By Haylee Abrams, UK Now
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Natalie Barker was a little shocked when she first learned that Kentucky ranks first in the country for cancer incidence and mortality.
However, the Elliott County teen says she had a quick realization – the problem of cancer hits very close to home.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized I don’t know a person in our community who hasn’t been affected by cancer,” Barker said.
Barker is one of 20 students from Appalachian Kentucky to be selected for the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center’s Appalachian Career Training in Oncology (ACTION) program for high schoolers, a two-year program that just launched in March. While ACTION has existed for UK undergrads for three years, this was the first year that the program offered Kentucky high school students the opportunity to gain cancer research, clinical, outreach and educational experiences in an effort to enrich their interest in a cancer-focused career.
“The high school students basically do all of the things that the undergraduates in the program do,” said Chris Prichard, program coordinator for the ACTION program. “The main difference is the summer component for the high school students.”
The program introduces the young students to a variety of opportunities that can help them shape their future careers.
“I plan to be a surgical oncologist, and this program has truly shown me that I have what it takes to do it,” said Zachary Hall of Letcher County High School. “And now I have background to do it, because I’ve worked in the OR and it’s really, truly helped.”
While the ACTION Program is active throughout the year, it includes a Summer Residential Program, where the students come to UK’s campus to stay for five weeks. The experience 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 Nathan Vanderford, director for the ACTION program. “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 attended workshops specifically centered around cancer and oncology as well as ethics-focused workshops and career college readiness workshops. Throughout the year, they’ll return to UK’s campus once a month for ongoing education in these areas.
Even if a student isn’t primarily set on being a doctor, these workshops introduce them to the different professions that deal with cancer.
“Even if you’re not like, ‘I want to be an oncologist,’ there is something there for you,” said Kaitlin Schumaker, North Laurel High School. “I’m doing bioinformatics. I’m not really working with cancer, just psychological stuff like surveys and looking at cells in Petri dishes in labs.”
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 one community outreach event that could focus on something like cancer screenings.
“Cancer affects everywhere, especially Appalachian regions. If you look, we have a very high concentration of cancer in those regions,” Hall said. “And I think people need to be more involved because if we’re more aware and do try to take cancer out of the picture – especially in Kentucky – we can do it.”
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.”
Opening the program to high school students was an opportunity for Markey to reach the younger generation in Kentucky, provoking new interests that may ultimately help shape their careers.
“Research wasn’t really anything I was interested in before this, but this program has opened my eyes,” said Haleigh Thompson, Lawrence County High School. “I’m definitely very intrigued by it now.”