Smart. Motivated. Diverse.
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: September 24, 2019

 BUILD EXITO is creating the next generation of health researchers.

TWO YEARS ago, David Bangsberg, dean of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health, invited student Travis (Henke) Benson into his office and pointed out two framed documents on his wall. One was a rejection letter from Harvard Medical School that he received as a disappointed undergrad some three decades earlier. The other was a congratulatory letter from the very same Harvard Medical School, welcoming Bangsberg as a new faculty member.

His point: Aim high, because you never know when fate will deal you a winning hand.

“The worst that could happen is that you could get a letter like this,” he says, pointing to the rejection.

Benson, a first-generation student who started at PSU after nine years working in construction, initially thought Harvard was unobtainable. “I felt like I couldn’t compete with the numerous well-qualified students who came from an Ivy League background,” he says.

But he took Bangsberg’s advice, applying to Harvard as well as nine other schools.

“He was the first person I texted when I got my interview invitation and the first person I told when I got accepted,” he says. “I think he was more excited about it than I was at the time.”

Bangsberg’s mentoring—as well as Benson’s ultimate success—is part of a larger program to help first-generation students from ethnically diverse backgrounds become top-level biomedical, behavioral, social or clinical researchers in the health sciences. It’s called BUILD EXITO, an acronym that includes the words diversity and cross-disciplinary, describing the program’s mission.

THE PROGRAM began in 2014 when PSU received a $24 million research and training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The program has been so successful that NIH recently issued another $19.3 million grant to carry it through for the next five years, by which time PSU hopes to make it self-sustaining.

The PSU grant was part of a larger $240 million investment by the NIH to develop new approaches that engage researchers, including those from backgrounds under-represented in biomedical sciences, and prepare them to thrive in the NIH-funded workforce. PSU was one of 10 primary institutions selected through this initiative, which ultimately will support 50 institutions through partnerships.

PSU’s partners are Portland and Clackamas community colleges, Oregon Health & Science University, Clark College, University of Alaska, University of Guam, Northern Marianas College and American Samoa Community College.

Students apply for the three-year program in the spring of their freshman year, either at PSU or one of the partner schools. Participants receive intensive mentoring and instruction on how scientific research is performed, then spend 10 hours a week on actual research projects at PSU or OHSU for the bulk of their time in the program. The research time is on top of their other school obligations.

Not only is BUILD EXITO good for underrepresented students, it’s good for science in general.

“There’s a reason why we are not doing as many major discoveries as we could, and that’s because our research workforce is not diverse at all,” says BUILD EXITO director Carlos Crespo. “And there is science behind the fact that a more diverse workforce produces better research.”

 BOASTING a retention rate of nearly 90%, the program graduated its largest class in June: 52 students.
They include Elizabeth Perez, the first in her family to complete college. A  Detroit native, Perez moved to Portland for work and enrolled at Portland Community College. She was accepted to the BUILD EXITO program there, and then transferred to PSU as a sophomore.

“Being first-generation, I didn’t know all the different possibilities available to me. I thought I wanted to be a lab technician, but BUILD EXITO took me into a totally different direction,” she says.

Perez received her bachelor's in biochemistry and will become a Ph.D. student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard University. Her goal is to become a professor and pursue science policy on the side.

 Another June graduate, Sulema Rodriguez, earned a degree in speech and hearing sciences with a minor in psychology. She was accepted into graduate schools at New York University and Columbia University, but chose PSU as the place where she will pursue her master’s degree starting this fall. Her goal is to get a doctorate and become a speech pathologist who can work with both English- and Spanish-speaking patients.

Her path is partially the result of her own speech difficulties—a stutter that presents challenges in her daily life.

“Before I heard about BUILD EXITO, I honestly wasn’t sure how I was going to get through college because of my speech impediment,” she says. “The program helped me pay for college, and I got a lot of help from some great people in the process.”

Benson’s story is equally personal.

BENSON’S father, once an architect in Port Angeles, Washington, became a transgender woman when Benson was a young boy. The change had a profound effect on his father’s professional and personal life. She was discriminated against and lost her job. Even her primary care physician refused to treat her. Benson’s parents divorced, and he hasn’t seen his father in 25 years. Benson thinks his father may be dead.

“The transgender community faces disproportionate amounts of interpersonal violence, self-harm and medical neglect. Any of these factors may be at play,” he says.

Benson’s studies at Harvard focus on the medical needs of the transgender community—a mission that includes research at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital. He wants to specialize in dermatology because transgender individuals have unique dermatologic needs that often go unmet.

“If I can help anyone avoid what my father had to go through to get even routine medical care, my efforts will be worth it,” he says.

While the stories of Benson, Perez and Rodriguez are inspirational, they’re not rare.

“These are stories that repeat,” Crespo says, adding that they’re as much a product of the students themselves as the BUILD EXITO program. The disadvantages that the students have had in some ways set them up for success. “All their lives they’ve had to be innovators and survivors,” he says. “We tell them: Don’t leave that behind; it’s a big part of what you are. That’s what scientific investigators want.”

For his part, Bangsberg couldn’t be happier with the quality of students coming out of BUILD EXITO.

“They’re stellar. They’re breathtaking. They are smart, motivated, inspired and committed to making a difference in the world,” he says.

John Kirkland is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Captions: Travis Benson ’18, a Harvard medical student, graduated from the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health with help from the BUILD EXITO program (top). Elizabeth Perez ’19, the first in her family to attend college, is also at Harvard, thanks to the mentoring from BUILD EXITO (center). BUILD EXITO empowered Sulema Rodriguez ’19, who has a speech impediment, to earn a degree in speech and hearing sciences at PSU and go into the master’s program.