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Unique program empowering students

The UK Markey Cancer Center is fostering the future of cancer care in Kentucky through an inspirational and quickly growing initiative called the Career Training in Oncology Program.

The program, known as CTOP, is in its second year of bringing passionate undergraduates at the University of Kentucky into the fold in the fight against cancer in Appalachia.

CTOP is taking aim at Kentucky’s cancer incidence and mortality rates – the highest in the nation – by educating and empowering UK undergraduate students interested in future oncology careers. All program participants hail from one of the state’s 54 Appalachian counties, where the cancer rates and mortality are at their worst.

“Our goal is to get these undergraduates prepared to pursue cancer-related careers,” said Nathan Vanderford, PhD, MBA, assistant professor and CTOP cofounder. “Whether that’s being medical doctors, researchers, nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists – we need more of all these professionals throughout Kentucky, with a passion for helping their communities.”

The program introduces students to all aspects of the cancer world through four main components: hands-on research, clinical observation and shadowing, classroom and workshop learning, and community outreach in the participants’ own towns and neighborhoods.

“Through outreach activities, students help the community better understand the state’s cancer problem,” Vanderford explained. “They also help the general population understand their chance of getting the disease and how to lower their risk.”

More cohorts of motivated students

CTOP kicked off in 2016 with its first cohort of eight eager undergraduates. One of these inaugural program participants, junior Kristin O’Leary, says she has found the experience invaluable.

“If you can interest people from Appalachian Kentucky to learn and study cancer, then you can help affect the high rates of incidence,” she said. “Through CTOP, I’ve been able to learn all about cancer and help my community in many ways.”

In addition to shadowing as many surgeries as she can fit into her schedule, O’Leary spends her time in CTOP studying acute lymphoblastic leukemia in zebra fish with Jessica Blackburn, PhD, and her lab. With a drive to impact her own community of Edmonton, Ky., O’Leary is also preparing to lead a free mammogram event in her hometown with CTOP’s help and support.


“Our goal is to get these undergraduates prepared to pursue cancer-related careers. Whether that’s being medical doctors, researchers, nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists – we need more of all these professionals throughout Kentucky, with a passion for helping their communities.”

– Nathan Vanderford, PhD, MBA


Now O’Leary is taking on the role of mentor for CTOP’s second cohort for the 2017-18 school year, including UK freshman and Stanton, Ky., native Carrigan Wasilchenko.

“I have a lot of family that have been affected by cancer, so it’s an issue that’s really important to me,” Wasilchenko said. “I thought it would be amazing to be a part of something that could help me explore oncology before really venturing into my career.”

Through CTOP, Wasilchenko is most looking forward to gaining research experience, learning from others and giving back to her community. And she draws inspiration from O’Leary and the rest of the program participants before her.

“This program has really impacted the first cohort,” Wasilchenko said. “They talk highly of their experiences, and their stories are so inspiring. I hope CTOP continues to give more people like me the opportunity to learn about cancer firsthand.”

Expanding CTOP in the future

CTOP’s initial funding came through a two-year National Cancer Institute supplement grant. As the successful program enters its second year, Vanderford has applied for another grant to continue its growth and focus even more on career development.

“Research shows that the more mentorship and career development coaching that students get as early as possible, the more successful they’re going to be,” he said.

With this grant, Vanderford also plans to significantly increase the program’s outreach activities and hold a residential summer camp at UK for high schoolers from Appalachian Kentucky interested in oncology careers.

“Cancer prevention is really the best cure we have for cancer right now. So doing more outreach activities that help individuals understand how they can avoid getting cancer in the first place is something that we want to do more of with CTOP,” he said.

Although it will take several years to see the true impact of this program in Appalachian Kentucky, Vanderford says he currently measures success through the aspirational attitudes and achievements of the CTOP students.

“It’s inspiring to watch the students gain a better appreciation for cancer,” he said “We hope to empower them to keep on their upward academic trajectory, to pursue their degrees, and to explore their interests in medicine, research and outreach.”

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