News from the Department of Medicine

75 Students from Five Area High Schools Learn About Careers in Cancer

April 11, 2024 by Jeff Wakefield

Katie Queen, PhD, shows cancer cells to students during a demonstration at the first Careers in Cancer event. (Photo: Andy Duback)

Senator Welch Addressed Students at April 12 Event; Noted Researcher Spoke on Cancer Research in Space

Seventy-five students from five Burlington-area high schools attended the second Careers in Cancer event at the UVM Cancer Center on April 12 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students received career advice from UVM Cancer Center leadership, faculty, staff, and trainees and observed faculty and students working on cancer research in several of the university’s research labs. The UVM Cancer Center is located within the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. 

Students also heard from several speakers, including Vermont Senator Peter Welch.

The Careers in Cancer series was developed in part to address the ongoing shortage of oncology workers in the U.S., as the incidence of cancer increases, patients live longer, and many oncology professionals reach retirement age. The most recent comprehensive study projected in 2007 that the need for oncology workers would increase by 48% between 2005 and 2020, but that the supply would increase by only 14%. Experts say that predicted shortage has materialized

“A career in cancer research or in treating or working with cancer patients is not only personally rewarding, it is an in-demand profession that fills an urgent healthcare need,” said Randall F. Holcombe, M.D., M.B.A., professor of medicine and director of the UVM Cancer Center. “We plan to show students both sides of that coin — by engaging and inspiring them, through our researchers at work in their labs and our speakers, and by giving them concrete advice on how to pursue a career in this field.” 

First Event a Success

Based on the experiences of students at the first Careers in Cancer event, held in October 2022, the conference is on the way to reaching its goals.

“I thought it was an informative and illuminating session,” said Chris Hood, a math teacher at Champlain Valley High School who brought a group of students to the first Careers in Cancer event and is chaperoning another group this year. “Every student got something different. If you were looking through a medical lens, you heard doctors tell you how they ended up at the Cancer Center. For others, they're more interested in lab work because they're interested in biology right now. And for others it was more of a personal connection to a family member or friend who had experienced cancer.”

“My experience at the conference definitely expanded my interest in pursuing a science-based career, which I had just begun to consider at the time,” said Ariel Toohey, a junior at CVU who attended the first event and is coming to the second. “While I don't know if my future career will be cancer-based or not, hearing from the speakers and exploring the lab facilities made it plausible that I could pursue a similar path in college and beyond. Everyone who attended seemed to be excited about what they had learned. I'm sure many people had an increased interest in and knowledge about cancer research after attending the conference.”                

An immersive experience

The students had an immersive experience. In addition to hearing from the speakers, they broke into small groups, interacting with Cancer Center members to learn about career pathways in cancer research and treatment.

They also visited UVM labs to meet with Cancer Center faculty and student researchers and saw their work first-hand. Demonstrations included viewing cancer cells through microscopy techniques, observing specialized laboratory equipment, and witnessing demonstrations on growing and visualizing crystals to understand protein structure. 

The keynote address, Why Do Cancer Research in Space?, was delivered by Luis Zea, Ph.D., the founder of Jaguar Space and an aerospace engineer and gravitational microbiology scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has worked on 20 scientific experiments performed on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and has served as principal investigator of NASA-funded projects in lower Earth orbit and those orbiting the Moon.

The students were from South Burlington High School, Burlington Technical Center, Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU), Essex High School, and Winooski High School.