“We are very proud of our scholars and their accomplishments. 85% of program alum have continued on in health-related fields following college graduation.” – Joanne Levy, SUMR Program Co-Founder

A quarter-century strong, the Summer Undergraduate Mentored Research Program (SUMR) is where tomorrow’s health services leaders are born. What began as a small cohort of ambitious students has grown into a robust and impactful program that has created space for over 350 scholars from around the world and guide their journeys in advancing health equity. 

Founded in 2000 by the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI) and the Wharton School’s Health Care Management Department, SUMR was brought to life by the love and generosity of its founders, Mark Pauly and Joanne Levy. “The success stories of students conducting research on topics relevant to minorities, who then pursue Ph.D. programs and achieve academic success, are remarkable,” says Levy.

From Small Cohorts to Major Milestones

The SUMR program heats up the season by selecting undergraduate students to work with Penn faculty on various research projects throughout the summer. These projects range from seeking solutions for safe and affordable housing for vulnerable populations to exploring how policymakers can address substance use disorder, and advancing research on chronic diseases like breast cancer and hypertension. Over the years, the program has grown in size and prestige, introducing elements like GRE prep, lectures from leading experts, critical writing programs, and skill workshops to help support the scholars’ research careers.

SUMR scholar Patrick Arp introduces Rachel Werner, Executive Director of the Leonard Davis Institute, during a Lunch-and-Learn with fellow SUMR scholars. (Image: Madison Sumners)

As SUMR celebrates its 25th anniversary, the importance of diversity in health care becomes increasingly evident. “The more we can train scholars with an interest in these topics and with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, the more scientific evidence we will have to inform policy and reduce health disparities,” says Health Care Management Professor and SUMR Faculty Director, Claudio Lucarelli

The program believes that solving disparities in health care—such as the higher rates of heart disease, many cancers, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and maternal mortality, among minority populations compared to white populations—requires health services researchers who understand the political, social, economic, and environmental realities contributing to these inequities.

Scholars on a Mission

The current cohort consists of 40 scholars from different universities (including Penn), countries, and diverse backgrounds, including first-generation, low-income, international, and LGBTQ+ students. These students, whether they come from the communities they are studying or have gained insight through their research and experiences, understand the healthcare disparities faced by these populations and are driven to create meaningful solutions. 

Elizabeth Nguyen, a student at Washington and Lee University, exemplifies this drive. “As a woman of color and member of the LGBTQIA+ community, my approach is shaped by the lens of oppression,” says Nguyen. Nguyen is a 2024 SUMR scholar working on two projects connected to Penn’s Department of Family and Community Health focusing on harm reduction interventions and housing programs for people living with HIV. She is driven by her passion for community-based healthcare, acknowledging how trauma from an unfair system shapes lives. 

Elizabeth Nguyen, a SUMR scholar and student at Washington and Lee University, Class of 2025, majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Poverty and Human Capabilities Studies. (Image: Elizabeth Nguyen)

“For some of my friends who’ve been rejected by their families for simply being who they are, the cut never really heals,” she says. Coming from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, Nguyen is grateful for the opportunity SUMR offers to engage in this passion here at Penn. “I’m looking forward to the future of Philly’s transitional housing as well as the hospital-based, full-spectrum addiction service program my work will inform,” she says.

Tyasia Canon, a Penn student and member of the current cohort,  brings a personal connection to the work she’s doing in the program. “As a student who comes from a low-income, underinsured household, I’ve had to deal with many problems when it comes to health disparities,” she says. “Remembering the countless times that the healthcare system has disappointed my family has really motivated me to understand why this is happening, to whom this is happening, what interventions are possible, and how future policies and guidelines can improve this situation,” says Canon.

Tyasia Cannon, a SUMR scholar and student at the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2026, majoring in Neuroscience with minors in Sociology and Chemistry. (Image: Tyasia Cannon)

Alumni Impact

The impact of SUMR is also evident in the achievements and sentiments of its alumni. Elorm Avakame, a 2011 alum, reflects on his experience: “It was absolutely integral to my early career development. It was my first time being at such a prestigious and competitive institution and gave me confidence that I could succeed at this level.” Avakame will return to Penn in August 2024 to begin his faculty career as a pediatric critical care physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). 

Lorraine Dean, an alum from the 2001 cohort and Associate Professor of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University recalls that when she started the program, there were only four students, all from Penn. “It’s amazing to watch this program blossom so that it can reach so many more students, and train students who are from a wide variety of institutions beyond Penn,” says Dean. 

The Next Twenty-Five Years 

As SUMR looks ahead to the next 25 years, the program remains focused on championing diverse voices, driving innovative research, and advancing health equity. “We are very proud of our scholars and their accomplishments,” says Levy. “85% of program alum have continued on in health-related fields following college graduation.” 

Abril Coselino, an international student from Argentina studying Psychology and General Biology at Keystone College, participates in a critical writing workshop. (Image: Madison Sumners)

This program is laying the groundwork for a future where healthcare access and quality is the norm, not the exception. “The combination of Penn being a top research institution, with a dedicated department of Health Care Management at the Wharton School, provides a unique opportunity to effectively study the supply side of the health sector and how to improve disparities in the provision of healthcare,” says Lucarelli.

– Madison Sumners

Posted: June 20, 2024

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