Meet MCC’s Community Outreach and Engagement team
As Minnesota’s cancer center, the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, works every day to advance knowledge, enhance care, and ensure that anyone facing a cancer journey has the support and resources they need. While our researchers, doctors, and other clinical staff are often the people you might think of when you think of cancer care, there’s a small but mighty team at MCC where science and heart intersect: our Office of Community Outreach and Engagement (COE), which we call our COE team.
This team carries out a number of priorities. The community outreach and engagement function involves bridging community and research: sharing back to the community what researchers have learned in a very tangible way, and sharing with researchers community concerns or questions. The cancer research training and education core works to support and build up the current and future pipeline of cancer researchers. From elementary schools to PhD programs and beyond, the goal is ensuring there are opportunities to progress through the spectrum of careers in cancer. And DEI functions are foundational to this work—COE team members focused on DEI work to build an inclusive environment and diverse workforce, focusing on both the diversity of future researchers and staff.
Each member of our COE team has wandered a unique path to get to where they are today, but they all converge on a common ground—making a real difference in the fight against cancer, one community member at a time.
Different journeys, one goal
Amna Hussein (she/her), community outreach and engagement manager, lights up when she talks about meshing her cancer biology and public health know-how with on-the-ground action. “When I started in this area, I was in a masters degree program in biological sciences with coursework in cancer biology, immunology, and public health,” she says. Joining the COE team allowed her to integrate all of that critical scientific and technical knowledge into the work she does and to her it feels like her position was made for her. "Our office is uniquely positioned at the cancer center, having access to cutting-edge cancer research and renowned experts. We are committed to being the link between the cancer center and communities throughout our state,” she says. “By cultivating strong community partnerships, our goal is to disseminate the latest cancer research and evidence-based interventions to reduce cancer disparities and improve health outcomes."
Ashley Pohlenz (she/her), senior research and program coordinator, found her niche in a world that married her public health background with the needs of under-resourced communities. Her first job in the field found her working with American Indian communities in Minnesota, and it’s where she grew her expertise in evaluation, grant writing, communication, and community-oriented support. “When working with our indigenous communities in Minnesota, it was clear that there was this crucial overlap between the community members I worked with and people who needed access to cancer resources and treatment. I actually worked with the Masonic Cancer Center team while still in a separate role, and I knew it was a team I wanted to be part of one day.”
Lissa Martinez Huebner (she/her), event and administrative manager, once dreamt of a life reminiscent of “Gilmore Girls'”Lorelai, planning events and managing staff in the hospitality and tourism industry. Instead, Lissa found her calling in the non-profit realm. “The cancer center initially drew me not only because cancer is such a huge problem that we all have personal connections to, but because I knew the University of Minnesota would be a great place for career growth and opportunity.” Six years in, she's seen firsthand how a little information and support can make the cancer journey less daunting, especially when loved ones have had to face a cancer journey. “Having that personal connection in my own life, and being in a position to offer resources and information, has been really impactful in both a personal and professional way,” she says.
Cathleen Drilling (she/her), community engagement and education coordinator, swapped her neuroscience trajectory for a high school classroom, fostering young minds in science for two decades. Now at CRTEC, she's channeling that passion to ensure everyone gets a fair crack at science careers. “I taught high school biology for almost twenty years,” she says, “including courses that helped develop students’ research skills and that taught them to think of themselves as scientists. When I saw this position open up, I realized that it brought together a lot of my background and interests, especially getting students access to STEM programs and other similar initiatives.” Cathleen uses this passion to train up the next generation of doctors, scientists, and educators, working directly with high school and undergraduate students as well as local teachers.
Elsie Aldrich (she/her), events coordinator, swapped private event planning for impactful community events. “I went to school for marketing, actually,” she says, “but I’d always had the idea to do events at some point in my career. I started out working for a wedding planner duo in high school, and I loved the rush of events, having everybody come in the door when it all kicks off, and then wrapping things up at the end of the day–it’s truly such a satisfying feeling.” To kick off her professional career, she worked for an event management company and began to really love the person-to-person planning process. For Elsie, it's about ending each day knowing she's contributed to something bigger than herself. “I wanted to do something that felt more impactful, and this role on this team felt like a great fit for me. It definitely brings that community aspect to the event planning, and I’m thrilled that the events I help support have such a profound impact on our community of Minnesotans.”
Heidi Eschenbacher (she/her), DEI program associate, found a kindred spirit in MCC’s Dr. Rahel Ghebre, associate director of DEI, and became immersed in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within the cancer center. “I first worked with Rahel Ghebre on an international project, and then she invited me to work on our National Cancer Institute grant renewal process last year,” Heidi says. “We work well together in recognizing the benefits of diversity in improving science and establishing workplaces where all people thrive and are appreciated for their contributions, particularly when serving the needs of underserved populations.” As a student at the University in the 1990s, Heidi escorted people around the Twin Cities campus when they came for cancer testing. She notes, “I learned so much from Minnesotans who were so excited to come to the U campus and have their cancer detection tests. I’ve taken those memories through all the iterations of my work with the University and now with the cancer center.”
