MSK Programs Offer Mentorship to Aspiring Physician-Scientists from the Bronx

Christianah Alli and Dr. Yasmin Khakoo

2022 Summer Pipeline Program student Christianah Alli (right) with her MSK mentor, Dr. Yasmin Khakoo.

At the end of the summer, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) concluded two of its annual research programs for students. Twenty medical school students completed the Summer Pipeline Program and 15 New York City high school students completed the Summer Exposure Program.

The programs offer students from populations underrepresented in medicine the chance to learn about careers in cancer care and research, develop research skills, and see firsthand how cancer care is delivered in a hospital setting.

They also offer a unique opportunity for mentorship. MSK faculty mentor each medical and high school student, and the medical school students mentor the high school students.

“Our programs make lasting connections between students and faculty,” said Anoushka Afonso, an anesthesiologist and faculty director of the MSK Office of Health Equity’s summer research programs for students. “This approach helps the students build a professional network that can advance their education and careers.”

Christianah: A Bronx Native Returns Home

Christianah Alli couldn’t turn down the opportunity to spend the summer in New York City.

“The Summer Pipeline Program had everything I wanted, including a location close to my family in the Bronx,” said Christianah. She is a student at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia and hopes to become a pediatric neuro-oncologist.

Her MSK mentor was pediatric neurologist and neuro-oncologist Yasmin Khakoo, who cares for children and young adults with primary brain tumors.

“I was nervous before the program started, but Dr. Khakoo put me at ease. She brought me to clinic to see patients, gave me articles to read, discussed her work/life balance, and motivated me to always dig deeper,” said Christianah.

Dr. Khakoo invited Christianah to join her at a conference in Denver to meet patients diagnosed with the disease they were studying – neurocutaneous melanocytosis, a rare neurologic condition.

“Meeting and listening to the patients at the conference was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Christianah said. “Dr. Khakoo knew that and wanted to make sure I had experiences that will help me be a great student and, eventually, physician.”

“Doctor-to-be Alli did a great job this summer,” said Dr. Khakoo. “I was impressed with her sense of responsibility, innovation, and care with medically complex patients she had just met.”

The experience reaffirmed Christianah’s commitment to scientific research – and fostered a desire to pay it forward.

Namarachi: A Sisterly Bond with Christianah

Namarachi Okwuka participated in MSK's Summer Exposure Program for local NYC high school students.

Namarachi Okwuka participated in MSK’s Summer Exposure Program for local NYC high school students.

About halfway through the summer, the medical school students met their high school student mentees. Christianah paired with Namarachi Okwuka, a rising sophomore at University Heights High School in the Bronx. Namarachi, an aspiring neurosurgeon, soon discovered how much she had in common with her mentor.

“We are both Nigerian, have the same faith and similar backgrounds, as well as an interest in neuro-oncology,” said Namarachi. “Christianah is like an older sister to me.”

Christianah helped Namarachi with her summer research project on targeted lung cancer therapies. They also talked about the demands of medical school and the importance of time management skills.

“Her advice will help me keep reaching toward my goal to be a neurosurgeon,” said Namarachi. “Participating in MSK’s Summer Exposure Program is another step on that path. It provided me with experiences I couldn’t have had anywhere else.”

The application for the 2023 Summer Pipeline Program will open in December 2022. The application for the Summer Exposure Program will open in January 2023.