The University of Colorado Cancer Center is doubling down on its diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) efforts in 2023, adding an associate director and deputy associate director of DEIA to its leadership team.
DEIA Associate Director Miria Kano, PhD, and Deputy Associate Director Curtis Henry, PhD, arrived on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus this week, and both say they are excited to dive into the work of increasing DEIA efforts at the CU Cancer Center.
Kano previously served as co-associate director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, as well as regional coordinating director for the school’s Geographic Management of Health Cancer Health Disparities Program.
“One of our primary goals was to help facilitate training and professional development for early career investigators, predominantly those who are underrepresented in cancer research and the cancer medical environment,” Kano says. “I’ve been interested in workforce initiatives and issues for more than 15 years, and this was a fantastic opportunity to come to Denver and work with some amazing colleagues.”
Support and improve
Henry, who comes to the CU Cancer Center after serving as assistant professor at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center in the Department of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, says the DEIA team’s first order of business is to look at programs that are already in place and think about how they might be improved.
“Our team wants to distribute a survey and see how people feel and get an idea of what they think could be improved upon,” he says. “Our first priority is to support ongoing initiatives and expand their reach. Once we gain a pulse on where improvements are needed, I am excited to work with everyone to devise innovative and sustainable approaches to address need-based areas.”
The new DEIA team is tasked with providing leadership and direction for DEIA program development and implementation across the CU Cancer Center and its partner institutions, including UCHealth and Children’s Hospital Colorado. Among its responsibilities are defining a plan for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the cancer center’s workforce, including members, staff, and trainees; leading initiatives that result in increased diversity in membership and leadership roles across the cancer center; and developing, assessing, and continuously improving approaches to increase recruitment and retention of diverse students, residents, faculty, and staff.
Clinical background and personal experience
Kano, who most recently served as assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Preventive Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, is a medical anthropologist who conducts participatory, population-based cancer research. She has worked with many ethnic minority, rural, and underserved communities in New Mexico.
Kano, who has a BA in university studies, an MA in anthropology and a doctorate degree in philosophy, all from the University of New Mexico, came to the world of academia after working as an office patient administrator in a multifaceted health clinic.
“I was a nontraditional student; I didn’t start my master’s degree until I was 30,” she says. “I oversaw a large clinic system, then I went to graduate school because I realized I wanted to have more input in trying to make improvements in those systems that I worked in.”
A primary focus of Kano’s work is increasing health equity for sexual and gender minority individuals — those who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex — and others in the LGBTQ+ community by improving access to behavioral health counseling, substance use treatment, primary care, and enhancing cancer care. It’s a focus that comes from a very personal place.
“I’m an out lesbian researcher, and a lot of the work I do is with cancer care training for sexual and gender minorities,” she says. “My wife and I are married, and we have two daughters, so those issues are always on my mind. I’m coming into this with that experience and awareness.”
CU experience and focus on community
For Henry, his new role means a homecoming of sorts. Before obtaining his assistant professor of pediatrics position in the Department of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine, he conducted research in the lab of CU Cancer Center Deputy Director James DeGregori, PhD, where he worked as a postdoctoral fellow from 2008 to 2012 and a research instructor from 2012 to 2016. Henry’s lab at Emory — which he has now brought to the CU Cancer Center — expanded on his training in DeGregori’s lab, where he studied how aging-associated chronic inflammation promotes blood cancers.
“My lab focuses on delineating how comorbidities that promote cancer impact therapeutic responses,” he says. “Specifically, we focus on how obesity- and aging-associated alterations in immune homeostasis reduce survival outcomes in patients with cancer. Our goal is to reactivate or reprogram the immune system in these contexts to improve the body’s natural ability to fight disease.”
Henry, who served in several DEI roles at Emory, including chair of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Advancement Committee in the Cancer Biology program, hopes to increase the CU Cancer Center’s visibility in the Denver area, particularly in the Aurora neighborhoods that border the Anschutz campus.
“One of my goals is to bring the community closer together — to host informational health fairs and science fairs in the community and increase the amount of funding available for cancer research focused on promoting health equity,” he says. “A lot of residents in this area have never been on the Anschutz campus unless they were receiving treatment or accompanying a sick patient. If you have this visible beacon of health in your backyard, it should be a place people know about and claim as their own, based on the relationships and bridges that are actively established by those in leadership positions.”
Kano agrees that community outreach is essential for the newly developing DEIA office at the CU Cancer Center. She also points to leadership development and efforts to diversify clinical trials enrollment to better reflect the populations served by the cancer center.
“I see DEIA as a nexus for supporting center-wide efforts to create a diversified workforce that represents our catchment area,” Kano says. “We want to promote ongoing faculty and staff initiatives around DEIA. Our team will focus on leadership development for early career faculty — that’s a way not only to draw people to the University of Colorado, but also to retain and develop the people who are already here.
“We are excited to collaborate on projects to increase enrollment of diverse patients into clinical trials and encourage faculty and staff training and ongoing pipeline efforts with the cancer center’s DEI Committee, Office of Community Outreach and Engagement, and Office of Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination,” she adds. “Together, we can ensure the CU Cancer Center is a strong, supportive environment for diverse faculty and staff, and a welcoming haven for the unique patients we serve.”