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Markey’s successful oncology training program expands to include high schoolers

Kristin O'Leary, a participant in the ACTION program, studying acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the lab.
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/ by UK HealthCare

After successfully launching an oncology training program for Appalachian undergraduates in 2016, the UK Markey Cancer Center is now expanding its program to include high school students. The Appalachian Career Training in Oncology (ACTION) Program – formerly known as CTOP – is funded by a nearly $2.3 million grant from the National Cancer Institute

ACTION is designed to train and teach students how to make a difference in their own communities – and to ultimately prepare them to pursue a cancer-focused career. Beginning next year, high school students from Appalachian Kentucky will have the opportunity to join this transformative program.

“It’s a training program that really gets to the heart of the cancer problem in Kentucky,” said Nathan Vanderford, director of ACTION and assistant professor in the UK College of Medicine. “We’re training these students to be change agents in their own communities.”

ACTION is a two-year program that provides students with research and clinical experience through both Markey and UK HealthCare as well as mentoring, professional development and outreach opportunities in their own communities. High school students will participate in a residential camp on UK’s campus for five to six weeks during the summers, and they will engage in academic activities from home throughout the rest of the year. Each student will have a goal of planning one outreach event in their hometown per year.

Partnering with the UK Outreach Center

To reach this younger audience, Vanderford partnered with an expert in educating Kentucky’s youth on science and health – Dr. Don Frazier, UK College of Medicine professor emeritus and director of the UK Outreach Center for Science and Health Career Opportunities that now bears his name.

Since Frazier launched the Outreach Center in 1993, he’s made science and healthcare accessible for more than 135,000 children from the Appalachian region through individual school visits and field trips to UK’s campus.

“Dr. Frazier and the Outreach Center have a long history of outreach in Kentucky but particularly Appalachian Kentucky,” Vanderford said. “We’re very excited to work with Dr. Frazier’s group to do some of our outreach in the community, but also to leverage the outreach center as a recruitment tool to reach students from these communities.”

For Frazier, incorporating ACTION was a natural extension of the numerous outreach activities his team spearheads. He notes that his role mainly focuses on letting high school students know that this new program is an option for them.

“We’re in contact with thousands of high school kids every year,” Frazier said. “So we do have some experience of reaching out. What this grant really needed was, ‘How are we going to attract kids to apply?’”

Empowering youth to make a difference

Besides empowering Appalachian youth to begin a career in the medical field, ACTION will help these students find ways to encourage their communities to incorporate lifestyle changes and behaviors that can help prevent cancer. That might entail something as simple as a one-on-one conversation with a relative or friend or a bigger activity like an outreach event focused on cancer screenings.

“I can see from my personal experience that being educated as a young person and understanding cancer and how to address it can really motivate students for their long-term career trajectory, and it can impact their communities,” Vanderford said. “We’re already seeing that now with these undergraduates we’ve been interacting with.”

ACTION initially began with an NCI supplement grant only made available to NCI-designated cancer centers. The program’s success, coupled with a generous gift to the Markey Cancer Foundation via the personal philanthropy of former foundation board member Carl Pollard, allowed Vanderford to apply for this larger grant to expand the program to include high school students.

To date, 24 UK undergrads have participated in the two-year program, and many have already seen great success:

  • Six have been accepted into medical school, and several are currently applying to graduate school.
  • Three students have published peer-reviewed articles.
  • One has presented her research at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting.
  • Several of the students have organized local and regional community outreach and engagement events to enhance community members’ understanding of cancer, as well as to offer access to preventive care through screening and cancer education initiatives.

Applications for the 2019 high school and undergrad ACTION program will open soon. Learn more about ACTION.

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