Local Students Join Cancer Researchers’ Labs for the Summer

A new program, the Research Cures Cancer Corps (RC3), aims to create a broader pipeline to careers in cancer research.

In summer 2022, ten local high school students had the rare opportunity to conduct cancer research alongside University of Notre Dame professors. The experience was part of the Research Cures Cancer Corps (RC3), a new program from the Harper Cancer Research Institute at Notre Dame. The program aims to build a broader pipeline to careers in cancer research, an effort that cancer researchers say is crucial for making cancer treatments effective for all populations.

According to recent surveys, “athlete,” “artist,” or “entertainer” top teens’ lists of career aspirations. “Students decide what they want to be on the basis of what they see. They can aspire to be teachers or coaches because they interact with them every day. Most students never get the chance to meet cancer researchers,” says Angela Cavalieri, the External Relations and Special Events Program Coordinator at the Harper Cancer Research Institute (HCRI).

Cavalieri administers a new program at HCRI that aims at fixing the problem. Thanks to the program, the Research Cures Cancer Corps (RC3), ten local high school students have done more than meet cancer researchers. The students have worked alongside them in their laboratories on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

“We have talked about the idea for several years,” says Sharon Stack, the Ann F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director of HCRI. Stack and her team work to diversify the world of cancer research at all levels—not just to provide benefits to students but also to make cancer research more effective. They recognize, along with major health agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that, “Without adequate representation especially in therapeutic trials, cancer disparities are likely to increase as [racial and ethnic] minority populations may not be able to fully benefit from cutting-edge treatments and the promises of precision medicine.”

The answer is more diversity—not just in cancer screenings, bio-repositories, and clinical trials—but also in cancer researchers themselves. Or, as Stack puts it, “We need more nerds!”

To select students to participate in the new program, HCRI took the idea to local teachers. They asked teachers to nominate students with untapped potential who may not have considered cancer research as a career path. Word spread quickly; in the end, HCRI received 117 applications for ten spots.

Each student was paired with a mentor—in most cases a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow—and a professor. For eight weeks, the students conducted their own research project in support of the lab’s overall research program, and each student’s summer culminated in a symposium where the students presented their research to other students and faculty members as well as community members, family, and friends.

In addition to their work in the lab, each student participated in team-building activities and workshops on topics such as financial literacy and the college admissions process. “Success is always greater when you take a holistic approach to education,” Cavalieri explains. “We didn’t want students to have a Disneyland experience, where they experience something magical and then leave them where they were. We wanted to give them skills and tools they can keep.”

Participating in RC3 was especially meaningful for Katharine White, the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Notre Dame. “It is the kind of experience I wish I had had when I was a student in this community,” she says. After attending South Bend Community Schools from elementary through high school, White earned her bachelor’s degree from Saint Mary’s College and her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

White returned to South Bend in 2019 to start a cancer research lab at HCRI. “One reason I chose to come to Notre Dame over some other offers I had is that at Notre Dame faculty have the opportunity to mentor students at every stage,” White explains. “We can help students have transformative research experiences early, and that keeps students in the pipeline.”

White mentored Elijah Gorski, a student at Washington High School. His project involved using advanced microscopy to observe the changes in protein abundances that take place when cells divide.

Over the long term, Stack hopes to extend the opportunity to more students. “Our goal is to find additional support so that we can grow the program, do our part to change the face of STEM, and encourage the pursuit of STEM careers by local students.”

Over the short term, though, the program is already showing early successes: One student already has a part-time job as a cancer researcher. Gorski was so successful in White’s lab that she hired him. As he finishes high school, he will continue to conduct research in her lab.

To learn more about the Research Cures Cancer Corps program and the Harper Cancer Research Institute, please visit harpercancer.nd.edu.

August 30, 2022

Health and SocietyCollege of Sciencedigest153Harper Cancer Research InstituteHCRISharon StackSouth BendUniversity of Notre Dame