How I Spent My Summer Vacation Learning about Cancer Research

By Nikki Ross Inda - August 03, 2021

For most school-age kids, summers are spent playing sports and video games, traveling with family, or chilling at the beach with boogie boards and beach balls.

It’s all about taking a break from the books and having fun.

But 18 Bay area teens from Tampa’s BEST Academy traded in a portion of their summer to study with – wait for it – postdoctoral medical researchers and scientists.

Screenshot of virtual program with Dr. Dexter Frederick of the BEST Academy and youths
Dr. Dexter Frederick, founder and CEO of the BEST Academy, presents certificates of completion to BEST youth during the virtual Healthy KIDZ program.

The annual weeklong session is sponsored by the Healthy KIDZ program at Moffitt Cancer Center.

BEST stands for Brain Expansions Scholastic Learning, and the nonprofit’s aim is to inspire students to envision a career in health care, said Dr. Dexter Frederick, founder and CEO of the BEST Academy. “Moffitt is helping us make their dreams bigger.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in health care occupations is projected to grow 15% in the next decade, much faster than the average for other occupations, and add about 2.4 million new jobs. America’s aging population means a greater demand for health services and a new crop of skilled workers to replace baby boomers as they retire.

How to Read an Abstract

This year’s annual summer Healthy KIDZ workshop with the BEST Academy included members of the Moffitt Postdoctoral Association, including six postdocs, two research scientists and one research associate.

Dr. Sadie Johnson, a postdoctoral fellow in Moffitt’s Department of Cancer Physiology, said the researchers worked with the students “to engage in one of the most critical parts of our job as scientists” – how to critically read published articles by their peers.

“The ability to critically review research articles is necessary in all areas of health care to give the most up-to-date information and care to patients,” said Johnson, who also chairs the Moffitt Postdoctoral Association science advocacy committee.

Screenshot of two students from the BEST program participating in the virtual program.
Researchers broke down information in a way that helped students better understand their projects, says Serene Abukhadair, an 11th grader from Universal Academy of Florida.

Serene Abukhadair, an 11th grader from Universal Academy of Florida, had plenty of questions. “The researchers broke down the information about abstracts, methods/materials, results and discussions. This really helped me understand the subject matter for my project, which made it easier to complete,” she said. After the course, the BEST students broke into groups to research and prepare presentations on such topics as brain cancer, diabetes, heart disease and sickle cell.

Abukhadair is already thinking about next year’s program.

BEST Academy’s Omari Whitlow, who graduated from Tampa Preparatory School this year, said the course helped him understand how to prepare a research paper and hear more about medical careers and the experiences of the researchers.  

“I was already interested in cancer due to personal experiences with the disease,” said Whitlow, who will attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the fall. “One thing I learned from the postdocs is to take a step back to analyze the material at hand. I think that this experience was very beneficial for me and I’m glad I could take part.”

A ‘Peek Under the Hood’

Johnson praised her colleagues and everyone involved in the planning and development of the content.

“It was extremely inspiring,” she said. “The enthusiasm and effort the postdocs put in to guide the students demonstrated a strong commitment to sharing their experiences and knowledge with others outside the scientific community.”

Johnson would like the partnership to continue. “Giving virtual and in-person demonstrations of laboratory techniques that are used in medical diagnostics and research would be a great way to give students a ‘peek under the hood’ at how basic science is used in health care,” she said. 

EMMA microscopes line a counter
Students got an up close look at lab equipment vital to cancer research, including these Electron Microscopes with Micro-Analysis.

Healthy KIDZ, a year-round program, helps to connect Moffitt experts and the science community to STEM student groups interested in learning more about the sciences inside and outside the classroom. The program has provided thought provoking programs and experiences in STEM/STEAM careers for BEST Academy students for several years.  

It’s important to reach students who might not otherwise have these opportunities and encourage their parents to be supportive, Johnson said.

“So many of us now did not continue with the career we set out to do, so it’s important for parents to be supportive as their children learn and change course,” she said.

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