Students team up with professors for cancer research


At K-State’s Terry C. Johnson Center for Basic Cancer Research, laboratories are like games of hide-and-seek — the more, the merrier. In the case of most laboratories, undergraduate research assistants are “the more” and mentoring professors are “the merrier.”

The cancer research center is continuing a program this year that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to join professors in conducting research projects and lab work. The program has been successful in attracting students in the past, and this year is no exception.

“We’ve had over 800 students participate in the program, and have invested over $1 million in the program over the years,” said Rob Denell, professor of biology and director of the center. “The aim of the program is to allow outstanding undergraduates to participate in research in our laboratories.”

Students pair up with faculty members to submit applications to the center. Denell said the evaluation process can be critical and competitive, and the selection committee will not issue every research award that is available if they cannot find suitable student matches.

“We receive right around 50 applications a year, and sometimes we accept fewer than that, but the odds of a good student who has good contact with a lab getting an award are high,” Denell said.

Students who are accepted into the program receive a stipend of $1,000, and research mentors also receive $1,000 to put towards research expenses.

Though all student-professor partnerships are based in cancer research, student research projects can vary. Courtney Estes, senior in geography, is using her educational background to map out cases of lung cancer in Kansas.

“We are trying to see how environmental and socioeconomic factors play a role in incidents of cancer, and where there are hot spots of cancer cases,” Estes said. “Especially with lung cancer, there is more of a prevalence among lower socioeconomic brackets because they tend to smoke more cigarettes.”

Estes heard about the research opportunity from friends and a geography professor, but she was motivated to get involved for more personal reasons.

“A big part of my decision was my mom had breast cancer when I was growing up, and she passed away when I was 15,” Estes said. “This is an opportunity to create some education and treatment on how to prevent cancer.”

Jared Wilmoth, senior in biochemistry and chemistry, said he relishes the opportunity to continue his work in research labs.

“I started doing research in the chemistry department as a freshman,” Wilmoth said. “I had done research in high school and when I got to college, I looked for opportunities to get involved.”

He and three other undergraduates work in a biochemistry lab that is studying protein sequencing.

“I think it’s an amazing learning opportunity,” Wilmoth said. “It’s one thing to sit in a lecture, but once you get into a lab, you learn so much more. It’s just really nice to have people around you who are completely supportive.”

Denell said support and experience are exactly what the program is designed to provide.

“We have found that students over the years have considered this to be a keystone experience in their undergraduate studies,” Denell said. “It gives them a foundation to move forward.”