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Pathways to Discovery: Winter 2012

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UChicago Researchers Inspire High Schoolers to Pursue Science Careers

Researchers make the breakthroughs that doctors need to do their work. ... It was an experience I'll never forget.
Stefan Kunovac

This summer, a select group of high school students were part of a unique experience. For 8 weeks, they were in research labs, working side by side with UChicago scientists.

The American Cancer Society, Illinois Division, selected about 30 Illinois high school students to participate in its 9th Annual Summer High School Research Program. The program seeks to illuminate the field of cancer research for young potential scientists.

Four UCCCC members were among eight UChicago faculty members who mentored students in their research labs. The four were Maryellen Giger, PhD, professor of radiology, Patrick La Riviere, PhD, assistant professor of radiology, Donald Vander
Griend, PhD, assistant professor of surgery, and Samuel Volchenboum, MD, PhD, MS, assistant professor of pediatrics.

"My most meaningful experience as a young scientist was my first time in a lab, so it's fun for me to be in the position now with my own lab to inspire other people to become scientists," said Dr. Vander Griend, who is also director of Urological Stem Cell Research.

Dr. Vander Griend was paired with Stefan Kunovac, who is now a senior at William Howard Taft High School on Chicago's North Side. Kunovac learned about the opportunity through his school's website, and he skipped his family's annual trip to Yugoslavia so he could spend his summer learning in a top academic research facility.

Pursuing Progress in Prostate Cancer
Understanding the molecular events leading to prostate carcinogenesis is critical to developing new therapies to prevent and treat the disease. Through a process called DNA methylation, cells permanently turn off specific genes. Changes in methylation often occur with cancer, resulting in re-expression of genes normally not expressed. Dr. Vander Griend was awarded a Career Development Award from the National Cancer Institute's Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Prostate Cancer grant, which includes Northwestern University and UChicago, to learn more about gene expression patterns in prostate cancer stem cells.

This summer, Kunovac assisted with an ongoing research project to develop a method to detect gene methylation in these cells. He used techniques, such as bisulfite conversion and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), to investigate whether methylation was a factor in how these genes were turned back on. Others in Dr. Vander Griend's lab are continuing the work.

"After a decade of thinking about genes and cells, it was really neat to see someone come in and learn about them," Dr. Vander Griend said. "His curiosity was refreshing."

Kunovac's time in the lab allowed him to gain hands-on research skills, while building critical thinking abilities. In addition to his project, he participated in weekly seminars and observed and helped with other research tasks, including animal dissection.

Lessons Learned
Inspired by TV medical dramas such as "House, M.D." and "Grey's Anatomy," Kunovac knew he wanted to attend medical school after graduation; however, his summer in the lab showed him a side of science that is not commonly shown on TV.

"Researchers make the breakthroughs that doctors need to do their work, so that's pretty cool," he said. Kunovac said he is considering earning a PhD and wants to learn more about neuroscience."I learned so much about science here," he said. "It was an experience I'll never forget."


high schooler in lab prostate cancer