Gift provides a start in cancer research for Illinois’ brightest high school students


Debra and Ira Cohen have been active supporters of cancer research for many years as volunteers and donors of the American Cancer Society. They have also championed the training of the next generation of bright, creative cancer researchers through the Society’s successful Illinois high school summer research program, which they helped to develop and support. When the program was eliminated in 2013, they knew they had to act. Together with Eileen Dolan, PhD, professor of medicine and associate director for education of the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, they envisioned creating a new program that would introduce the talented, dedicated high school students to cancer research. And in less than six months, that is exactly what they did by launching researcHStart.

In a partnership between the Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Illinois Cancer Center and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researcHStart provides Illinois high school juniors and seniors with an intensive summer cancer research and career development experience. Through a generous gift from the Cohens, the program was launched in 2015. The inaugural class included 16 students (five at the University of Chicago, four at the University of Illinois Champaign campus and seven at the Chicago campus) and seamless coordination from Dolan’s team at the Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Becoming part of a program that exposes high school students to an experience that they wouldn’t be able to get in a school environment is a rewarding experience for us,” said Debra Cohen.  “Exposing them to a real world research experience and seeing their development in an eight-week period is incredible to be a small part of.”


The cornerstone of researcHStart is the 8-week long research experience – immersion into an intensive research environment through cutting-edge research projects under the mentorship of preeminent leaders in the cancer research community. ResearcHStart also helps students build communication skills and exposes them to various career possibilities focused on cancer research and care. The program culminates with a Summer Cancer Research Symposium that brings all of the students and program leadership from each site together to showcase the intellect, savvy and impressive maturity of these future researchers.

For the Cohens, all eyes should be on the students and their accomplishments. For many of these students, the program exceeded their expectations in every way and provided a spark for them to consider pursuing cancer research or clinical care in college and beyond.

“Before becoming a part of the program, cancer research seemed like such a distant or foreign field to enter,” said Mattea Valley High School student Nipun Dubey, who worked with Lucy Godley, MD, PhD, at the University of Chicago. “Even the disease itself felt like an overpowering force that might take decades to make significant progress against. However, this program helped introduce even high school students like myself into such a rapidly developing and expanding field of medicine. It helped me learn just how much possibility there is in cancer research and inspires me to make a difference.”

That is what researcHStart is all about – inspiring the most talented young minds to address the biggest scientific and clinical challenges facing the cancer community. It is the type of investment that will pay dividends for decades to come.

As Sarah Whiteside, a student at Trinity High School, perhaps said best, “The University of Chicago, and this program, prepares you for the future with a full toolbox of knowledge.”


ResearcHStart joins the Continuing Umbrella of Research Excellence (CURE) Program as integral components of the Comprehensive Cancer Center’s efforts to train tomorrow’s cancer innovators. CURE, funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute and the University of Chicago Cancer Research Foundation Women’s board, is a two-year research program for high school and college students from underrepresented backgrounds. To learn about the Comprehensive Cancer Center’s educational activities, click here.

About Kathleen Goss (30 Articles)
Kathleen Goss, PhD, is the Director for Strategic Partnerships and senior science writer at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center.
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