On Thursday, February 23, University of Colorado Cancer Center hosted its annual Learn About Cancer Day, a full-day seminar offering Denver-area high school students the opportunity to meet researchers, tour laboratories, and hear about cancer research and treatment from leading experts. The event, now in its 10th year, is implemented by John Tentler, PhD, associate director for education at CU Cancer Center and Jill Penafiel, education manager. The approximately 120 students from four schools were nominated for attendance by their science teachers, primarily in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs.
The event started with an overview of and introduction to cancer, presented at Fulginiti Pavilion by John Tentler, PhD. Students then split into groups of about a dozen to tour campus laboratories, where they explored a range of topics including tumor heterogeneity in breast cancer, the role of telomeres in human longevity and disease, and what it’s like to balance family with career as a cancer scientist. High school students apparently do not wear coats and so many had a chilly walk through central campus in what was effectively a blizzard.
“For a scientist, science is a way of being,” Jennifer Richer, PhD told her group. In the Richer lab, students used microscopes to examine samples of human breast cancers and learned how lab members used various kinds of cell staining to evaluate whether cancer cells had been killed by experimental treatments.
Students then learned about cancer prevention in the context of melanoma from Myles Cockburn, PhD, co-leader of the CU Cancer Center Population Sciences Research program and CancerCure/AMC Cancer Fund Chair for Prevention and Control. Cockburn showed how changing cultural norms of skin exposure, for example through the evolution of swimsuit styles, combine with potential genetic factors to contribute to increasing incidence of melanoma. He also explored the tricky difference between population-wide risk statistics and individual risk, noting that despite the increased skin cancer risk for people with “my distinctive hairstyle and other risk factors associated with being a pasty white person”, anyone can get melanoma. (He made students promise to not use tanning beds, which, he said are like walking around a nuclear power plant without protection.)
Karyn Goodman, MD, MS, David and Margaret Turley Grohne Chair in Clinical Cancer and associate director for Clinical Research at the University of Colorado Cancer Center then spoke from her clinical experience about treatment options for cancer. Goodman answered students’ questions about choosing and sequencing treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy and targeted treatments. And she discussed how traditional treatments might be combined with newer options such as immunotherapy, pointing out that radiation may break apart cancer cells in a primary tumor in a way that sensitizes the immune system to attack cancer elsewhere in the body.
After a pizza lunch, students heard from Anosheh Afghani, MD, and Michelle Springer, MS, CGC about the CU Cancer Center Young Women’s Translational Breast Cancer Program, and had the opportunity to ask questions about genetic risk, prophylactic treatments and the molecular differences between breast cancers in older and younger patients. Two young women breast cancer survivors were also on the panel. They discussed their diagnoses, treatment, and how cancer changed their lives at ages 24 and 30.
“These are bright students and it was obvious they had had some exposure to the science behind these topics,” says Jill Penafiel.
This potential next generation of cancer scientists left knowing more about cancer and, as importantly, with a clearer picture of what it looks like to study cancer. Students were encouraged to get involved with the Cancer Center through the Cancer Research Summer Research Fellowship Program or by exploring work/study opportunities.