Feature Story | 6-Feb-2023

USC fellowship funds medical student dermatology research on skin of color

The fellowship, which now has support from skincare brand La Roche-Posay, aims to reduce health disparities by advancing research related to skin of color, pigmentation and diversity.

University of Southern California

Patients of color face significant disparities across the health care system, and those inequities extend to dermatology. Delayed and incorrect diagnoses of skin conditions can lead to worse health outcomes—and even increase the risk of premature death—among people of color.

At the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the Skin of Color and Pigmentary Disorders Research Fellowship is part of a growing effort to reverse that trend. Each year, the fellowship program funds one medical student to study ethnic skin conditions and pigmentary disorders, learn about cultural competency, and engage in service learning. It is the only program of its kind in Southern California and one of just a few in the country.

“As my career has developed, I’ve seen an increased need for clinical and research programs related to skin of color, and I’m thrilled to be able to mentor students in this area,” said Nada Elbuluk, MD, associate professor of clinical dermatology at the Keck School of Medicine and founder and director of the fellowship.

The program is part of the larger USC Skin of Color Center and Pigmentary Disorders Program, also founded and directed by Elbuluk, which combines culturally sensitive dermatologic care with research on conditions that affect patients of color. The fellowship, launched in 2018, has received outside funding this year for the first time.

“We are honored and thankful for La Roche-Posay’s commitment to the work we are doing to improve dermatologic care for people of color and to improve health equity for all patients,” Elbuluk said.

This year’s fellow is Sarah Gonzalez, a medical student at Wayne State University in Detroit. She will work with Elbuluk to conduct research that may benefit patients around the world and contribute to service programs that support underserved and minority communities in the Los Angeles area.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime. The research we are doing will hopefully bridge gaps of knowledge that will not only advance science but also decrease health disparities,” she said.

An understudied group

During the one-year fellowship, each medical student works closely with Elbuluk to conduct research on ethnic skin conditions and pigmentary disorders, an understudied branch of dermatology. They research conditions such as acne, alopecia and vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder that causes loss of skin pigmentation in patches.

Fellows also work alongside Elbuluk in the USC Skin of Color Center and Pigmentary Disorders Clinic, where they learn how to deliver culturally competent dermatologic care to patients of all skin types and backgrounds. The clinic provides specialized care for conditions that primarily affect people of color, such as keloids, an overgrowth of scar tissue. It also treats common skin conditions, including as acne, eczema and psoriasis, that may look different in patients of color due to the additional melanin in their skin.

In addition to the research and clinical training they receive, fellows participate in two community service initiatives: Dermmunity, which aims to increase education about skin health in underserved communities across Los Angeles, and DermRISES, which works to introduce underrepresented students to the sciences, medicine and dermatology.

Diversifying the workforce

Past fellows have authored numerous peer-reviewed publications related to skin of color, presented their findings at national scientific meetings and entered dermatology residency programs.

In addition to advancing research and clinical care for patients of color, the fellowship also plays a role in diversifying the physician workforce. In dermatology, only 3% of providers are Black and just 4% are Hispanic.

“Through this fellowship and mentoring these students, I also have the opportunity to help improve the pipeline of diverse applicants to the field of dermatology,” Elbuluk said.

To learn more about the Skin of Color and Pigmentary Disorders Research Fellowship, visit https://keck.usc.edu/dermatology/training-and-education/diversity-and-Inclusion/usc-skin-of-color-and-pigmentary-disorders-program.

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