BLOG: Training Kentucky Students in Cancer Research to Impact Communities

This Saturday student researchers in the Markey Cancer Center’s Appalachian Career Training in Oncology (ACTION) program will be recognized on Kroger field. The ACTION program reveals how the University of Kentucky, as a research-intensive university, can help students see what’s possible in their own careers and inspire them to impact their communities.

ACTION offers undergraduates and high schoolers the opportunity to gain cancer research, clinical, outreach and educational experiences in an effort to enrich their interest in a cancer-focused career. 

While ACTION has existed for UK undergrads for three years, 2019 was the first year that the program was offered to Kentucky high school students. Twenty high school students from across Eastern Kentucky were selected for the two-year program.

“When we went out to recruit for the program, we really hit hard the message of the needs of Eastern Kentucky,” said Nathan Vanderford, director for the ACTION program. “Kentucky is number one in overall cancer incidence and mortality, and those rates are highest in Eastern Kentucky. That region also has the highest rates of many other health issues, low socioeconomic status, and low education attainment. This program is really geared toward addressing all these needs and preparing students to be change agents in their communities now and in the future.”

“The high school students basically do all of the things that the undergraduates in the program do,” said Chris Prichard, ACTION program coordinator. “The main difference is the summer component for the high school students.”

The ACTION Summer Residential Program, where the students come to UK’s campus to stay for five weeks, not only introduces them to cancer research and clinical oncology, but also to life in college, ultimately preparing them for life away from home.

“I think that will be critical in terms of them going to college and being successful,” said Vanderford. “Knowing that they can handle those first couple weeks can be so critical in a college student’s life in terms of acclimating to the environment.”

During their stay on campus, the students worked one-on-one with faculty research mentors, attended workshops specifically centered around cancer and oncology, research ethics and career college readiness. Throughout the program, they return to UK’s campus once a month for ongoing education in these areas.

Outside of the residential camp and campus visits, students are encouraged to bring their research and knowledge of cancer back to their communities to incorporate lifestyle changes and behaviors that can help prevent cancer. The program encourages each student to plan at least one community outreach event per year that could focus on activities like cancer screenings or promoting general cancer awareness.

With the success of the ACTION program in undergraduates—many of whom went on to publish scholarly articles, attend national conferences and meetings, and host successful outreach events— Vanderford thought it would be a great idea to recruit high school students.

“When you’re in high school, you’re at a ripe age for soaking in all this information and really starting to get excited about it and energized about the opportunities,” Vanderford said. “The more you know about the opportunities, the more that you’ll be able to prepare specifically for whatever it is you want to pursue as a long-term career.”

Listen to the podcast with Vanderford and Prichard to learn more about the ACTION program and watch the student video.