Two Grade 11 students will spend their summer working on groundbreaking cancer research at the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria. Christian Turpin and Kevin Zhang were selected as interns to participate in the agency’s Xavier Pelletier High School Internship Program.
The duo, along with two other students from Vancouver Island high schools, will “explore cancer research from the front lines and learn the latest techniques being used today in the fight against cancer,” according to the BC Cancer Agency.
“I’m really excited to be able to take part in the experiments that they do at the [BC Cancer Agency’s] Deeley Research Centre (DRC). I’m also looking forward to working in a real lab and studying tumour cells and different possible treatments with a lot of equipment I’ve never seen before,” Kevin says.
“I’m looking forward to working and collaborating with researchers who are experts in their field and learning more about the important research they’re doing,” Christian adds.
During the eight-week program, the young biologists are responsible for developing and implementing a research project with the help of a team.
It’s an intensive program that pushes students to develop new skills in a real-world environment, says Grade 12 student Isabella Leong, who participated in the program last year.
“It was definitely a steep learning curve but the eight weeks I spent there were really amazing,” she says. “It gave me a really different experience than what I get in the science labs here because those are in a more controlled setting. At the Deeley Research Centre, we were very much left to our own devices and expected to be independent and self-sufficient. I definitely feel I’ve grown more confident in my lab skills because of the experience.”
Isabella’s work last summer focused on immunotherapy for ovarian cancer.
“Immunotherapy is one of the cancer treatments that has emerged in the last 10 years that has shown very promising results. Whereas with chemotherapy and radiation you’re targetting a whole area of tissue, with immunotherapy what you’re doing is bio-engineering a treatment that directly impacts the cancerous cells,” she says. “It’s very specific so it has the potential, in a perfect world, to eliminate all the cancerous cells in the body.”
Her research involved cloning specific types of antibodies, a protein secreted by the body’s immune cells (B-cells), to test their effectiveness in targeting and identifying cancer cells in the ovaries.
“Right now at the DRC they’ve started a couple of clinical trials with patients involving T-cells, as opposed to B-cells. The hope is that the work I did will help move the B-cell protocal to the clinical trial stage and will be able to be used in the treatment of some cancers that the T-cell protocol isn’t able to treat,” Isabella says.
Both Kevin and Christian say they’re excited to get into the lab to do this type of work, though they’ve already had a taste of it. As part of the application process they spent a day at the Research Centre working through a hypothetical situation with a patient involving replicating DNA.
“I love science in general, but I have a keen interest in biology. Also, my goal is to become a doctor so I know that the medical research experience I get in the program will be a huge foundational part of any biological science career,” Kevin says. “Being able to get some experience in medical research as soon as possible is what fueled my drive to apply.”
Christian, too, says he’s passionate about the sciences and also hopes to use this experience to inform his post-secondary plans.
“I’m still deciding whether I want to do medical research, or become a doctor, or maybe do work in medical technology on the engineering side of things, so I think this internship will help me decide what I’m best suited for,” he says.
As for Isabella, she is off to the University of Toronto come September to study life sciences.
“Going into the internship I knew I wanted to study life sciences in post-secondary, and the internship definitely reaffirmed that,” she says. “It was really cool to see medicine from a different perspective; there’s so much important work that goes on behind the scenes.”
Students selected for the internship also receive a $3,000 bursary to be put toward their post-secondary education.
“We’re both really appreciative of the scholarship. It really is a side benefit of the whole thing,” Kevin says. “The best part of the program is that this is a great opportunity for research and getting that experience working in medical research in such a great facility on the Island. It’s a really big privilege to get this opportunity.”