March 16, 2022

UW Carbone Cancer Center invests in next generation of cancer researchers with new high school internship program

Some of the most impactful lessons come from lived experience. Knowing this, the UW Carbone Cancer Center will pilot a new summer internship program to provide high school students the chance to work alongside UW-Madison cancer researchers.

The initiative, which will give teens hands-on lab experience as part of a research team, is the latest addition to UW Carbone’s outreach programming to provide high-quality educational opportunities that nurture and inspire the next generation of researchers.

“We want our programming to develop strength and diversity in the cancer research and cancer care workforce,” said Mary Nutt, CRA, Assistant Director of Education and Translational Research at UW Carbone.

The paid internship, running from June 20 to Aug. 5., will connect regional high school students to faculty mentors and research projects that match the students’ areas of interest. The most exciting aspect for students is that they will be able to work as part of a real research team, according to Dr. Sofia Refetoff, manager of the Pancreas Cancer Outreach Program and a coordinator for the internships.

Students will spend 20 hours a week working on their projects and meeting with the research team. At the end of the summer, each student will present their work to an audience of UW Carbone researchers as well as their family and friends.

Refetoff said there is special interest in giving this experience to students from diverse backgrounds underserved populations, including offering bus passes to ensure transportation is not an issue.

“We want to see this grow and get bigger over time,” Refetoff said of the program.

Breaking down barriers to opportunity is an important and welcomed priority for that internship, said Sarah Quinn, a teacher at Madison West High School. Quinn is involved in the school’s AVID program, focused on providing resources and college readiness support for students from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Quinn said having the new internship program provide transportation assistance as well as a wage are key elements of making it more accessible to students of limited means.

“I know Sofia understands that equity piece and I’m excited for this new program,” Quinn said.

Madison West High School is one of several schools UW Carbone partners with for outreach programming for middle and high school students. Refetoff coordinates classroom presentations in the schools as well as field trips to research labs to provide an inside look into those careers to engage and inspire the next generation of researchers. Refetoff said students who are energized by those experiences also ask her about additional ways to be active in the cancer community, including volunteering at events.

Quinn, who has accompanied students on these field trips, said her students really look forward to those experiences, especially being given hands-on projects to use lab equipment and make connections with researchers. She still hears from past students about how much they enjoyed those experiences and how it has helped guide their career ambitions. At least one student she knows also secured an internship with a UW Carbone researcher as a result of connecting during a past field trip.

“For so many students interested in careers in health care or in the health sciences, it’s often really difficult to actually get kids those hands-on experiences,” Quinn said.

Aside from the lab tour, the teens also have time to mingle with undergraduate and graduate researchers during the lunch break. The relaxed atmosphere gives them a chance to talk to those student researchers about how they got into their lab positions so that they can make their own future plans. Quinn said having the teens meet students close to their own age makes lab work seem much more attainable and less intimidating.

Those field trips also include teens meeting with a cancer survivor who talks about their journey and treatments. Refetoff said that, aside from showing students the academic side of cancer research, she also wants them to connect that knowledge with the human impact of cancer and why it is so important.

Refetoff and Quinn agreed that being able to put a face to these lessons is a powerful experience.

“It’s profound for the students to see that, you can be doing this work that affects a person’s life, and that person in front of us might not be standing here otherwise,” Refetoff said.