Native American cancer research internship opens new doors


Ferris Saad felt an undeniable call to pursue medicine as a way to address health disparities, especially in Native American communities. Through a unique mentorship program, Saad has spent the summer at the Arizona University of Health Sciences immersed in cancer research as he prepares to apply for medical school.

“Cancer has always been a big mystery to me, but now oncology is one of my main areas of medical interest,” said Saad, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in physiology at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson . “I’m learning a lot everyday and it’s been great.”

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The Summer Research Opportunity under the Native American Cancer Prevention Partnership (NACP) and Undergraduate Biology Research Program is a paid internship that pairs Native American undergraduates with a faculty mentor in their area of ​​research of interest. In May, Saad began working with Jennifer W. Bea, PhD, associate professor of health promotion science at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and fellow of the UArizona Cancer Center.

[NOTE: This article was originally published by the University of Arizona Health Sciences. Used with permission. All rights reserved.]

“I fell in love with training students – not only helping students learn and grow, but also experience what they bring to the team,” said Dr Bea. “They strengthen our knowledge, our cultural sensitivity and our connection to the community. And it’s just a pleasure to talk to Ferris and work with him as a person.

Towards Fairer Cancer Care in Arizona

Native Americans are the most under-represented racial or ethnic group among physicians and scientists. This under-representation may contribute to health disparities, according to Margaret Briehl, PhD, associate director of the Coordination of Cancer Research Education and Training at the UArizona Cancer Center.

“With 22 federally recognized tribes and nations in the state, training is one of the best ways to serve the community,” said Dr. Briehl, who is also a professor of cancer pathology and biology. “We want our Native American students to experience the excitement of biomedical research firsthand. “

The summer research internship is just one aspect of NACP, a partnership between the UArizona Cancer Center and Northern Arizona University funded by the National Cancer Institute. The NACP is designed to combat the uneven cancer burden among Native Americans in Arizona through training, research, and community outreach.

“This program allows students to engage in research early on,” said Dr. Bea, who heads the Research Education Core at NACP, including the summer internship. “And then we work with them on other grants to make sure they’re supported throughout their training to become top scientists, clinicians or whatever they want to be.”

In addition to research, NACP interns meet weekly, either in small groups or with the larger group of the undergraduate biology research program, to learn more about topics such as the ethics of science. research and writing a summary and a personal statement. They also work with their mentors to create individualized career development plans for their future.

Answer the call to make a difference

“This is my first time going into research, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Elijah Keeswood, a NACP intern who returned for a second year in the program. “But I like to do research. In lab meetings, sometimes someone will show a result that amazes everyone because it was not what they expected. They are all trying to figure it out and it’s so exciting because it might be a new discovery.

Keeswood, a senior specializing in biomedical engineering, has worked to understand how aggressive tumors change when they invade and cross the muscle barrier to spread to other parts of the body. He learned how to grow cancer cells in a 3D gel matrix and now helps analyze images of cancer cells as they move through that matrix or into actual muscle tissue.

“I really like looking at these pictures. Cancer forms a chain of cells as it travels through muscle tissue. It’s both exciting and scary since you know that’s what it does in the body, ”Keeswood said. “And I’ve found that I’m pretty good with computers, which I can use in a lot of different science fields.”

“It is very satisfying to see how far Elijah has progressed until he takes ownership of the project,” said his mentor, Anne E Cress, PhD, professor of cellular and molecular medicine and radiation oncology. at the College of Medicine – Tucson and member of the Cancer Center. “I think the biggest surprise to me in mentoring undergraduates – and Elijah is no exception – is what they give back to us. They are a very important part of the team.

Live cancer research live

Although the summer internship ended this month, Saad will continue his training part-time during the school year. One of his projects is examining how body composition, like the amount of fat deep around the kidneys and liver, affects the prognosis of kidney cancer in patients. For the study, Saad learned to identify and analyze different regions of fat and muscle on MRIs and CT scans.

“CT scans can be quite difficult to read. The first time you see one, you say to yourself, “What are these spots and dots?” “Said Dr Bea. “Practicing early to distinguish between organs and other tissues can be of great benefit to medical school and a great exercise in anatomy. “

Saad is also in the early stages of communicating with Arizona tribal communities to understand individual access to digital technology and preferences for obtaining health information.

“I learned a lot about coordinating with tribal leaders and developing a plan to engage with the community and do a preliminary needs assessment,” Saad said.

Dr Bea hopes this knowledge will be invaluable to tribal leaders as they disseminate public health information to members of their communities.

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Author: University of Arizona Health Sciences

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