UAMS Internship Program Enlists Students in the Fight Against Cancer

By Marty Trieschmann

For the third summer, UAMS hosted 12 medical students at its main campus in Little Rock for an eight-week internship experience. Supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Partnership in Cancer Research (PCAR), the internship program is an immersive, hands-on learning experience for first- and second-year medical students that includes lectures, workshops, physician shadowing, clinical simulations and mentored research projects with some of UAMS’ top cancer researchers.

The 2023 internship class included 10 UAMS medical students and two osteopathic medical students from osteopathic medical schools in Arkansas.

Tom Kelly, Ph.D., associate director of the UAMS Cancer Research and Training Program, started the internship program in 2020 with a grant from National Cancer Institute. Applications have more than doubled since the program began.

“Arkansas has high rates of cancer, so programs like this that encourage students to pursue careers in cancer research and treatment are especially important,” said Kelly, who also serves as professor of pathology in the UAMS College of Medicine. “Hopefully, these doctors will remain in the state and ultimately begin improving cancer outcomes and the health of all Arkansans.”

Meredith Martin, a rising second-year medical student at UAMS, said the internship sparked her interest in oncology.

“It’s opened my eyes to medical specialties I hadn’t yet explored,” said Martin. “I’m interested in looking into radiology after our SIM center event on breast biopsies and ultrasounds.”

UAMS faculty from various departments present weekly lectures on a range of cancer topics, including standard treatments, immunotherapy, radiation treatment, social media, and medicine and entrepreneurship. This year’s lecturers included Kelly; Richard Nicholas, M.D.; Kevin Sexton, M.D.; Richard Crownover, M.D., Ph.D.; Martin Cannon, Ph.D.; and Donald Johann, M.D.

An invaluable part of the program is the hands-on laboratory experience that interns get as they work on a cancer research project with a UAMS faculty member.

Martin worked under Samantha Kendrick, Ph.D., UAMS professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, to study the effect of small drug like molecules on the formation of a DNA secondary structure with the oncogene CARD11, a key B-cell receptor signaling protein that is overexpressed in diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL).

After a week of training with Kendrick, Martin was independently running spectrometry and fluorescence-based assays to show how these compounds interact with the DNA.

“The experience in the lab has been awesome,” said Martin. “It has been so fun and beneficial to learn new skills and techniques in the lab, while also making great connections and friendships with others working with me. I plan to stay involved in this research project over the next couple of years in the medical program.”

Sydnye Shuttlesworth, a UAMS M.D.-Ph.D. student, benefitted from the CAR T-cell biology expertise in the lab of mentor Brian Koss, Ph.D. CAR T is one of the newest forms of transplant therapy for patients with relapsing multiple myeloma and certain forms of leukemia and lymphoma.

Along with the hands-on training in proteomics with Aaron Storey, Ph.D., and Rick Edmondson, Ph.D., in the NIH National Resource for Quantitative Proteomics housed in the Cancer Institute, Shuttlesworth worked on innovative approaches to engineer T cells specifically for the treatment of solid tumors.

Faculty mentors benefit as much from the program as the students.

“Sydnye’s research findings have already yielded valuable insights, informing the development of new engineering strategies that are actively being pursued in preclinical cancer models,” said Koss.

“I enjoy watching students develop and grow their interest in cancer research and learn new skills,” said Kendrick. “Seeing that ‘aha’ moment when they catch on to something or discover a new finding from an experiment is rewarding as a mentor.”

Outside the lab, interns shadowed physicians in the UAMS Palliative Care Clinic to see first-hand the impact of oncology patient care and honed their communication skills in weekly “Live from the Lab” sessions. Each student submitted a final research presentation at the end of the 2023 session, which concluded July 26.

PCAR runs each summer through 2025. Any medical student in the U.S. can apply.