Cancer Center Ambassadors Program connects, empowers graduate students

By Reagan Malenius 

The UF Health Cancer Center Ambassadors Program comprises graduate students who not only share a passion for research, but also for educating others. The ambassadors participate in a range of outreach activities to educate the next generation of cancer researchers, from precollegiate students to community educators. 

About 50 UF graduate students have served as ambassadors since the program began.

Since the program began in 2017, about 50 UF graduate students have served as ambassadors. Students engage and encourage up-and-coming cancer researchers by giving presentations and workshops on their research and sharing the twists and turns in their career paths. They play a vital role in the Cancer Center’s education and training programs, such as the University Scholars Program, a two-semester program to train undergraduates on a variety of cancer research topics, by helping to select participants and guiding them as buddies. 

“The ambassadors have been essential to what we do,” said Dietmar Siemann, Ph.D., associate director for education and training at the Cancer Center. “Because our graduate students are close in age to many of the learners in our programs, they’re able to establish a good rapport that enriches the experience for both sides. By sharing their own paths in cancer research, our ambassadors provide invaluable insight and support for the next generation of cancer researchers.” 

Ambassadors serve on a range of subcommittees aligned with their interests and skills, including marketing and advertising, applications review, faculty recruitment, student buddies and scholar activities.  

Madison Carelock, current president of the ambassadors, is studying cancer biology, immunology and drug development. 

Madison Carelock, current president of the ambassadors, described the volunteer opportunities as stepping stones to becoming a mentor and avenues for learning about research pathways. 

“It opens up doors not only to teach, but to network,” said Carelock, who is entering her fourth year in the Cancer Biology Concentration in the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences. “Ambassadors gain opportunities to collaborate with different labs and cancer researchers across the university.” 

“Ambassadors gain opportunities to collaborate with different labs and cancer researchers across the university.”

Madison Carelock, ambassadors president

Through lab tours and workshops, the ambassadors help fuel the early cancer research interests of middle and high school students. They encourage high school students to pursue careers in cancer research by sharing their research and personal educational journeys at the Cancer Research Symposium for High School Students and the Student Science Training Program Cancer Biology & Therapeutics Lecture Series for rising high school seniors. They also participate in Florida 4-H Discovery Workshops that allow high school students to gain exposure to cancer research. 

The ambassadors help at the annual Cancer Research Conference for Science Teachers, a conference dedicated to educating teachers about cancer risk and prevention, fostering cancer education and highlighting cancer research career paths for their students. In recent years, the ambassadors have led hands-on preconference workshops that provide an interactive element for the teachers. The students are also helping assemble a digital library of lectures and educational resources from the conference to share with community educators. 

Participating in events like the teachers’ conference helps graduate students keep their skills sharp, preparing them for a variety of careers.  

“Our scientific communication has to stay at a level where we can explain our extremely detailed research to a high school student or a high school teacher,” Carelock said. 

Zeng Jin, a graduate student in the Cancer Biology Concentration and a current ambassador, talks with an intern in the STRONGER Program in May.

This year, the ambassadors are supporting a new program: the STRONGER Program (Summer Training in Research and Oncology for the Next Generation of Researchers). For 12 weeks, undergraduates intern at the Cancer Center in an area of cancer research that interests them. Participants are mentored by ambassadors and other graduate students at the Cancer Center.  

“The STRONGER Program helps graduate students learn to be mentors,” said Siddhi Chitre, who served as president of the ambassadors committee from 2022 to 2023. “Whether pursuing a career in academia or industry, mentorship skills will always be needed. I highly encourage graduate students to apply as mentors for this program.” 

By engaging in activities targeted at all levels of learners, the ambassadors forge connections that propel research across disciplines. 

“The ambassadors unify the cancer labs across campus that are not specific to the biomedical Ph.D. program,” Carelock said. “Postdocs are also welcome so there is mentorship within the ambassadors where the postdocs and the graduate students work together. The program is bringing logic to our studies by allowing us to discuss cancer research topics together.” 

Chitre added: “The ambassador program has impacted me a lot. I received a lot of advice and mentorship to navigate my career pathway. When I started graduate school, I wasn’t sure of many career pathways for myself, but I can proudly say I have experience in education outreach and want to continue to pursue those avenues.” 

Thank you to our ambassadors!

For graduate students interested in becoming leaders to support the cancer research passions of others, serving as an ambassador requires an estimated participation of 3 to 5 hours per month. 

Michael Dougherty, a graduate of the Cancer Biology Concentration program, presents his research at the 2023 Cancer Research Conference for Science Teachers.
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