Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Celebrates Student Research at Symposium

By Marty Trieschmann

Students who won or placed in the regional and state science fairs were invited to present their work and spend the day immersed in the workings of the Cancer Institute. Other students brought their science fair projects as well.

Thomas Kelly, Ph.D., professor in the UAMS Department of Pathology and associate director of the Cancer Institute’s Cancer Research Training and Education Core, kicked off the event with a welcome in the Sam Walton Auditorium on the Cancer Institute’s 10th floor.

“As we expand our own research here at the Cancer Institute, we also want to encourage cancer research among young scientists. Today, you will meet scientists who compete with the rest of the nation and world and hold some of the most prestigious research grants available,” said Kelly, who himself holds an active grant from the National Cancer Institute.

The Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute is home to 172 cancer research members with a combined $17.3 million in funding.

During the day, students were treated to exclusive tours of areas typically off limits to the public, such as the National Proteomics Core. They also met in small groups with leaders of the Cancer Institute’s four research groups, including Steven Post, Ph.D., Cancer Biology; Hong-yu-Li, Ph.D., Developmental Therapeutics; Marjan Boerma, Ph.D., and Stephanie Byrum, Ph.D., DNA Damage and Host Repair; and Gunnar Boysen, Ph.D., Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences.

Fresh from presenting his research at the American Association of Cancer Research Annual Meeting, UAMS cancer researcher Jesus Delgado-Calle, Ph.D., led a lively discussion with young investigators.

“We want to open their eyes to the high caliber of research being done right here in their home state — research we hope they will contribute to someday,” said Kelly.

Kelly, who juggles research, teaching in the UAMS College of Medicine and directing training and education for the Cancer Institute, considers the time he has spent at high school, regional and state science fairs well spent.

“Encouraging and providing opportunities for young scientists is an important part of our mission,” said Kelly. “I’ve seen some great science in high schools this year from students who are enthusiastic and excited. Many of us here have been able to have that enthusiasm throughout our careers and they can, too.”

Though the program is designed to support future cancer researchers, Kelly says the UAMS research mentors who have worked with students also have gotten a lot out of the program.

One of UAMS’ top cancer researchers, Fred Prior, Ph.D., was so impressed by his student mentee — Little Rock Central High School junior Anu Iyer — that he hired her. She now interns with Prior’s team with support from a $3,360 National Science Foundation grant to develop a more accurate machine learning tool for diagnosing multiple cancers and analyzing MRIs and pathology images.

Science fair winners from area high schools attending the Celebration of Student Discovery Science Fair Symposium Science fair winners from area high schools were invited to the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute to meet with cancer researchers and learn about career opportunities. Photo by Bryan Clifton.

Three-minute thesis presentations by UAMS graduate students Moshin Ali, Matthew Thompson, Haley Lowe, Lance Benson, Katie Bronson and Haven Griffin showcased graduate student research at UAMS. But the highlight of the day was the high school and middle school student science fair poster presentations, which were observed by UAMS Cancer Institute members who discussed the projects with students.

Cancer Institute Director and UAMS Vice Chancellor Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., presented the 2022 Outstanding Cancer Research Awards to the following students:

  • Bhavana Sridharan, First Place, Arkansas State Science Fair and Little Rock Central High School Science Fair
  • Amna Khan, Runner Up, Arkansas State Science Fair and Little Rock Central High School Science Fair
  • Aungsula Pathak, First Place, Senior Division, Arkansas Regional Science Fair, Little Rock Central High School
  • Siddharth Sridharan, First Place, Junior Division, Arkansas Regional Science Fair, LISA Academy

Sridharan, a Little Rock Central High School sophomore, won the institute’s top award with her project, “In vitro evaluation of the antioxidant potential and differential effects of punicalagin in normal and breast cancer cells.”

A lifelong vegetarian, Sridharan studied the cancer-fighting potential of punicalagin, a bioactive component of pomegranate extract. Much of her research focuses on the health benefits of plant extracts and the connection between diet and cancer.

Amna Kahn, a senior at Little Rock Central, won the institute and the state science fair runner up awards with her project, “FRET-based combination drug with enhanced photothermal therapy.”

Kahn, who won the institute’s top award in 2021, researched two different types of cancer therapies, photothermal therapy and chemotherapy in one compound, using a mechanism to transfer energy from a chemotherapy drug to a photothermal therapy drug.

The Celebration of Student Discovery Symposium is part of the institute’s comprehensive research training and education program that includes support for faculty members, undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows. Learn more at