medicine who are interested in a career in oncology. MSR recipients participate in a minimum four-week clinical or clinical research rotation. Each participant is paired with a mentor who oversees the rotation and provides ongoing academic and career guidance. The award includes a stipend covering costs for the student’s rotation and their travel to the ASCO Annual Meeting.
The RTA, now called the Annual Meeting Research Award, provides non-oncology physician-residents from populations underrepresented in medicine who are interested in a career in oncology to attend the ASCO Annual Meeting. While at the Annual Meeting, they present their research at the Abstract Forum for medical students and residents, network with leading oncologists, and discover more about career options in their field. A travel stipend and complimentary Annual Meeting registration are included.