UVM conference offers high schoolers window into cancer research

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – Hundreds of local high school students observed science in action today at the University of Vermont. A national cancer research event called Convergence brought experts from around the world to show how techniques from different fields like engineering and computer science can be used to advance cancer research.

“It is a gathering of people of different disciplines all working on trying to have a cure for cancer research,” explained Arnold Levine, a professor emeritus with the Institute for Advanced Study.

Convergence research focuses on addressing complex problems in science, engineering, and society by bringing together diverse disciplines. Experts say today’s grand challenges cannot be solved by one discipline alone and that merging different fields and techniques is the key

“It’s not just clinicians who can make progress in cancer research. People from physics, computer science, from mathematics, some of the social sciences. You need a village of people with a whole bunch of different skills to crack this hard problem,” said Jamie Blundell, an assistant professor at the University of Cambridge.

As part of the event, 100 students received career advice from experts and observed faculty and students working in several of the university’s cancer research labs. “What we’re trying to do is to tell the young people that it’s never too early to start learning science,” Levine said.

The goal is that high school students who want to pursue careers both inside and outside of the medical field will consider applying the skills from different fields towards finding a cure. “I hope that 95% become cancer scientists at some point in the future. They might not, but we want to make sure that they know what the opportunities are and how to navigate different pathways so that they can make the best career decisions for themselves,” said Dr. Randall Holcomb, director of the UVM Cancer Center.

High school faculty members say the experience is extremely valuable to students as they decide what fields they want to pursue. “For the students who are already interested in a career in medicine, hope that this has given them some real kind of footfalls on next steps. And we’ll be there to help nurture them. But I also hope that students take away just more broad things about career development,” said Jess Handrik with Winooski High School.

Students like Klara Bronz-Russo, a first-year Winooski student, say they learned things that they haven’t seen in school and that getting the hands-on experience is something they won’t forget. “We got to see some cells under microscopes — cancer cells — which is really cool to see. DNA highlighted — that was probably my favorite. I was thinking about surgical oncology or cardiothoracic surgery, but this really opened my eyes to surgical oncology,” Bronz-Russo said.

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