SALT LAKE CITY — A lot of kids would shy away from a summer spent doing research on a college campus, but the Huntsman Cancer Institute is helping to push a select few ahead of the rest with its PathMaker summer research program.
PathMaker, which has been up and running four years, aims to diversify the field of biomedical research by adding competent and qualified students from racial and ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged, rural and frontier areas across Utah and the West. The program just got an official nod from the National Cancer Institute’s Youth Enjoy Science Research Education Program, which gave Huntsman and its PathMaker program a $2.5 million award to further engage Utah students and their teachers in cancer research.
“A lot of these students have really compelling stories, tough circumstances they’ve grown up in,” said Donald Ayer, senior director of cancer training and career enhancement at Huntsman Cancer Institute and professor of oncological science at the University of Utah. “This provides an opportunity for young students who wouldn’t normally have these types of opportunities.”
Not to mention, it heightens student interest in science, which Ayer said starts to wane as they leave middle school or junior high.
“We need these people, whose minds might bring a different perspective,” he said, adding that he hopes the experience gets kids used to the idea that research careers can be interesting.
Following in her older brother and sisters’ footsteps, Laila Batar, said she wants to do well in school because her parents fled civil war in Somalia and “sacrificed everything for us.”
This past summer, the PathMaker program gave 17-year-old Laila her first-ever chance to work in a functioning research lab and she loved it.
“It was so cool,” she said, adding that she learned a lot about the processes of a working lab.
She was able to participate in adenovirus work at a lab run by renowned neurosurgeons at the U.
“I went into this thinking I would be in a little lab, doing boring stuff, but it was amazing doing the experiments and seeing the outcome,” Laila said. “I sign up for any opportunity I can. I don’t want to miss out on anything.”
She would recommend anyone, even teens who are not interested in science, apply for this program, as well as others, to give themselves a chance to see what it is like.
Laila often reflects on the ultimate chance she got after her parents fled to America, and said she “probably wouldn’t even be able to go to school” in Somalia.
“They wanted us to have a better life here,” Laila said. “They didn’t want us to grow up with the war. It wasn’t safe there. But also, there wasn’t an option for an education and the jobs and opportunities that are here.”
“I am grateful for my parents sacrificing all they had,” she said. “I want to work hard and show them that what they did is really a good thing for us.”
Since 2015, the PathMaker program has trained 44 Utah high school students, 39 of which have gone to college, including one who entered medical school this year. The other five are still in high school in Utah.
The program has had students earn scholarships at Duke, Dartmouth and Brown universities, as well.
Ayer said participation in PathMaker “definitely helps their application status.”
Students selected for the highly competitive program spend 10 weeks living in supervised dorms on campus at the U. They work at various labs and participate in professional development activities, as well as attend lectures and talks from researchers from the field of medicine.
“We’re really trying to prepare these students for careers in some area of biomedicine,” Ayer said.
He said there’s projected to be “a pretty dramatic shortage” of medical oncologists in the near future. Also, the field just isn’t as diverse as it needs to be to represent the demographics of the country and the patients being served.
“We need to diversify the biomedical research workforce,” Ayer said.
A recent analysis of 500 Utah medical students indicates that eight identify as Hispanic or Latino, none were American Indian or African American, and one identified as native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, despite these being significant minority groups in the state, according to Huntsman Cancer Institute.
“A lot of it is about opportunity and exposure, and if you grow up white, middle class, you have a lot of advantages that a lot of other people don’t,” Ayer said, adding that PathMaker gives students access to “bona fide projects that are challenging and require them to learn new skills and think analytically.”
The online application process for PathMaker opens in December and after extensive statewide outreach, the program managers will select 10 students to participate next summer.
“I wish I had this kind of experience when I was a high school student, frankly,” Ayer said.
The recent funding award will allow the program to expand to include more students in different aspects, perhaps an abbreviated version of the program, as well as extend it to teachers who might have more of an impact on a greater number of students.
“We want to get them excited about science early, so, hopefully they stay in science for a career,” Ayer said.
For more information, visit uofuhealth.utah.edu/huntsman/research-areas/cancer-health-equity/programs/pathmaker/.