More than 400 local high school students had the opportunity to hear firsthand about the latest cancer research from University of Florida faculty and trainees and learn about their varied career paths during the UF Health Cancer Center’s Cancer Research Symposium for High School Students held on Jan. 26 at West Port High School in Ocala.
Three other high schools traveled to West Port High School, some from as far away as the Tampa area, totaling about 400 in-person attendees, more than twice as many students as the inaugural symposium in 2020. A new addition for this year’s symposium was a livestream option and four high schools joined the symposium by livestream.
“The livestream option helps us expand our reach as we begin doing a ‘science road show’ around the state as part of our mission to educate, train and mentor the next generation of cancer researchers,” said Dietmar Siemann, Ph.D., associate director of education and training at the UF Health Cancer Center. “This complements our work with the Cancer Center’s annual Cancer Research Conference for Science Teachers in the summer.”
The symposium featured three hourlong sessions, each of which had a scientific presentation by a UF faculty member on a cancer research topic, science presentation by UF trainees, and brief discussions of career paths and opportunities in cancer research. Afterward, students attending in person had the chance to connect with the researchers and trainees and ask questions during lunch.
This year’s symposium was sponsored by AstraZeneca, an important indicator of industry support not only for the science the Cancer Center is conducting, but also its educational programs.
In keeping with the Cancer Center’s multidisciplinary approach to solving the problem of cancer, researchers represented a variety of UF departments, ranging from neurosurgery to advertising. The presentation topics ranged from leukemia to cancer population sciences to virtual human technology.
In the first session, Olga Guryanova, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of pharmacology & therapeutics in the UF College of Medicine, discussed the epigenetics of leukemia, keeping her presentation relatable with metaphors drawing parallels between mutations and the many ways a recipe can go awry. Minh-Chau Le, a graduate student in the department of mechanical & aerospace engineering, presented on microfluidic platforms to detect circulating tumor cells.
In the second session, Siemann gave a presentation on the tumor microenvironment and discussed the importance of exercise in combatting cancers. Rachel Newsome, a predoctoral fellow in the biomedical sciences program – cancer biology concentration, and Bayli DiVita Dean, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neurosurgery, who are part of the Team-based Interdisciplinary Cancer Research Training Program, presented on the microbiome, immunotherapy and solid tumors. With sports metaphors and ample discussion of stool, their presentation drew engagement and laughs.
“In the fight against cancer, you’re not alone. You have an army of foot soldiers on your side: the microbiome,” Newsome told students in conclusion.
In the third session, Ramzi Salloum, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of health outcomes & biomedical informatics and director of the UF CTSI Learning Health System, discussed vaping and common misconceptions. His presentation also included an interactive true-false Q&A to test students’ knowledge about vaping. Andrew Maxim, a predoctoral fellow in the graduate program in computer science, and Eric Cooks, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the department of advertising, who are also part of the Team-based Interdisciplinary Cancer Research Training Program, discussed their research on virtual human customization.
“They made their presentations at a level that was definitely easy for the students to understand,” said Victoria Craig, activities director and dual enrollment instructor at West Port High School. “They broke it down really well and the visuals were awesome. The students seemed very engaged.”
“They made their presentations at a level that was definitely easy for the students to understand.”Victoria Craig, activities director and dual enrollment instructor at West Port High School
Craig also expressed gratitude to the UF faculty and trainees who took the time to travel to the symposium to speak. Many students at West Port transition to UF, she noted, making it valuable to provide them information on available programs. The Cancer Center offers an array of opportunities for students to get involved early with cancer research, including the Florida 4-H University Discovery Workshop on Cancer, the Student Science Training Program for rising high school seniors, and the University Scholars Program for undergraduate students.
For students, hearing about the many potential routes to having a successful career is key. “Their background is really important for our kids to hear,” Craig said.
Siemann stressed to students that many career paths beyond academia are possible, noting that Cancer Center trainees have gone on to careers in large pharmaceutical firms or small biotech companies. Others have become science writers or developed their own businesses related to science, some work for consulting companies, and yet others work for law firms, he said.
Siemann, who holds the John P. Cofrin Professorship in Radiation Therapy and is associate chair for research in the department of radiation oncology, described the twists and turns on his own path to becoming a cancer researcher.
“Single-minded focus on what you think you’re going to do is often not the best way; it certainly hasn’t been for me,” he said. “The environment I found myself in was constantly changing and evolving and what was important to me was to be able to adapt and persevere. I learned a long time ago to be flexible; as one door closes, another will open.”