BUFFALO, N.Y. – A University at Buffalo/Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher and first-generation college student has been awarded the Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Research Scholars (HPRS) Fellowship for health equity research.

Michelle Goulette, PhD candidate in the Cancer Sciences program at Roswell Park, received the prestigious fellowship available to second-year doctoral students to fund her research focused on cannabis.

“This award is a well-deserved testament to Michelle’s dedication to her work,” says H Fogarty, Goulette’s adviser in UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships. “Michelle tackled the application process — which involved rigorous rounds of application revisions and multiple interviews — with admirable tenacity and verve, qualities that I am certain she applies in her work as well.”

“It is clear from hearing Michelle talk about her goals that she is passionate about her research and health equity, and I admire her empathetic and person-centered approach to her work.”

Goulette is contributing to research in Roswell Park’s Center for Translational Research on Cannabis and Cancer, under the mentorship of Danielle Smith, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of oncology in Roswell Park’s Department of Health Behavior.

“With the support of the HPRS program, Michelle will address emerging health equity issues in the cannabis sciences through innovative and timely research that will have a direct impact on what is going on in our community,” says Smith. Her exceptional enthusiasm and passion for working with people from historically underserved populations, along with her lived experience, makes her a superb candidate for this award.”

Goulette is another example of how the university’s best and brightest have often chosen work reflecting personal experience. As a child in a rural community, Goulette endured poor access to health care, “which is often the case for first-generation students like me,” she wrote in an application essay.

“This lack of resources affected my ability to be successful in school because I was dealing with an undiagnosed learning disability, ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder],” Goulette said. “I felt an immense amount of responsibility from my parents to pursue an undergraduate degree, as I would be the first in my family to pursue higher education. Nevertheless, the pressure from my parents and their lack of awareness of the college application process, as well as discouragement from my high school counselors, have made my university journey challenging.”

Goulette set her sights on attending and graduating from a State University of New York school. She did more than that.
“I completed my first bachelor’s degree in public communications in three years by working three jobs to pay for my housing and tuition, all while being undiagnosed with ADHD,” she said.

When Goulette began work as a marketing representative, she realized she had pursued a field that failed to inspire her.

“I realized if I truly wanted to find my passion I would have to head back to school. This is when I decided to complete a second bachelor’s degree in anthropology,” she wrote. “During this time, I discovered the field of medical anthropology research which became my passion. I made it my mission to learn how my education could improve health care systems in my community.”

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Health Policy Research Scholars program provides funding and professional development to an interdisciplinary cohort of underrepresented doctoral students contributing to health equity through their research.

“HPRS is unique in their definition of ‘a culture of health’ and who they see as integral to advancing it,” says Fogarty. “While similar programs are often aimed at exclusively funding students from medical or STEM fields, HPRS is intentionally interdisciplinary and inclusive, demonstrating their belief that health equity is a collaborative effort that is enriched by diversity of thought, methodology, and identity.”

Besides funding, the program offers training and networking opportunities that enable HPRS scholars to forge connections across disciplines that will be invaluable in pursuing their future work, according to Fogarty. The fellowship will support Goulette’s work on “barriers to accessing cannabis related health information and health care services [that] have disproportionately affected racial minorities and low socioeconomic groups in the United States.”

Barriers fuel observed disparities in all aspects of cancer care, according to Goulette. She hopes that her work will inform equitable policy efforts to facilitate access, mitigate costs, improve quality of care, enhance quality of life and create health educational opportunities to promote person-centered informed decision making.

“I value health equity because I do not want anyone to feel powerless to their situation, like I did,” she says. “Knowledge needs to be shared about health care, and systems in the U.S. need to be improved for this to happen.”

Now Goulette gets her wish. As part of the HPRS program she will “work with other individuals who are driven by this goal: achieving health equity for all.”