Kiara Ellis (she/her), director of community outreach and engagement, comes from a social work background but has seamlessly transitioned into public health, where she looks at cancer care through the lens of everyday lives and policy. Helping facilitate access to various health and housing services early on in her career clearly illustrated to Kiara the relationship between basic needs and social determinants of health in cancer care and treatment. “As a result,” she says, “transitioning from human services to public health felt like a natural progression for me.” In Kiara’s eyes, policy, leadership, and program development are crucial aspects of making a lasting impact in communities across our state. “We are looking at everything from prevention, to survivorship, to building up future researchers from communities that we don’t see as easily and that are more disproportionately burdened by cancer. We are working to ensure that no community gets left behind,” she adds.
Making an impact on Minnesota
But why does this work matter? For Elsie, it’s about turning her newfound cancer knowledge into community power. For Amna, it’s the real-life stories of people nudged toward lifesaving cancer screenings. For Kiara, it's recognizing cancer's omnipresence and finding ways to face it together. “There’s no room or one person you can go to whose life has not been impacted by cancer in some way, shape, or form,” Kiara says. “It’s [cancer] not something people always think about until it’s in front of them, but it’s going to touch everybody in some way. And we’re helping people prepare for that moment.”
Lissa points out that their strength lies in reaching the Minnesota communities who are often overlooked and medically underserved, bringing vital cancer info, resources, and support straight to their doorsteps. “We’re really targeting communities who may not have been exposed to information about cancer risks, symptoms, and the importance of screening,” she says. “We’re working directly with these communities via a partnership to learn what information they’re missing or would like to receive from us and then provide that for them.”
Ashley sees their role as bearers of hope in the relentless pursuit of better cancer screening—including for types of cancer that don’t yet have robust screening or diagnosis available: “Because we have a relationship with these communities and a relationship with our Masonic Cancer Center researchers,” she says, “we can encourage people that researchers we know are working to improve screening and diagnosis in types of cancer that are not as common or don’t currently have as much prevention or early detection power in place. It can’t be understated how important it is to facilitate that type of hope.”
Cathleen’s driven by the disparities in science, aiming to inspire and open up doors for future leaders. She notes, “When I look at my role and who is not in science, there is a connection there. The role that we’re playing is so important to get more perspectives in the cancer workforce and in medical care in general. We need people who are aware of these disparities who are also fired up to act on them—people who can notice things that have not been noticed before to improve outcomes for Minnesotans and move things forward with new innovation and new perspectives.”
And Heidi? She knows that when a healthcare workforce reflects the communities it serves, outcomes improve. “When we have people from all communities we serve, and when we are knowledgeable about how to interact with people of various backgrounds, identities, and abilities, we get better. It’s critical to have medical professionals who know how to work with patients who have different, varying needs. Our COE team serves as a bridge of sorts, ferrying some of this information back and forth from our Minnesota communities to our doctors, nurses, and scientists and vice versa.”
Equity as the cornerstone
Equity isn't just a buzzword for this team; it's the backbone of their approach. Whether it’s acknowledging difficult personal histories or fostering diversity in the medical field, it’s about making genuine connections and taking concrete steps to improve. Engaging with communities isn’t just a duty; it’s a joy for this team.
Kiara speaks of expanding reach and fostering partnerships, while Ashley, Amna, and Elsie make note of the growing number of event attendees at each event the COE team hosts—events which often include a cancer screening component. For Lissa, it’s about continuing to scale their impact through big, community-facing offerings like Fireside Chats, the Cancer Survivorship Conference, and annual Goldy vs. Cancer special events.
Looking at 2024, the COE team has big plans. Key new opportunities on the horizon include the Doors Open Minneapolis event, where they’ll open up MCC lab facilities on the Twin Cities UMN campus and help unveil the cancer center's story to an even wider audience.
At the end of the day, it all comes back to rolling up sleeves and extending hands to every corner of the state. Ever the visionary, Kiara notes, “Our team has really grown over the years. Even though by many standards we’re still small but we are mighty, we are making a big impact.” She adds, “Thanks to the partnerships our COE team has built and nourished, people in the community see us as a resource—and that’s how we know we’re making a difference. People are looking to us for expertise and resource-sharing that advances the work they are doing in different ways in Minnesota communities. It’s a team effort, and one that we’re really proud to be part of.”
In a nutshell, this COE team might be made up of dreamers who all found their way to MCC in different ways, but they're dreamers with their boots firmly planted on the ground, taking both tiny steps and leaping strides forward hand-in-hand with community members in Minnesota’s battle against cancer. It’s a mission that is firmly rooted in the real world, in real struggles, and most importantly, in real people.
Did you know you can help us power this crucial impact? Make a gift to our community outreach and engagement fund today.