‘You belong in science:’ Fred Hutch builds education pathways

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Yusuf remembers learning about robotics and computer science in middle school. “It clicked with me,” he says. “I was good at it, and I enjoyed it.”

During 10th grade at Sammamish High School, Yusuf’s AP chemistry teacher urged him to apply to the two-week Pathways Research Explorers Program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The program provides high school students from underrepresented communities an immersive, hands-on introduction to cancer biology, lab activities, and research careers.

“I was smiling the whole time. I was having fun,” Yusuf says. “I met a computational biologist while they were explaining what they did. I thought, that’s what I want to do.”

The Pathways Research Explorers Program is a launchpad for many students who go on to participate in Fred Hutch’s more intensive programs as they progress through their academic experiences. Students conduct scientific experiments related to cancer and talk to scientists in various positions, including people from groups systematically marginalized and excluded from research.

After learning about computational biology, Yusuf completed a yearlong internship with Fred Hutch in 11th grade. Through regular meetings with his mentor, a computational biologist, Yusuf learned about both coding and biology, and used machine learning to analyze COVID-19 data.

“It was a new experience that I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else,” Yusuf says.

“You belong in science”

Through science education outreach, Fred Hutch – a member of the Washington Roundtable, of which Partnership for Learning is the education foundation – actively works to recruit, support, and retain high school and undergraduate students from communities underrepresented in scientific research. Students gain hands-on STEM experience while receiving career guidance and mentorship. Program participants become cancer researchers, computer engineers, and more. The programs also serve as a way for Fred Hutch to build a diverse pool of scientific researchers and engage communities across the state.

Fred Hutch has long-running education pathway programs for high school students that enable them to discover or further explore their interests in cancer biology and biomedical research. For undergraduate students, Fred Hutch offers more intensive scientific research, as well as mentorship and career guidance, for those who plan to pursue education and careers related to scientific research. Student participants have gone on to STEM-related degrees and careers, including at Fred Hutch and other major research institutions. All programs are focused on underrepresented students, as defined by the National Institutes of Health (a major program funder). In summer 2021, Fred Hutch welcomed 77 high school students and 54 undergraduate students.

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For Jainaba, a first-year University of Washington student who attended Mariner High School, participating in the Pathway Research Explorers Program solidified her interest in research, cancer, and genetics.

“I learned that people did look like me in those positions,” Jainaba says.

The Summer High School Internship program (SHIP) enables a diverse group of Puget Sound area students entering their senior year to participate in mentored biomedical research alongside Fred Hutch investigators. Students also receive career guidance and college application support.

Jainaba, who participated in SHIP in 2020, says the message she received was clear: “You belong in science.” Through Fred Hutch, Jainaba realized her love for coding and worked with her mentors toward achieving her goal of working in the bioinformatics field. Through bioinformatics, Jainaba has been able to look into biological data and interpret biology-based data. This year, she investigated the new Sars-COV2 variant (“omicron”) to see where the mutations are, and which ones might interfere with T-cell or antibody binding.

“Fred Hutch solidified that I have a place in science, and I deserve to be here,” Jainaba says. “There are lots of people looking out for me.”

Students receive mentorship, community

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Roberto, who works at Fred Hutch as a Science Education Partnership Lab Tech while studying public health at the University of Washington, has participated in Fred Hutch’s high school and college internships.

Science had always been Roberto’s favorite subject. In middle school, Roberto participated in a camp that introduced kids to careers in medicine, which sparked his interest in pursuing health and medicine. During high school, he began to search for opportunities that aligned with his goals and found a high school internship program at Fred Hutch.

Since SHIP, Roberto has participated every summer in programs and research at Fred Hutch. He enjoys the community aspect, the mentorship, and being exposed to former SHIP participants with exciting careers. Roberto has found support among other students with similar interests, as well as staff.

“Speaking to Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, the director of SHIP, gave me a lot of peace and inspiration,” Roberto says. “I know I can also reach out and talk to her for advice. Having that connection with staff at Fred Hutch has led me in a good direction.”

Initially, Roberto wanted to be a doctor. Through learning about other careers in health at Fred Hutch, including Dr. Betty Thompson’s work in colon cancer education in Yakima Valley, Roberto realized that public health was a perfect fit for his personality and interest in helping his own community.

“My goal is to be a community health education specialist and help people learn about health,” says Roberto, who is from Quincy, Washington.

Pursuing education beyond high school

Yusuf is now a first-year computer science student at the University of Washington and continues to do research at Fred Hutch. He thanks his mentors at Fred Hutch, including science education program staff, and continues to talk to other students from his program.

Education beyond high school was a priority for Yusuf, who plans to someday pursue graduate education. In high school, Yusuf took college-level courses through Running Start, enabling him to earn both high school and college credits. Yusuf says that his degree will open the door to future career opportunities.

“I’m willing to learn more and I need to learn more,” Yusuf says. “I’m really passionate about learning and building connections with people.”

Attending college after high school was also important to Roberto, who wanted to experience life in a big city and be exposed to different cultures and people. He also wanted to continue his studies for his family.

“My parents immigrated here from Mexico in the ‘90s and they made a ton of sacrifices for me to be here today,” says Roberto, whose eventual goal is to pursue a Master’s in Public Health. “I thought it was important for me to repay them.”

Building a diverse workforce and engaging communities

Research and internship opportunities for high school and undergraduate students are important for Fred Hutch because they help build a diverse future scientific workforce but also because they help make science more equitable.

“These programs help ensure the future generation of cancer research will be more representative of the population than it is now,” says Dr. Jeanne Chowning, Senior Director of Science Education at Fred Hutch. “It’s important to have increase in access and opportunity but also to ensure that our institution is a welcoming and supportive place where students feel a sense of belonging.”

Part of the programs’ success can be attributed to the dedication of Fred Hutch leadership, faculty, and scientific staff, Dr. Chowning adds. “Working with students is a passion for the researchers who volunteer their time for the education programs,” Dr. Chowning says.

In addition to internship programs, Fred Hutch also works directly with science educators. Fred Hutch’s teacher professional development program, now in its 30th year, helps deliver hands-on lab experiences to 15,000 students each year through an intensive resource loan program. Fred Hutch also develops science curriculum that is used by teachers and students nationwide. These education efforts help build connections between Fred Hutch and the broader community.

Both students and Fred Hutch staff have advice for other businesses who are thinking of starting similar educational pathways for students.

“Get students from different parts of Washington,” Jainaba says. “Make sure the mentors’ positions are aligned with students’ goals so they can keep in touch with this person over the years. Commit to maintaining contact with mentees.”

It’s also critical to have a champion at the company or organization for education programs, make sure they’re funded, and include equity and cultural awareness. The Science Education team’s most successful outreach to underrepresented communities are done with community partners. In addition, Fred Hutch’s broad teacher network helps them identify students.

Education programs don’t just benefit students – it’s a two-way street. “We have a lot to learn from students and their unique perspectives,” says Dr. Chowning. “Students bring incredible energy and ideas, inspire our researchers, and remind us why our work is so important.”