Beyond meeting the needs of patients and conducting state-of-the-art research, training students and fellows in all aspects of basic, clinical, translational and population-based cancer research is a critical component of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center’s mission. Unfortunately many of the brightest young minds have no idea what a career in cancer research looks like and cannot visualize such a path in their future because they have not seen it first-hand.
The Comprehensive Cancer Center is taking a bold approach to changing that for promising high school and undergraduate students from the Chicago area. A new program was launched in the spring of 2014 to introduce talented students from underrepresented populations, including ethnic and racial minorities, low income and first-generation college or college-bound students, to cancer research.
“Developing the next generation of innovative scientists requires investing in their future and inspiring them to use their curiosity to tackle the biggest challenges in science and medicine,” says M. Eileen Dolan, PhD, professor of medicine and associate director for education of the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Funded by a Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience (CURE) grant from the National Cancer Institute and the University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation Women’s Board and led by Dolan, the program provided a hands-on summer research experience for students under the mentorship of Comprehensive Cancer Center faculty. For the inaugural summer, the Comprehensive Cancer Center hosted four high school and three undergraduate students.
The students’ research experience was further enhanced by a cancer research “boot camp,” formal faculty and student presentations about cancer research, and career development discussions with faculty. The summer culminated with the students presenting their research findings in a symposium attended by their peers, mentors, program leadership and, in many cases, parents. Even an Advanced Placement Biology teacher from one of the high schools attended the symposium and was amazed at what the students accomplished.
Abidemi Charles, a student at Chicago State University, worked with Mark Lingen, DDS, PhD, on optimizing the detection of a novel biomarker in salivary gland tumors. “My lab experience was surreal, in that those intimidating classroom theories and concepts came to life right before my eyes,” she said.
Unlike many programs that end after a summer, the CURE program engages students for a full two years. Throughout the academic year, the students benefit from an additional curriculum aimed at developing skills to read the scientific literature, mine data, discuss data and science ethics, and write proposals.
Sidney Trotter is a student at North Lawndale College Preparatory High School. Her summer project with Patrick La Riviere, PhD, associate professor of radiology, was focused on improving breast cancer screening using a novel transmission ultrasound imaging system. She said, “I hope one day to work as both a doctor and researcher. My time spent doing research has shown me that I can do anything I put my mind to.”