A collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania’s Population Aging Research Center (PARC) and the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI) has received a $1.5 million grant for a new pipeline program to support underrepresented undergraduate students interested in academic careers in aging and health research.

The five-year grant from the National Institute of Aging will establish the Get Experience in Aging Research Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP), which will support undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds through a 15-month immersive experience in the disciplines, skills, and day-to-day life of Penn’s broad faculty community of aging-related health care researchers.

Norma Coe, PhD

Open to students from underrepresented backgrounds across the country, the program launches this June and includes two consecutive summers of intense in-person training and mentored research on the Penn campus and an intervening academic year of activities including speaker events, panels, information sessions, and roundtables with prominent researchers in the field of aging. Students from distant schools will engage in these activities virtually.

“We aim to enhance the diversity of the research workforce in the demography and economics of aging, health, and health care,” said Norma Coe, PhD, Co-Director of PARC and GEAR UP Co-Principal Investigator. “This new program provides students the opportunity to grow, enhance their technical capabilities, enrich their relationships with mentors and colleagues, and develop a passion for research along with a desire to pursue graduate studies.”

Hans-Peter Kohler, PhD

The program’s funding and launch come as U.S. care for older adults faces a “perfect storm” of trends and circumstances that leave ever-larger numbers of older people stranded without adequate care.

“Aging in America is not going as planned,” said Hans-Peter Kohler, PhD, Co-Director of PARC and GEAR UP Co-Principal Investigator. “COVID-19, declining life expectancy, Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (ADRD), and a large and aging Baby Boomer population at risk for ADRD present the potential for a looming long-term care crisis. In all these areas, motivating researchers from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue research careers will bring desperately needed new talent and creative solutions to the field.”

Among the most troubling and challenging trends confronting older America are the inequities in health and health care that so heavily affect racial and ethnic minorities — inequities that are made worse by the lack of racial and ethnic representation throughout the health and health care research.

Rachel M. Werner, MD, PhD

“Racial and ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in aging-research-related professions, including biomedical, clinical, health services, demography, and economics,” said LDI Executive Director and GEAR UP Co-Principal Investigator Rachel M. Werner, MD, PhD. “For instance, in health services research (HSR), which studies the organization, financing, and delivery of health care and provides an evidence-base that is central to addressing issues of care quality, access, affordability, and equity, Black and Hispanic researchers account for only 6.9% and 3.7%, respectively, of the workforce.”

While the GEAR UP program is new, it is based on a 22-year-old curriculum and infrastructure pioneered at Penn as the Summer Undergraduate Minority Research (SUMR) program. A joint initiative of LDI and The Wharton School, SUMR is a 12-week summer pipeline initiative that pairs each minority research scholar with a faculty mentor and immerses the scholar in the daily work of Penn’s health services research community. Many alumni of the SUMR program have gone on to PhD and other graduate studies, with successful careers in universities, government agencies, and health care institutions across the country. Like the SUMR scholars, the new GEAR UP scholars will be paid for their work on the research teams of their faculty mentors.

Joanne Levy, MBA, MPC

Formal curriculum topics include health services research, health economics, demography, medical sociology, population health, research technical skills, methods training, presentation coaching, and graduate test preparation.

“This is such a wonderfully logical and productive expansion of Penn’s continuing efforts to increase diversity across the health care research field,” said Joanne Levy, MBA, MPC, LDI Director of Student Initiatives and Founding Director of the SUMR program.

The 15-month GEAR UP curriculum is informed by a tight focus on aging, health disparities, and six research themes in which PARC and LDI researchers are heavily involved. This includes long-established research networks fostering interdisciplinary research nationally and internationally in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and among immigrant populations. The themes are:

  1. Health Care and Long-Term Care at Older Ages
  2. Cognition and Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (ADRD)
  3. Health Disparities in Aging
  4. Early Life Conditions and Older Adult Health, Behavior, and Well-being
  5. Global Health and Aging
  6. COVID-19 and Aging

GEAR UP scholars will also take part in an ongoing series of “Experience Aging” activities designed to provide first-hand, in-depth encounters with the experiences of older adults who face an array of challenges in everyday life. Included are visits to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, memory clinics, hospices, elder acute care hospital units, food pantries, and other facilities. The scholars will also engage behind the scenes in unusual research venues like the Penn School of Nursing’s Home Care Suite, a simulated home environment equipped with smart-home sensors, medication adherence tools, a “social robot” and other cutting-edge technology that is being developed for home care.

Both PARC and LDI have close affiliations with, and draw their faculty and fellows from, Penn’s Schools of Medicine, Business, Nursing, Law, and Arts and Sciences. Forty-nine of these faculty members form the mentoring corps for GEAR UP. Nearly half of the faculty mentors are women and nearly a quarter are from underrepresented backgrounds. More than half focus their research on health disparities.

“The GEAR UP mentors are themselves being mentored to ensure they are well prepared to mentor students who are underrepresented, and that the program is not perpetuating the status quo through our mentors,” said Werner. “We’re also closely working with various school departments’ Vice Chairs of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity to provide our mentors with additional anti-racism and anti-bias training.”


Hoag Levins

Editor, Digital Publications

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