New UMN Program Putting a Spin on Teaching About Cancer and Cancer Research

A new program led by the Masonic Cancer Center and the University of Minnesota Medical School Program in Health Disparities Research is putting a spin on teaching students about cancer and cancer research. The MN Advancing Science, Enhancing Diversity (M-ASCEND) program, which launched earlier this year with funding from a National Cancer Institute R25 grant, recruits high school and college undergraduate students to a program that engages them in the science of cancer and its prevention while introducing them to career development skills and career opportunities in the field. 

The goal of M-ASCEND is to attract a diverse cadre of students to the fields of biomedical and behavioral science cancer research. Christopher Pennell, PhD, and Michele Allen, MD, MS are the principal investigators leading the M-ASCEND initiative, and Susan Everson-Rose, PhD, MPH is a co-investigator and the Faculty Mentoring Lead for M-ASCEND.   

This summer, 10 metro area high school students and 11 undergraduates are working closely with faculty mentors on cancer research projects across the cancer research continuum. This program is designed to generate a commitment to learning and an interest in science and research starting in high school. This is accomplished by giving students applied, and where possible this summer, hands-on experiences with researchers addressing everything from cancer etiology to public health-oriented prevention. The high school students are learning to develop a research question and see it through to produce an academic poster or other expressions of their learning. Participants will present their research projects at the poster session in August.

“The ability to facilitate an informal education program that specifically targets young scholars from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM in order to address health disparities in those same communities is amazing,” said Renee Boney-Jett, Education Program Coordinator for the M-ASCEND program. “These youth should and will be encouraged to discover, ask questions, and push the boundaries of science. We encourage them to show up as their full selves in our sessions because that is what makes great scientists, physicians, and researchers for the future. Nelson Mandela said, 'education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,' and we plan on using this opportunity with our wonderful student participants to make positive and imperative changes to cancer research, science, and education."

The program also has a teacher-based focus that has area high school teachers partnering with cancer researchers committed to sharing their research expertise for application in the classroom. Dr. Pennell, Associate Director of Education at the Masonic Cancer Center, is mentoring four local high school teachers to develop a cancer-centric curriculum for their own classrooms in the fall. 

“We need as many bright minds from as many different backgrounds as possible to study cancer,” noted Dr. Pennell. “Smart people with different experiences bring fresh perspectives to problem-solving, which is key if we are to reduce the burden of cancer throughout our society. One thing M-ASCEND does is to bring teachers of the next-gen cancer researchers together with cancer experts at the Masonic Cancer Center. We hope that providing teachers with cutting-edge knowledge about cancer will allow them to develop new cancer-centric curricula to share with their students. The M-ASCEND program will then provide real-life experience in cancer research to these students. This is a win-win proposition.”

The multi-week program will also provide the group of teachers and their students with a library of equipment to further their cancer research studies. This includes microcentrifuges, electrophoresis equipment, and kits to perform experiments in the classroom.

Area Teachers participating in M-ASCEND this summer:
Katie Carter, MEd, Biology and IB Biology at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.
Ted Reiff, Conceptual Physics at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul.
Endale Beyene, STEM Education at Higher ground Academy in Saint Paul.
Paul Fenno, PhD, Biology and the College in the Schools Course: Physiology, Technology, and Medical Devices, at Ubah Medical Academy Charter High School in Hopkins

About the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota
The Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, is the Twin Cities’ only Comprehensive Cancer Center, designated ‘Outstanding’ by the National Cancer Institute. As Minnesota’s Cancer Center, our researchers, educators, and clinicians have worked to discover the causes, prevent, detect, and treat cancer and cancer-related diseases for all Minnesotans without disparity. Learn more at cancer.umn.edu.