Forget about a lazy summer vacation: Desert Vista High School senior Carrie Lin is spending her vacation helping with cancer research that could one day lead to a vaccine.
Lin is one of 10 students from high schools across the Valley selected for a six-week internship at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute.
Lin has liked science for as long as she can remember, and it shows in her activities. She’s a member of the Health Occupational Students of America, Science Olympiad, a science club, an environmental club and Academic Decathlon at Desert Vista.
“Science keeps advancing. You don’t know how things are going to turn out in the end,” Lin said.
Lin also volunteers with the American Cancer Society, which was an outgrowth of her participation with the Ahwatukee Foothills’ annual Relay for Life event. After a cancer survivor told her doctors and researchers were the reason he was still alive, Lin decided to pursue oncology.
A few of Lin’s friends had good experiences interning at the Biodesign Institute in previous years, so Lin decided to apply for a cancer research internship.
Lin and her fellow interns are spending six weeks working directly with researchers at the interdisciplinary Biodesign Institute. The high school internship program has been around since 2005, and regularly includes 10 to 20 students each year, said Joe Caspermeyer, a spokesman for the institute.
“For research training, there’s just nothing better than hands-on (experience) in the lab,” Caspermeyer said.
Lin is working with assistant professor Patricia Carrigan, who is in her third year of a five-year, $5 million grant researching a breast cancer vaccine. If she’s successful, Carrigan could create the first preventative cancer vaccine targeting cancers not caused by a virus.
The research boils down to finding certain combinations of two normal genes that have fused together and created something foreign to the body, which in turn can create cancerous cells. In theory, if you could create a vaccine based on those fused cells, you could prevent cells from fusing in a similar way in a healthy person, Carrigan said.
It’s an unusual approach, which Carrigan says is the point.
“We’re trying to not use the same approaches everyone has, because we haven’t defeated cancer,” Carrigan said.
Carrigan is testing the vaccine in mice and would like to move onto treating dogs that already have cancer. If the dog trials are successful, humans could be tested in three years.
That’s where Lin comes in. She helps Carrigan by preparing slides of cancerous dog cells and studying them to identify abnormally fused cells that are similar to human varieties of cancer, then validating the data she collects.
Lin has had some surprises in the program – for instance, she didn’t realize just how long everything takes to prepare and study in a lab.
But most of those surprises have just cemented her plan to study oncology. She’s studied general topics related to genes in school, but likes the in-depth topics she’s learning through the internship.
Plus, doing the research is a lot different from studying the work of other scientists.
“When you’re doing it in the lab, you don’t know what the solution is going to be,” Lin said. “If you’re reading it in a book, they already know the results.”
Lin had a strong foundation coming into the internship, which has helped her get up to speed quickly, Carrigan said. And she’s very detail-oriented, which helps when you’re keeping track of research for a future scientific paper.
“It’s amazing at her level that I can pick up her notebook and know exactly what she did,” Carrigan said, pointing to Lin’s neat, organized documentation of her work. “She definitely has a bright future.”