The future of cancer research and care got a little brighter on April 22 as more than 50 biomedical science students from Denver-area high schools came to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for Learn About Cancer Day. The annual event hosted by the CU Cancer Center is designed to give more information about cancer research, prevention, and treatment to high schoolers interested in careers in science and medicine.
“We have a lot of people who come to our school to do presentations and things like that, and that's great, but it's in the same space the kids are used to,” said Scott Troy, a science teacher at Westminster High School. “Just coming here and seeing the sheer size of the facilities — that's impressive.”
Learning about cancer basics
CU Cancer Center member John Tentler, PhD, associate professor of medical oncology in the CU School of Medicine, opened the day by giving the students an explanation of what cancer is, how it’s prevented, and how it’s treated. “We need your help to fight cancer,” he told the students. “We want to inspire you to go into research.”
After Tentler’s presentation, Kristin Schaller, PhD, senior professional research assistant and lab manager for CU Cancer Center member Michael Verneris, MD, filled the students in on the basics of cancer research, explaining common cancer research models and giving the students the chance to look at cancer cells under a microscope.
Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, director of the CU Cancer Center, delivered the day’s keynote address, “Why We Hate Cancer.” He asked the students by a show of hands about the jobs they want to go into — among them physician, scientist, nurse practitioner, and pharmacist — and told them, “If all of you do what you say you’re going to do, we’re going to cure cancer much faster.”
Schulick shared with the students that although COVID-19 received a lot of headlines in 2020, it was actually the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind cancer (heart disease is number one). In 2022, Shulick said, 1.9 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the U.S., and more than 609,000 will die from the disease.
“Statistically, half of you in this room will get cancer and a quarter of you will die from it unless we do something about this,” he said. “Unless you bright young people focus on getting rid of cancer, we’re going to be dealing with this for a long time.”
After Schulick’s address, the students broke into small groups to tour the on-campus labs of CU cancer researchers.
“That’s the coolest part of the day, is when they go out to the different labs,” said Susan Hartley, a biomedical teacher at Hinkley High School in Aurora who has attended Learn About Cancer Day in the past. “They get different experiences going out to different labs. It’s different every year, and it’s super exciting to see the research people are working on.”
The day ended with a panel discussion featuring graduate students talking about their career paths, why they chose to pursue cancer research, and what they hope to do with their PhD degrees. Abe Martinez, Pearl Wilcock, Daniela Ortiz, Pheobe Cao, Madison Rose, Meghan Kellett, all graduate students in the Cancer Biology Graduate Program, participated in the discussion.
Learning to lead the way
Many of the students who attended Friday’s event are following the biomedical science pathway in Project Lead the Way, a national program that empowers students to develop in-demand knowledge and skills to help them thrive after graduation.
“A lot of students in that program start off wanting to be a doctor, wanting to be a pediatrician, then they get here and they see that there's so much more,” Hartley said. “There are genetic counselors, and there's all the many different types of research. At this age, they haven't had a lot of exposure to that, but hopefully experiences like this give them more.”
Learn About Cancer Day 2022 marks the program’s return to campus after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It feels fantastic to be back, because the kids really missed out on this,” Hartley said. “We do a big unit on cancer, and this event is always the highlight.”
Troy agreed, adding that the event is especially valuable for students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in medicine.
“Particularly for the students that don't have as much family background in this area — they may not have had family members or friends that have gone this direction — they can put a face to a name, they can put a face to a facility,” he says. “One of the folks who gave us our lab tour came here from Brazil, and a couple of the surgeons we worked with in a program on our campus last summer came from some Central and South American countries that our kids’ families have come from. They start to see, ‘This person looks like me, and they have the same last name.’ They can see themselves going in that direction. It's really cool.”