A blog post by Derek West, M.D., Clinical Research Pathways Board of Directors

Talk with almost any physician about his or her path to success, and chances are it includes a mentor. When the work gets difficult and the doubts set in, the support, encouragement, and guidance of a mentor can make all the difference.

That’s especially true if you’re a woman or underrepresented minority and you have a mentor of the same race or ethnicity and similar background. Every interaction becomes a reminder that your goals are achievable. Your mentor has succeeded, and so can you.

Years ago, as a medical and post-doctoral student interested in interventional radiology and translational research, I didn’t encounter African Americans in my field. I was fortunate, however, to have mentors who believed in me and what I was trying to accomplish, and I am grateful to them to this day.

Still, there were times when I wasn’t sure it was possible simply because I never saw any radiology physician-scientists who looked like me. My father is an orthopedic surgeon and my mother a nurse-practitioner, yet I sometimes questioned my career decisions and goals. Imagine the challenges for underrepresented minorities who don’t have such role models.

I decided early on that, once established, I would serve as a mentor and support mentoring programs in as many ways as possible—both to encourage women and underrepresented minorities in my field and to help build a pipeline of future leaders and mentors. That’s one of the many reasons I joined the board of Clinical Research Pathways, whose diversity initiative focuses on training and mentoring minority physicians to conduct clinical research. These physicians will then play key roles in increasing diversity among clinical trial participants.

Lack of diversity is an issue among both those who conduct and participate in clinical trials. African Americans make up 13.4% of the U.S. population but only 5% of those participating in clinical trials. Furthermore, only 1.5% of National Institutes of Health-funded physician researchers are African American.

If we increase the number of African American physician investigators, they can help enroll more African American patients in appropriate clinical trials, giving these patients access to the latest investigative treatments. Equally important, if we include more diverse patients in clinical trials, we can help ensure that new medicines are effective for all races and ethnicities. That, in turn, can have a powerful impact on future health and well-being.

It’s an ambitious goal, but I believe it’s an achievable one. And mentoring will help make it possible.

Blog post contributor Derek West, M.D., is an interventional radiologist and cancer researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, where he mentors more than 20 medical students and residents. His research interests also include medical diversity and inclusion.