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UD student Julie Sosa (working with the samples in multicolored tubes), in some photos with Jennifer Alexander (African American), a doctoral student who's been Julie's mentor this summer, and with Fox Chase faculty member Edna Cukierman, the primary researcher.
UD sophomore Julie Sosa prepares different samples of proteins for research involving the growth of pancreatic cancer cells.

Cancer Center partnership

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

UD undergraduates spend summer immersed in research

A select group of University of Delaware undergraduates spent their summer at a top cancer center, experiencing the life of a medical researcher, honing their laboratory skills and developing professional networks.

From investigating potential drug therapies that could target some of the most deadly cancers to exploring the role genetic ancestry might play in smoking and lung cancer, the four students spent an intensive 10 weeks working on a variety of projects.

“Everybody’s project is different, so when we get together we compare notes and discuss our work,” said Emily Wong, a senior biological sciences major who sees her future in medical research. “I’ve learned so much this summer, and it’s just been an awesome experience.”

The students were selected to take part in a pilot partnership between UD and Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where they worked in the center’s labs. While the project provided them with valuable hands-on experience in a major research facility, it was designed to go beyond the lab to include more comprehensive benefits as well.

“We wanted to not only promote their research experience but also to provide extra layers of mentoring and skill building,” said Amanda Purdy, manager of academic programs and training at Fox Chase. “We set it up to be a well-rounded experience to help them develop their skills, not matter what path they decide to take in the future.”

In addition to their work with specific projects as part of a research team under the guidance of an enthusiastic mentor, the students met regularly with Purdy and others from the cancer center and sat in on guest lectures and seminars.

Students worked on developing their scientific writing skills and discussed how to both analyze and present research findings. They also had the opportunity to shadow other professionals, including medical doctors, to explore career options beyond research.

“We’re dedicated to training future generations of researchers, but our job is not to brainwash these students into becoming scientists,” said Glenn Rall, professor and associate chief academic officer at Fox Chase.

“These are good, motivated students who have a real interest in medical research, so we want to give them the kind of exposure they wouldn’t otherwise get, especially as undergrads.”

The program was also designed for community building, with the four students living together for the summer in a nearby house. Rall, who invited the group to some social activities and often provided rides to the grocery store, said they were immediately considered part of the Fox Chase family.

“We see a continuing relationship, where they can always come back here if they’d like to shadow someone or if they need a reference,” he said.

The participants were selected from a group of interested students in UD’s NUCLEUS program, an undergraduate support program designed to foster academic excellence among students in the College of Arts and Sciences. The researchers who mentored the students also were carefully selected, Rall said, from volunteers who particularly like working with young students.

“These kids are terrific,” said one of those researcher-mentors, Edna Cukierman, who supervised UD sophomore Julie Sosa, a biological sciences major. “They were selected and supported, and we can really help expose them to science and to what researchers really do all day in the lab.”

Cukierman and the other mentors called the program a win-win for the students and for Fox Chase. While learning research techniques, the students also made valuable contributions to their projects that will continue after the summer.

The cancer center is an educational institution, and it is particularly interested in increasing diversity in the field of research, to better reflect the diversity of the general population, Purdy said. Working with students who are members of underrepresented groups was a key goal of the pilot project.

The project, which Fox Chase and UD would like to continue and gradually expand, was supported this year by the two institutions and by UD alumnus Thomas Hofmann. Hofmann, BE73, has generously supported the NUCLEUS program, allowing students to pursue a variety of undergraduate research and internship opportunities.

The students and their research

Participants in the summer program, who all presented their research at UD’s Undergraduate Research Symposium in August, were:

  • Franklin Iheanacho, a senior majoring in biological sciences, is planning to attend medical school. He investigated two cell lines, cancer and non-cancer cells, and how they respond to certain drugs. The summer project, he said, “gave me experience in oncology research and I was able to learn some new techniques.”

  • Maame Riverson, a junior majoring in neuroscience, looked at genetic ancestry and smoking behavior, in a study designed to explore why African Americans have higher rates of occurrence and mortality from lung cancer. Her career plan is to become a pediatric neurosurgeon.

  • Julie Sosa, a sophomore majoring in biological sciences, focused her summer research on the growth of pancreatic cancer cells, studying how those cells and nearby non-cancer cells communicate. Sosa, who said she’s always loved science, is eyeing a career in medical research.

  • Emily Wong, a senior in biological sciences, studied a rare type of cancer known as GIST (gastrointestinal stromal tumors) and investigated a protein that might play in role in treating those tumors. Wong said she sees herself not as a clinician treating patients but in a “behind the scenes role” conducting research.

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