Thursday, August 6th capped off a 3-day zoomathon of final presentations from a field of 54 CURE and U54 Partnership students that worked with labs across DF/HCC member institutions this summer. Although Karen Burns White - Deputy Associate Director for both the Initiative to Eliminate Cancer Disparities and DF/HCC Equity and Engagement - and the CURE student training program has been coordinating final presentations since 2002, nothing about this year’s programming was “normal”.
As we are all well aware, it was early March when COVID-19 shut down most of the state, and clinicians and researchers across DF/HCC were sent home while our institutions examined data and began plotting a path forward. It was also March when Karen, along with the CURE leadership team, had accepted a cohort of YES for CURE and U54 student applicants and were still actively recruiting mentors to house students in their labs for the summer. Many organizations had the same decision that Karen now faced: cancel and look ahead to next year or roll up her sleeves and come up with solutions.
Anyone that knows Ms. Burns White could have predicted the outcome to this decision – she and the team including Brittany Michel, CURE Program Manager, Kate Loughlin, U54 REC Manager, and Kathynie Hinds and Tsega Meshesha, Program Coordinators, began working on virtual programming and experiences that would provide YES for CURE and U54 students with meaningful research interactions and hopefully keep them in the pipeline to become the researchers of tomorrow. All 54 students were paired with a lab, which similar to “normal” years includes a relationship with a Principal Investigator as well as a scientific mentor – usually a postdoc, research scientist, or graduate student from that lab – however, this year the interactions were all virtual. “It was certainly a challenge at first getting used to a new method of our traditional program,” said Gabriela Rico, 2nd year YES for CURE student who worked with PI Matthew Freedman, MD (DFCI) and advisors Jacob Berchuck, MD and Pier Nuzzo, PhD from Dr. Freedman’s lab on a project entitled, “A highly specific diagnosis of Genitourinary Cancers using Novel Cell-Free Methylated DNA Biomarkers”. “However, I felt as though the CURE leadership team made the transition seem effortless as they initiated all of our seminars to the online format,” she added.
Where possible, some students were virtually involved in an ongoing research project, while others performed in-depth literature reviews on topics of focus for their host lab. These projects were on full display during final presentations. “[CURE & U54 leadership and staff] allowed my research experience to be made phenomenal,” added 1st year YES for CURE student Handel Ulysse, who worked with the laboratory of Rachel Pozzar, PhD, RN, FNP-BC (DFCI) studying racial/ethnic disparities in ovarian cancer and its effect on women in the US. Ulysse, who according to onlookers presented his final project flawlessly, gave credit to the team for “facilitating the challenges of programming and helping me navigate through the virtual platform seamlessly.”
Not many people can say with confidence what 2021, or even the rest of 2020, might look like, but Faith Koroma-Coker, 2nd year YES for CURE student in the labs of Suha Ballout, PhD, RN (UMB) and Andy Tan, PhD, MPH, MBBS (DFCI) has found the silver lining in the new format with “less commute time,” and the opportunity “to attend seminars and network with national and international panelists.” Faith worked on a project entitled, “Project SPRING: Smoking Protective and Risk factors in Transgender and Gender.”
In the end, the YES for CURE & U54 programs finished off another successful year where opportunities were created, and inroads were traveled to the cancer research pipeline. Although COVID-19 may have slowed the country, it did not slow the cancers that will require diverse, dedicated teams to cure. DF/HCC thanks these programs, their leadership and staff, and the students for persevering despite the circumstances.