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Pathways to Discovery: Fall 2013

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Paving the Pathway for a Career in Cancer Research

For Angela Schab, a student from Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, this summer culminated with her new goal of joining a MD/PhD program after college, something she did not know even existed before her exposure to cancer research at the University of Chicago Medicine. It was her experience in the laboratory of UCCCC member Ravi Salgia, MD, PhD, professor of medicine, and work with Rifat Hasina, DDS, PhD, that opened her eyes to the possibility of a career that “allows me to work directly with patients and also in a lab.”

Schab, studying the signaling pathways that control lung cancer, was one of four high school students performing research in laboratories at the University of Chicago as participants in the American Cancer Society Summer High School Research Program. And the effort she put into the program paid off. “By the end of the summer, she had a solid understanding of lung cancer biology as well as how to design a hypothesis-driven research project,” said Dr. Hasina.

Since the Program’s inception in 2003, the University of Chicago Medicine and Biological Sciences Division has hosted several Chicago-area high school students each year. The major goal of the program is to introduce students to cancer research and promote career opportunities in the field of oncology. In the past decade, 100% of the more than 270 program alumni attended or are attending college. Many have gone on to obtain their undergraduate, graduate and/or medical degrees at some of the nation’s best universities, including Harvard,
Columbia, Cornell, Northwestern, and our own University of Chicago. Importantly, minorities comprise approximately 57% of alumni, and more than 80% of each year’s class pay-it-forward and serve as American Cancer Society volunteers.

The program’s success is due in large part to the partnership of the American Cancer Society and researchers at Illinois’ leading institutions who serve as program mentors. Beyond providing space in their laboratories and training in the technical aspects of cutting-edge research, mentors engage the students in one-on-one skill development including testing hypotheses, designing experiments, data interpretation, trouble-shooting, and preparing presentations. The 8-week program augments the students’ laboratory training experience with interactive weekly lectures by leading cancer researchers on a range of cancer-related topics, providing context to what the students learn in the lab.

Anthony Mei, a Walter Payton College Preparatory High School student, worked in the laboratory of UCCCC member Maryellen Giger, PhD, professor of radiology, analyzing imaging data to distinguish the prognostic and diagnostic features of distinct types of breast cancer. “I learned so much about the great steps that cancer researchers are taking,” said Mei. “The Summer High School Research Program gave me the chance to see the inner workings of cancer research. I’ve been amazed at how much researchers put in, and I have so much faith in the work they do and the things they achieve.”

John Franklin from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School studied the effect of visceral fat on cancer prevention and added, “Once you finish your summer project, it’s more satisfying and gratifying than anything I can think of."

Research remains at the heart of the American Cancer Society’s mission, but their financial support for the Summer High School Research Program will end with this year’s class. “The spirit of the high school students is great, and it was a difficult decision that we did not make lightly. Our focus is on doing all we can to save as many lives as possible,” explains Elizabeth Jablonski, PhD, who directed the Society’s research program in Illinois. “Moving forward, the American Cancer Society will continue to identify the most innovative cancer research and the fund best young scientists and health care professionals – including many right here at the University of Chicago.”