PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Lifespan will receive $10 million over five years to fund a fellowship seeking to increase diversity in cancer medicine and research, according to hospital officials.

Twenty public high school students will be onboarded each year to shadow hematologists and oncologists in inpatient and outpatient settings, according to Lifespan Cancer Institute’s Dr. Howard Safron. The initiative is funded by Papitto Opportunity Connection.

Papitto Opportunity Connection’s John Tarantino said the initiative seeks to target underserved communities to increase diversity and representation in cancer treatment and research.

Students will be selected from Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said students in three of the most marginalized districts in the state will have the opportunity to work alongside world-renowned clinicians.

“It does matter that our families see people that look like them, that understand, it really does matter,” Infante-Green said. “That our kids have a chance to be in this field, it really does matter. You’re changing the lives not just of those individual students but the entire community.”

The program will run for six weeks in the summer and students will work two successive summers.

“If your doctor doesn’t look like you, if your doctor doesn’t come from the same cultural background, if he or she doesn’t understand the family dynamics in that background, it’s going to be hard,” Tarantino said. “The doctor cares. The doctor will do everything he or she can do for the patient, but there’s a problem is they are not of the same cultural background.”

The program kicks off June 2023.

“The background of this program is there is increased cancer mortality for people of color,” Safron said. “It’s imperative that we build the next generation of cancer researchers to be reflective of the communities that we serve.”