The next wave: Cancer research institutions train a new generation of scientists


  • Carrie Printz

A dynamic New York City high school chemistry teacher who specialized in amazing his students with pyrotechnic experiments inspired Gerald Zambetti, PhD, to pursue a career in science. “In the spring, we had a day where you could choose to spend the day at the Bronx Zoo, go horseback riding, go canoeing down the Delaware River, or go to the chemistry lab with Brother Paul Bernard,” says Dr. Zambetti. “I always wanted to do the chem lab, but I could never get in—it was always the first thing to be full.”

That type of inspiration is what many cancer research institutions are hoping to achieve by encouraging young people to enter the medical research field. Attracting the next generation of bright young students is an ongoing concern for the cancer and broader medical research communities as research funds continue to dwindle, discouraging talented students with an aptitude for science from pursuing an academic research career. For that reason, leaders at various cancer institutions consider their student outreach programs to be a priority.

Side by Side With Researchers

One example is the Summer Plus Program, run jointly by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. Zambetti, vice president and director of academic programs and biomedical sciences at St. Jude, says the program helps to immerse college students in the world of medical research.

Although St. Jude is not a degree-granting institution, education and training are an important focus, he says. Many of the staff have joint faculty appointments at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and mentor graduate students toward their doctorate degrees. “We bring in students from all over the world to help train them in pediatric cancers and other catastrophic diseases,” Dr. Zambetti says. “Bringing in these smart, talented students also helps contribute to our research programs.”

The Summer Plus Program places Rhodes College students in state-of-the-art research laboratories with world-renowned faculty. The program, now entering its 14th year, accepts between 12 and 15 students each year. These students then commit to a full-time summer internship and continue to work part-time on their project during the academic year. They then return to the laboratory full-time for a second summer.

Teddy Huerta, a junior biology major at Rhodes College, completed his first-year internship and is continuing to work on his project during the school year. He is researching different types of influenza subtypes and specifically why H1N1 viruses are unable to replicate in macrophages whereas H5N1 viruses are. He also is studying astroviruses, which are highly prevalent in children living in developing countries. As part of his internship, Huerta gave a presentation and is currently working on a manuscript to submit for publication. “At St. Jude, where physicians and scientists work side by side, it was really valuable to see how research affects medicine every day, and it also gave me a good sense of how to write grants and prepare manuscripts,” he says. “The program gives you a better way of connecting what happens in the classroom to what happens out in the world.”

Huerta plans to pursue an MD/PhD degree program after he graduates and would like to pursue a career in research. “I was on the fence about whether to pursue grad school or medical school, and this experience crystalized that I really want to do research,” he says. “It made me more interested and passionate about doing my own independent research.”

Huerta says he enjoyed the camaraderie of working with his fellow laboratory researchers and learning skills that will help him to be successful in the future. The current funding climate has not discouraged him from a research career. “The program gave me a more optimistic view of research,” he says. “It showed me what the possible limitations are and ways I could overcome them.”

The Summer Plus Program also offers an international internship each summer to 2 students at St. Jude's affiliate program at Calvo Mackenna Children's Hospital in Santiago, Chile, one of approximately 20 such affiliates around the world. The students, who must have a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, conduct clinical research and shadow physicians and pharmacists at the hospital.

St. Jude also sends faculty out to middle schools to educate students about careers in science. Dr. Zambetti, for example, recently gave a round of lectures to sophomore biology classes at a local Memphis high school. He spoke about the P53 tumor suppressor gene and the important role it plays in protecting against cancer. “I was trying to convey the importance of not smoking and protecting yourself against ultraviolet radiation, since both are associated with mutations in p53,” he says.

Early Exposure to Science

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City has launched its own program to help high school students become involved in medical research. Known as the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program (HOPP), the summer internship program was established 3 years ago for students interested in pursuing careers in biosciences.

Although the center had an internship program previously, it was not as formalized or structured and did not have a broad outreach effort to students across the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, says HOPP administrator Ederlinda Paraiso. The new program also includes an effort to recruit students from underserved communities.

Each summer, HOPP brings in between 16 and 20 students to take part in independent research projects under the direct mentorship of a HOPP principal investigator. Students also are matched with a mentor from the principal investigator's lab. They learn how to read scientific journals and design and conduct experiments, and they present their projects at the end of the summer in a poster session. They also attend regular lectures and hospital tours and participate in activities designed to immerse participants in the world of translational research.

This past summer, 20 students were accepted into the program from a field of 210 applicants. HOPP exposes them to the work of both physician-scientists and basic scientists. “Many of the students thought medicine was the only route to go if they were interested in science,” Paraiso says. “We wanted to show them how the research we're doing affects clinical care and to foster curiosity in the scientist career track.”

Ambika Acharya, now a sophomore at Stanford University in Stanford, California, worked for 2 summers as a high school student in the laboratory of Ross Levine, MD, where she researched resistance to Janus kinase 2 (JAK2) inhibitors and ways to target mutations that develop in patients. She is considering a career in computational biology and is working in a cancer research laboratory at Stanford Medical School. She praises the program for exposing her to the many different elements of MSKCC and to the life of being a researcher and physician. “I wouldn't have known about clinical research at all,” she says.

Paraiso and her colleagues would like to find ways to reach out to a broader range of students, not only to get them involved in HOPP but also to expose them to science and research during middle and elementary school levels, a critical time to influence career paths, she says. “We have access to a really diverse population in New York City,” Paraiso says. “It's heartwarming to see our investigators light up when they're teaching these young students.”

Toward that end, MSKCC is looking into partnering with the American Museum of Natural History, which already has outreach programs for younger students, and other organizations to streamline such an effort.

The program gives you a better way of connecting what happens in the classroom to what happens out in the world.

Teddy Huerta, Rhodes College junior and biology major