Internships made summer a learning experience for teens
James Clifton and Karolina Kalbarczyk could have spent more time at the pool this summer. They could have watched more TV or spent the daylight hours hanging out with friends.
Instead, they spent their summer among scientists, playing a part – albeit a small one – in helping to cure cancer.
With their American Cancer Society eight-week internships, the two high school seniors – Clifton at Oakwood High School and Kalbarczyk at University Laboratory High School in Urbana – worked in Professor Satish Nair's biochemistry lab at the University of Illinois.
They learned how to use scientific equipment and researched how to insert tumor-resistant genes into DNA and how to work with E. coli – and then did it.
"For the first couple of weeks, we had no idea what we were doing," said 17-year-old Clifton.
"A lot of coming to a lab is just being aware of how the equipment works," said Kalbarczyk, 15. "In the beginning, we had to learn a whole bunch of knowledge, about DNA and what it's made of ... we learned the entire process of how you insert a gene, how you test if it's working."
But the two caught on quickly, said Nair, who said their aptitude exceeded that of many college students.
"They knew exactly what they wanted to do, they knew how best to use the short amount of time they had," he said. "They were just really, really the most focused young people that I've come across."
Nair said the students gained about two years of undergraduate training during their summer.
"I was throwing stuff at them that I wouldn't throw at juniors and seniors," he said, "and they were just able to absorb it."
Though part of the students' enthusiasm came from professional aspirations – both mention interest in going pre-med in college – both Clifton and Kalbarczyk also have emotional reasons for wanting to help move cancer research forward.
"I've had a few aunts and uncles who have had cancer," Clifton said. "It kind of opens your eyes."
Kalbarczyk's grandmother died of cancer. "I really would have liked to known her better," she said. Doing the internship offered "this great cause that really motivated me to go further, I really wanted to help the fight against cancer."
Coming from a small school with little lab equipment, Clifton said he relished the hands-on experience, though it could be hard going back to regular science classes.
Working with Nair and graduate student Vinayak Agarwal, the two progressed from learning how to use the equipment to learning how to do hands-on research.
Nair said one project the students worked on included studying how to control cell growth to potentially keep tumors from growing. "Maybe that'll give us clues," Nair said. Those clues might help researchers design drugs to control the growth of cancerous cells.
Kalbarczyk said fighting cancer is far more complex than finding one answer, since there are so many variations. "Cancer, it's pretty much like any type of mutation, it can be any type of fast growing cells," she said. "You don't have one enemy to attack, you have thousands of enemies to attack."
Because of that wide variation, Kalbarczyk said, "most research generally tries to focus on one type (of cancer)."
Staff at Clifton's and Kalbarczyk's schools first told them of the internships and encouraged them to apply. "I thought it was just perfect for me," Clifton said.
Nair said every student with an interest in science or medicine should get hands-on experience in a lab. For himself, he said a grant from the American Cancer Society helped get his research started, and he was glad to give the two students a chance to explore the process of doing science.
"I always have been grateful to (the American Cancer Society) for supporting my research early on in my career, and this is one way I could show my thanks," he said. "Not to mention, when I was first starting out as a scientist many, many years ago, somebody gave me a chance."
By the end of the summer, Clifton said he'd received "an experience of a lifetime."
Doing research "wasn't what I had imagined at all," she said. "It's definitely a lot slower process than it seemed, but in the end it really is a satisfaction that is so great. It's a phenomenal feeling."