High school students get hands-on experience alongside Hollings Cancer Center researchers

July 24, 2023
Charleston County high school student works in an MUSC Hollings Cancer Center lab
Deanna Jackson had to quickly study up on triple negative breast cancer when she joined the lab of Dr. Gavin Wang. Photos by Clif Rhodes

When this summer started, Deanna Jackson didn’t know tamoxifen from oxidative stress.

The most complicated computer program that Jackie Mendez Coutino had probably used was Google Docs.

Now, after two months immersed in cancer research at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, the rising high school juniors from Charleston Charter School for Math + Science are on their way to becoming experts.

They are part of the South Carolina Cancer Health Equity Research Training Youth Enjoy Science program – SC CHEER YES for short – that gives high school students from four Charleston County high schools the opportunity for mentoring by cancer researchers. Through the two-year program, they learn about recent advancements in cancer research and get college and career guidance – all while earning a stipend.

group photo of students from four Charleston County high schools studying at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center for the summer 
Students from four high schools spent their summer at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center working on projects as varied as looking at demographic differences between people who smoke menthol and non-menthol cigarettes and performing genotyping in a pancreatic cancer study.

The program, developed and run by Marvella E. Ford, Ph.D., associate director of Population Science and Community Outreach and Engagement for Hollings, grew from the success of South Carolina Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience (SC CURE), which provided a two-year cancer research experience to students from Burke High School. The students in SC CURE did so well – 88% went on to enroll in STEM programs at four-year colleges or universities – that Hollings decided to expand to also include North Charleston High School, St. John’s High School and Charleston Charter.

It’s part of Hollings’ mission to train the next generation of biomedical researchers and to encourage bright minds from a variety of backgrounds to consider scientific careers. As the only NCI-designated cancer center in South Carolina, Hollings has a unique focus on research, education and patient care.

portrait of high school student with her mentor in the Cancer Control program at MUSC Hollings 
Jackie Mendez Coutino, left, worked with Dr. Ashvita Garg on a project looking at disparities in cancers caused by the human papillomavirus.

Jackson and Coutino both have an interest in medical fields. Jackson would like to become a veterinarian, and Coutino wants to become a psychiatrist. Although this summer hasn’t necessarily changed their intended career paths, it has exposed them to research work and an academic health environment.

“It's a great opportunity for anyone who is interested in learning more about the medical field. Especially at the stage of high school, where they’re still kind of figuring out their lives, this gives them exposure to what public health is or what the research world is,” said Ashvita Garg, Ph.D. She’s a Hollings Cancer Center Abney fellow studying HPV-related cancer prevention practices among people with HIV and sexual minorities, and she served as a mentor to Coutino.

The mentors were matched with students based on the interests they indicated on their applications. Some work in wet labs – the type of research environment that uses cell or tissue samples – and others work in Cancer Control, analyzing data to uncover patterns or trends.

a group of students gather around a medical manikin of an infant 
During a "Day in the Life" tour of MUSC in the spring, SC CHEER YES students got to interact with medical manikins in the MUSC Healthcare Simulation Center.

Once Coutino was paired with Garg, both under the supervision of Ashish Deshmukh, Ph.D., co-leader of the Hollings Cancer Control program, Coutino then identified a research question to pursue under the overall umbrella of Garg and Deshmukh and their research team.

She decided to study disparities in incidence and mortality rates for the six cancers caused by HPV between people living in persistent poverty and those who don’t.

“I didn't have any computer training before. Basically, I knew how to write a Google doc. Now I know how to use Excel and SEER*Stat and how to analyze data,” said Coutino, referring to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results program.

Program participant Jackson was paired with Steven Dixon, a research specialist in the lab of Gavin Wang, M.D., Ph.D., where she began working on a triple negative breast cancer research project.

“We have been looking at tamoxifen and how oxidative stress plays a role,” she said.

Jackson has been culturing cells and using flow cytometry, a technology that counts and identifies cells using lasers. Her lab partner, Tahiem Watkins, a North Charleston High student, has been working on the same project but using clonogenic assays, a method for investigating whether cells can survive and reproduce.

portrait of high school student who is working in MUSC Hollings Cancer Center lab for the summer 
Deanna Jackson said that her summer lab experience forced her to step outside of her comfort zone – in a good way.

Although some of the morning lectures touched on triple negative breast cancer, Jackson had to do a lot of work on her own to get up to speed on the lab’s work, she said. Dixon said it’s been a learning experience for all involved.

“I felt young until I started mentoring them. They make me feel old! But it's giving me a different perspective on how to be a mentor,” he said. “I can see that they've developed a research mindset, which has been really great to see. They're a lot more confident, a lot more comfortable with everything that we do in the lab now.”

Jackson said she wasn’t sure about the program at first because it doesn’t exactly match with her career goal, but she’s happy she did it.

“My biggest takeaway has been stepping out of my comfort zone. It's taught me to do things I normally would never do.”