Summer internship focuses on strategies to increase diversity in the stem cell registry

Awa Diagne

Awa Diagne, a Loran scholar and research assistant at Canadian Blood Services, contributed to a project called “Piloting and evaluating a community-led strategy for diversifying the stem cell registry” as part of a summer internship. This project was initiated by Canadian Blood Services’ stem cell team in May 2022.

A summer internship at Canadian Blood Services

In May 2023, I joined the donation policy and studies team at Canadian Blood Services to complete a summer internship as a research assistant. This opportunity was the third internship I had completed as a Loran scholar at the University of Toronto in the social and cultural anthropology program. Having previously pursued summer internships in other sectors, I intended my role at Canadian Blood Services to focus on community development with a goal to understand the role that the blood operator can play in helping promote the well-being of marginalized communities. The project I spent my summer working on matched my goal perfectly and served as the ideal opportunity to learn about the relationship between stem cell donation and community development/outreach.

Raising awareness of stem cell donation in diverse communities

Over the course of my 12-week placement, my main responsibilities involved completing a qualitative analysis on data collected as part of the Piloting and evaluating a community-led strategy for diversifying the stem cell registry project led by Canadian Blood Services scientists Dr. Jennie Haw and Dr. Kelly Holloway. The project aims to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of strategies intended to engage Canadians of diverse ethnic ancestry between the ages of 17–35.

One component of the study involved focus groups with young adults who come from communities that are underrepresented in the stem cell registry. A second component of the study was to hire six community advocates, known as CAs, who planned events in their communities to raise awareness of stem cell donation. As young adults who divide their time between their hometowns and university campuses, the CAs relied on collaborations with community organizations or local religious places of worship that served members of their community for these events to take place. The CAs also had to dedicate time to building effective communication channels and trust with leaders in the communities.

In my role, I spent a lot of time reading transcribed interviews with the CAs where I interpreted, coded and summarized their insights about the experience of reaching out to their communities. In the interviews, the CAs described the events they planned in great detail, including their successes, the challenges they faced and what they learned from their communities in the process.

A unique opportunity to assess barriers to donation

Although community engagement was not part of my day-to-day responsibilities, I absorbed so much knowledge on donation and community engagement through my research tasks on the project. I learned about the plurality of views on donation and, more specifically, stem cell donation across various racialized communities, as well as the benefits and challenges of engaging young adults in health promotion. One of the biggest takeaways from my experience analyzing their insights is the importance of continuing to create opportunities for health advocates and leaders to develop engagement strategies that will meet the needs of different communities.

For me, this research assistant position confirmed the critical role that social science research plays in the blood operator’s research strategy.

“At Canadian Blood Services, social science research projects like the one I contributed to are important because they provide a unique opportunity to assess how systemic barriers to donation can be mitigated and how the experience of becoming a donor in Canada’s lifeline can be improved.”

Halfway through my placement in June 2023, I was able to attend an academic conference held at the University of Ottawa’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Black Health on National Sickle Cell Awareness Day to witness in person the role that social science research can play in community engagement. The event was organized by the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Canada and featured a number of unique research project presentations, including two that focused on how systemic racism and anti-Blackness create obstacles for potential Black and/or queer donors in Canada. The conference presentations were meaningful as they included personal testimonies from sickle cell patients and were designed for the sickle cell patient and caregiver community rather than an academic audience. Like the organizers of the conference, the donation policy and studies team at Canadian Blood Services is very intent on producing research that positively changes the healthcare landscape and serves audiences that are broader than academia.

Applying the learnings

During the second half of my internship, I focused on drafting a report that summarizes key insights from the CAs’ experiences, which will be included in a larger report that will be internally presented to the stem cell operations team. In the future, I hope to apply the learnings from this experience to continue contributing to the growth of an equitable donation system through and beyond research.

Though I completed my summer internship as a research assistant in this project in late July, I will continue to work with Dr. Haw at Canadian Blood Services as a part-time research assistant over the next academic year on another project: Assessing alternative donor screening questions in current donors.

Canadian Blood Services – Driving world-class innovation

Through discovery, development and applied research, Canadian Blood Services drives world-class innovation in blood transfusion, cellular therapy and transplantation—bringing clarity and insight to an increasingly complex healthcare future. Our dedicated research team and extended network of partners engage in exploratory and applied research to create new knowledge, inform and enhance best practices, contribute to the development of new services and technologies, and build capacity through training and collaboration. Find out more about our research impact. 

The opinions reflected in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Canadian Blood Services nor do they reflect the views of Health Canada or any other funding agency.