Over the summer, a couple dozen high school rising seniors, including myself, from the Western New York area and from all around the country came to Roswell Park Cancer Institute for seven weeks as part of the Summer Research Internship Program. Hundreds of students apply each year, and therefore the selection process is very rigorous; students are selected after Roswell Park faculty review the merits of their applications. The selected students are paired with a faculty mentor and often a supervisor in a certain lab at RPCI. All students complete an abstract and poster by the end of the program. In addition to students’ individual projects, interns also are required to complete work for a summer course on analyzing scientific data. Roswell Park also offers this program to college rising seniors and medical students.
This summer marked the 61st anniversary of the program, which began in 1953. The intention was to provide opportunities for young people to see what science looks like up close and to provide high school students in particular the opportunity to get real biomedical research experience in a laboratory. Obviously, it has been a success, with more than 5,000 students having already been a part of this experience.
Dr. Adam Kisailus, the assistant dean for Internships and Education Outreach at Roswell Park, serves as the program director, a position he has held since 2009.
“The best part of the program is its ability to get kids to step outside the classroom and go behind those experiments that occur in a typical science classroom,” he said. “Seeing these kids makes me very confident of the future of both biomedical science and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Complex.”
Kisailus also has many plans in mind going forward.
“In the future, I want the program to offer even more career development opportunities, so that students can discover more opportunities in the life sciences industry,” he said. “The goal is to give students a more well-rounded view of biomedical research.”
The program is very comprehensive; students spend most of their eight-hour day in the lab with their respective mentors and principal investigators. Students are given a project and are expected to first read about their topic in order to better understand it in order to move forward. Students also are encouraged to attend speaking events every week by experts in various medical fields. This past summer, a special trip was conducted to a life sciences company in order to get a head start on career searching for the future.
Many accomplished people in the medical and science fields today have participated in this program.
Dr. Victor Filadora was an exceptional student in the program, and he now serves as the chief of the Department of Perioperative Medicine at RPCI and also holds an MBA. Additionally, Dr. Michael Caligiuri, once a student in the program, now serves as the CEO of Ohio State University’s James Cancer Center and has won many awards within the medical community. He donates a considerable amount of his time to teaching and working with students, because he believes it is important to focus on the next generation of scientists and physicians.
Dr. Richard Hershberger, who serves as the chief academic officer at Roswell Park, oversees all the programming and activities that the cancer institute organizes in order to advance educational and academic endeavors.
“My main goal is to give students and others a strong interest in research, at all different and varying levels,” he said. “I think the program does such good because there is no better way to understand if the biomedical field is best for you than to live the life of a scientist for a handful of weeks.”
I participated in the program, under the supervision of Dr. Iris Wang, assistant professor and medical physicist in the Department of Radiation Medicine at Roswell Park. I was tasked with establishing a baseline measurement for Image-Guided Radiotherapy, and I did this by observing various patterns in past X-ray images. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and felt it so stimulating to learn more about radiation oncology, a field that has been of particular interest to me. With the help of Dr. Nadia Malik, assistant professor in the Department of Radiation, I received the opportunity to begin the process of publishing my scientific paper in an official medical journal. I am grateful I was able to be part of this Roswell experience.
Makayla Arcara, a senior at Lake Shore High School, interned with the program in the Department of Surgical Oncology this past summer.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect but I surely did not expect what this all turned out to be,” Makayla said. “It was amazing, and I learned so much, far more than I thought I would.” She added that great things have come from her experience. She got an authorship in one of her lab’s publications, and she was offered the chance to come work again next summer at Roswell.
“Before this program, I was set with what I wanted to do after high school,” Makayla said. “I wanted to enlist in the U.S. Air Force and go to school to become a surgeon to help whomever I could across the world. Now, however, I’m not sure I need to go that far. Roswell is an amazing place, and I’d be lucky to find employment there or at another similar institution sometime in the future.”
Vita Golubovskaya, Ph.D., of St. Petersburg, Russia, mentored Makayla and a college student this summer.
“They were very enthusiastic to learn novel techniques, and they work very fast,” Golubovskaya said. “The internship inspired my students not only to do biological experiments but also to observe how surgeons work.”
Deniz Dosluoglu, a senior at City Honors, also participated in the 2013 Roswell Internship Program in the Department of Radiation Medicine under Matthew Podgorsak, Ph.D. The goal of his project was to evaluate whether a novel radiation therapy, known as VMAT (volumetric modulated arc therapy), is effective in treating patients diagnosed with lung cancer. He did this mainly by finding and recording patient data using a specific Roswell database.
Deniz said, “I originally signed up for the program because I came to the conclusion that I wanted to better the quality of people’s lives through science and medicine.” He also mentioned that he wanted to get a more hands-on experience and to see what specific fields in medicine particularly interested him.
“I am still not 100 percent sure what my job title is going to be in the future, but this internship definitely helped me narrow my list of potential careers,” Deniz said. “New technologies and discoveries will only open more doors and new professions, so if programs like this one continue to be offered in the future, I am certain that coming generations will come flocking in with the same enthusiasm my fellow interns had.”
Amir Gulati is a senior at Canisius High School and as a participant in the program this year, he was involved in developing a new nonsurgical treatment for non-small cell lung cancer in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
“We employed a combination treatment of a chemotherapeutic drug, Taxol, and a new anticancer drug,” Amir said. “Throughout my research, this combination treatment significantly inhibited cell growth.”
Overall, Amir said he enjoyed the program.
“I met a lot of new people, formed new friendships, and learned a lot about working in a cancer treatment lab,” he said. “It was sometimes tedious doing the same experiments, but that’s something that comes with working in a lab I guess.”
Dr. Elizabeth Repasky, professor of oncology in the Department of Immunology at RPCI, has mentored students since the 1980s, partly because she once participated in the program herself while in college.
“I enjoyed my experience so much that it convinced me to enter the field of cancer research and to obtain my Ph.D.,” she said. “Also, in my educational experience, I was blessed to have enthusiastic and dedicated teachers, and I hope I can influence others the way that my teachers once inspired me.”
Repasky also encourages communication and shared responsibility among all her students. “I have an ‘each one teaches one’ philosophy in the lab, and I find that my own doctoral students learn best when they have to explain a concept to a younger student in high school,” she said.
Not all of the summer program involves traditional scientific and biological experiments. Terry Alford is a community relations coordinator in the Office of Cancer Health Disparities at Roswell Park, and thus he represents a vital function of the cancer institute. He worked with Zoey Davis of Batavia High School, and their project aimed to figure out why some low-wage workers at Roswell Park were not attending the farmers’ market on the institute’s campus.
Alford stressed the fact that with the Summer Internship Program, learning is a two-way street.
“We learn a lot from our interns as well, and many times they offer fresh and innovative approaches to engaging those communities our office serves,” he said.
Kisailus may have summed it up best when he said, “This internship program is so extraordinary because here at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, no matter who you are or what you’re doing, we are all here for one purpose: to understand, prevent and eventually cure cancer.”
Michael Khan is a senior at Canisius High School.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect but I surely did not expect what this all turned out to be.”