Undergrads focus on cancer during summer at Hollings

The next generation – young people eager to contribute to science and their communities – are in MUSC Hollings Cancer Center laboratories this summer, learning from researchers who have devoted their careers to uncovering the mysteries of cancer.

A dozen of these undergraduates are part of a special program that introduces underrepresented minorities to cancer research, especially research into the cancers that have the greatest racial disparities in South Carolina: breast, prostate, head and neck and cervical cancer.

As part of the South Carolina Cancer Health Equity Consortium (SC CHEC), they’re getting time in the lab and coursework covering some of the thorniest issues facing the cancer community: namely, disparities in cancer outcomes among different groups of people and how to fix them.

Marvella Ford, Ph.D., associate director for population sciences and cancer disparities at Hollings, leads the group. For Ford, it’s about providing the mentoring and opportunities that underrepresented students might not otherwise have. Throughout the program, she ensures that students not only learn research methods and presentation skills but also interpersonal skills like job interviewing and how to communicate over email.

Coming up with solutions for cancer – whether it’s new treatments, improved treatments, better screenings or better ways of delivering care – will require the talents of people from all backgrounds.

Diversity, said Benjamin Toll, Ph.D., associate director for education and training at Hollings, buoys us all.

“It lifts us all up. If we have a more diverse base, it helps us all to have all these different viewpoints,” he said. “Our training and education benefits from diverse backgrounds because all of these various trainees, they give us new perspectives.”

The undergraduates come from the University of South Carolina and three historically Black colleges and universities – Voorhees University, Claflin University and South Carolina State University. Once on the MUSC campus, they’re assigned to a researcher based upon the interests they’ve indicated.

Latavia Fields, a rising senior at Claflin, noted that she is torn between applying to medical school or pharmacy school upon graduation. She was assigned to the lab of Patrick Woster, Ph.D., where she’s getting exposure to both professions, thanks to the varying backgrounds of the people working there.

She’s working on a project that mixes chemotherapy drugs with marker inhibitors to try to reduce inflammation in neuroblastoma tumors in children.

“We believe that the more inflamed the tumor is, the higher chance of death,” she explained. “We believe we can create a drug to reduce inflammation so it better responds to treatment.”

Adam Pressley, a rising junior at Voorhees, is interested in public health. He’s working with Ford this summer to evaluate the SC AMEN program, a community outreach program that educates Black men about their increased risk of prostate cancer and steps they can take to reduce that risk.

As part of his research, he attended an SC AMEN event in Holly Hill. Men participating in the program take a survey before and after the educational component to gauge their knowledge of prostate cancer and the available screenings. They’re then followed for three months to see whether they get screened for prostate cancer.

“We’re trying to determine whether the data results of the post-test show a positive effect on the population and if the seminars help to decrease the disparities and increase the prostate cancer screenings,” he said.

Toll said it’s wonderful to have the students on campus.

“These students are a breath of fresh air,” he said. “They are so excited about the future. They care about academic medicine and cancer research.

“I do think it’s bidirectional, such that we train them, but we also learn from them,” he added. “And that’s important. Our trainees are our future. We need them to carry on.”

The Hollings pipeline program actually reaches all the way down to the high school level. That’s where Fields first met Ford.

Fields was a student at Burke High School on the Charleston peninsula when Ford and the late Dennis Watson, Ph.D., began teaching a two-year cancer program to students in the health sciences track.

She had always been interested in medicine, from the time she was a little girl at her pediatrician appointments, and family members’ health problems increased her interest. After graduating from Burke in 2019, she went to college as a biology major and chemistry minor. In fact, 88% of the group that participated in the Hollings program went on to STEM majors at four-year colleges. Though she’s still deciding between medicine and pharmacy, she hopes to apply to MUSC.

Toll said Fields’ journey exemplifies what Ford and MUSC would like to see: develop the talent right here in South Carolina with the goal of keeping people in the state so they serve the communities they grew up in.

Fields, for her part, credited Ford for keeping in touch with the Burke students and alerting them to educational and professional opportunities.

“She’s a big part of why I’m here today,” Fields said. “She’s been a big part in all of our lives.”

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