UAMS Internship Program Inspires Next Generation of Cancer Researchers

By Marty Trieschmann

“I learned how to grow a tumor in a flask, infect it with a virus and reassess how it affected the tumor’s viability,” he said.

D’Spain’s summer project was conducted safely under the supervision of UAMS cancer researchers. He and 11 other first and second-year UAMS medical students were part of select group who had the opportunity to conduct hands-on cancer research this summer at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Funded by a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health Partnership in Cancer Research (PCAR), the eight-week program saw undergraduate students working alongside some of UAMS’ top cancer researchers and clinicians.

Thomas Kelly, Ph.D., associate director of Cancer Research Training and Education for the Cancer Institute and professor in the UAMS Department of Pathology, runs PCAR along with Diane McKinstry, BBA, summer program manager.

Kelly says the experience is designed to give students critical insights into cancer biology, treatment and care that ranges from how new therapeutic targets are identified, to understanding patient problems with health care access and defining disparities in the outcomes of cancer treatments.

PCAR interns work 40 hours per week in a lab, clinical or field setting. Research is complemented by a lecture series on the molecular and cellular biology of cancer and with state-of-the-art clinical simulations and experiences of cancer screening, treatment and palliative care.

“Together, these activities are meant to spark their interest in future careers as cancer clinical specialists and researchers,” said Kelly.

Marius Nagalo, Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology and a member of the Cancer Institute’s Cancer Biology research program, is a seasoned mentor who enjoys working with a fresh group of bright, energetic students each summer. He also served as a mentor of medical and graduate students at the Mayo Clinic before joining UAMS.

“Early in my career, I had opportunities, support and role models who were necessary for me to succeed. Since then, I have been extensively engaged in research and educational activities to improve the health outcomes of communities and mentoring students from backgrounds underrepresented in science,” said Nagalo.

“These programs provide critical training that fosters interest in research and fellowship/grant writing skills. I’m confident these initiatives will provide unparalleled opportunities to increase their competitiveness for national and international awards.”

PCAR wrapped up its second summer session July 27, 2022. The program continues to generate interest and support from UAMS faculty. 2022 mentors were Alan Tackett, Ph.D.; Nathan Avaritt, Ph.D.; Katy Marino, M.D.; Marius Nagalo, Ph.D.; Samantha Kendrick, Ph.D.; Jesus Delgado-Calle, Ph.D.; Valandra German, Ph.D.; Behjatolah Karbassi, Ph.D.; Martin Cannon, Ph.D.; Henry Wong, M.D., Ph.D.; Thomas Kelly, Ph.D.; Fenghuang Zhan, M.D., Ph.D.; and Fen Xia, M.D., Ph.D.

For D’Spain, an aspiring oncologist/hematologist, the experience challenged him in some unexpected ways.

“Dr. Nagalo taught me to always be thinking through how my work ultimately makes a change for the patient. It’s very easy, especially with traditional science work, to get lost in the details. Dr. Nagalo continued to push the big picture.”

D’Spain also acquired entirely new skills in the lab. “I learned the basics of cell culture, viral titration and collecting results through crystal violet stains of my experiments.”

Several UAMS faculty gave lectures on a range of topics, including social media and medicine, entrepreneurship, carcinogenesis, molecular medicine, and radiation and immunotherapy treatments. UAMS lecturers included Kevin Sexton, M.D.; Thomas Kelly, Ph.D.; Richard Nicholas, M.D.; Donald Johann, M.D.; Richard Crownover, M.D., Ph.D.; and Martin Cannon, Ph.D.

“My favorite part of the program came from our weekly lecture series,” said D’Spain. “I felt like I gained true insight into how to consider a treatment regimen from a 30,000 foot view.”

For D’Spain, the experience was also deeply personal.

“The very foundation of my medical training originates from a family experience with cancer. While I was fortunate to see my mother survive multiple rounds of metastatic breast cancer, I know survival isn’t always the end result.”

Cancer Institute Director Michael J. Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., firmly believes in the importance of undergraduate cancer research programs and has championed PCAR’s development.

“As an academic cancer center, we have a responsibility to educate and inspire young scientists to take us the rest of the way until cancer is a disease we can live with.

“We’ve learned so much in the past decade, all because of research. Immunotherapy has been a game changer. We know more about genes and the pathways that drive the spread of cancer. We’re on the verge of a brighter era in cancer care and research.”

PCAR, which runs each summer through 2025, can enroll up to four non-UAMS students. To learn more, contact Thomas Kelly, Ph.D.