Inspiring the next generation of cancer researchers

A 10-week summer program at the University of Minnesota fueled Nelson Rodriguez’s passion for cancer research and ultimately convinced him to pursue a career as a scientist. The Cancer Research, Education and Training Experience (CREATE) program inspired him to continue cancer research during his senior year of college at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez. Then he decided to attend the U and pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.

Nelson Rodriguez“I really fell in love with the city and the people but, most importantly, with the research that is done here,” Rodriguez says. “Cancer research is very strong at the U of M. And this was the place where I knew that I would continue to grow and achieve my goals.”

The CREATE program is designed to engage talented undergraduate students interested in cancer research careers. It offers them an opportunity to conduct cancer biology research, while receiving mentorship from faculty members. Students also have the opportunity to hone professional development skills. While the program is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Masonic support helps pay for housing costs not covered by the grant.

Mentorship in cancer research  

As an undergraduate studying chemical engineering, Rodriguez began to hear about the summer research opportunities offered at the U through friends who had studied there. The University’s reputation as a leader in cancer-related research was a draw for Rodriguez, who had always been intrigued with studying cancer.

“When I started thinking about my career, I wanted to focus on a topic that can translate to people and benefit them in some way, and I became passionate about cancer research” he explains.

In the program, each participant is matched with a mentor, and Rodriguez was paired with Masato Yamamoto, M.D., Ph.D., a U researcher whose lab focuses on pancreatic cancer. They use oncolytic adenovirus, a therapy using a version of adenovirus that causes the common cold reengineered to produce anticancer genes and kill tumor cells selectively. Researchers are combining this with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, working to identify the best combination of treatment.

“The growth I had in those 10 weeks being paired with a mentor was exceptional,” Rodriguez explains. “I really learned that it’s not about how many experiments you do. It’s about thinking through and researching why you’re running the experiment in the first place.”

Beyond the research, participants have the opportunity to attend seminars about cancer research and treatments, and career development. They also benefit from peer-to-peer mentoring sessions, during which participants present their research and field questions. Thanks to the program, Rodriquez also had the opportunity to attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Florida.

Now Rodriguez is pursuing his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University, working with researcher Paolo Provenzano, Ph.D., a faculty member in the department, and continuing to study pancreatic cancer. His current project involves imaging live tumor slices to monitor cancer cells and gain knowledge about how different therapies can alter the tumor microenvironment and aid or slow cancer progression.

“Ultimately we want to enhance the lifestyle of cancer patients and treat them until there’s a cure,” he notes. “That’s the overall goal, I think, for anybody doing cancer research.”

Diversity and cancer research

Started in 2016, the CREATE program has successfully recruited students from throughout the United States and Puerto Rico who are interested in a cancer research career.

“The goal of the program is to develop the next generation of laboratory-based cancer researchers who can develop new approaches to reduce cancer incidence, morbidity, and mortality,” says Yoji Shimizu, Ph.D., who serves as co-director of the CREATE program.

While the program is open to all students, there is an emphasis on recruiting students from underrepresented groups. In the first three years of the program, the U accepted 48 students, and 13, or 27 percent, were from underrepresented groups.

“Increasing the diversity of our cancer research workforce is essential to making advances in cancer research, as diversity enhances creativity in research and helps the research community to more effectively address cancer disparities that disproportionately affect individuals from underrepresented groups,” Shimizu says.

Support from the Masons

While the CREATE program is funded by an NIH grant, support from the Masons helps cover essential housing costs.

On-campus housing is key for the program because it gives students easy access to research laboratories and University facilities, while allowing them to pursue friendships with other students and benefit from peer mentoring, according to Shimizu. The CREATE program is part of a larger, multidisciplinary undergraduate research effort at the U known as the Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

“CREATE students also benefit scientifically from interacting with students from other research interests, since cancer research benefits tremendously from an interdisciplinary approach and perspective,” Shimizu says.

Without housing support, Rodriguez notes that it would have been more difficult for him to participate in the program.

“It was a blessing to receive this support because my parents and I didn’t have to worry about covering housing expenses, and I didn’t need to find a part-time job during the summer,” Rodriguez says. “That allowed me to just focus on the research.”

CREATE

2018 CREATE program

  • 398 applications; 16 participants
  • Average GPA 3.8
  • Eight men and eight women
  • Five students from underrepresented groups

Since the CREATE program began in 2016*:

  • 48 students were accepted into the program  
  • Six students are in Ph.D. programs
  • Two are in M.D./Ph.D. programs
  • Three have entered medical school
  • Four are applying to Ph.D. programs for fall 2019
  • One is applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs for fall 2019

*Numbers do not include the 2019 program. Many students are still completing their undergraduate studies.