Carle Illinois College of Medicine is giving high school and college students from underrepresented groups exposure to research experience on health topics ranging from cancer and tissue engineering, to documenting the health effects of the COVID-19.

Carle Illinois’ summer REACH program for undergraduate students and the SpHERES (Sparking High Schoolers’ Excitement for Research in Engineering and Science) provide learning and research opportunities to students from groups that are underrepresented in medicine, science, and engineering. The two pathway programs allow students to work closely with world-class health experts and researchers.

The REACH program targets students pursuing careers in medicine. It spans ten weeks and culminates with presentations at the Illinois Summer Research Symposium. Three of the 2021 projects are described below.

Desiré Rivera Borges | University of Puerto Rico | Chemical Engineering
Focus: Cancer Tumor Stiffness and Progression

University of Puerto Rico chemical engineering student Desiré Rivera Borges spent the summer researching scientific literature on tumor stiffness in breast, colorectal, and pancreatic tumors under the mentorship of Carle Illinois professor Taher Saif. Tumor stiffness is associated with greater incidence of the cancer spreading to other areas of the body. The research sparked Rivera Borges’ interest in combining methods to reduce tumor stiffness and new immunotherapies being tested in clinical trials. “I think there’s a lot of potential using both approaches simultaneously. Any breakthrough in using these two treatments in combination would greatly benefit patients, giving them more time.” Rivera Borges received ‘Honorable Mention’ for her oral presentation ‘Effects of Tumor Microenvironment Stiffness on Colon, Breast, and Pancreatic Cancer Progression and Metastasis’ at the Illinois Summer Research Symposium in late July 2021.

Kiara Langford | University of Alabama at Birmingham | Biomedical Sciences
Focus: COVID-19 Impact on Illinois Residents

University of Alabama at Birmingham biomedical sciences student Kiara Langford’s goal is to become a physician. Her REACH project unlocked an interest in research. She poured over, coded, and analyzed the COVID-19 journal entries submitted by Illinoisans as part of the Citizen Scientist Journaling program. “We’ve seen a lot of increased anxiety and stress, and that can affect access to health care and the ability to heal,” Langford said. Working with mentor Carle Illinois Associate Professor Dr. Ruby Mendenhall, Langford learned to code narrative content from journal entries for scientific analysis. Langford’s poster presentation, ‘Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Health of Illinois Residents: Citizen Scientist Journaling Program at UIUC,’ received ‘Honorable Mention’ at the Illinois Summer Research Symposium in late July 2021. She also earned the REACH program’s program Julian LaDuke Award for incorporating the humanities in her work.

Chelsea Prudent | New York University | Biology
Focus: Pediatric Hearing Impairment

Chelsea Prudent hopes to one day be a practicing pediatrician serving the deaf community. Her focus this summer was on the heart, learning about the intrinsic cardiac nervous system and the conduction system from prominent cardiologist and Carle Illinois’ head of clinical sciences, Dr. Issam Moussa. “We explored the effects of denervation when someone receives a heart transplant,” Prudent said. Prudent concluded that decreased cardiac output in transplant patients made their hearts less efficient when responding to exercise, possibly due to the severed heart-brain nerve connections. “I’ve learned so much through the REACH program. It’s taught me that anyone is capable of doing research,” Prudent said.

SpHERES PROGRAM

High school students work in teams, each accessing a different lab on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus in the SpHERES program. Both Lauren Robinson, who aspires to study bioengineering in college, and Debbie Mojekwu, who hopes to be a doctor, attend Jones College Prep High School in Chicago. The two partnered on a SpHERES project involving tissue engineering of neural stem cell tissue mimics. “Basically, they’re taking stem cells and cultivating them in the lab to get them to turn into neurons,” Robinson said. “Once neurons form, they introduce a biomaterial called reduced graphene oxide to see if that will increase the conductivity of the neurons and then determine if the neurons are healthy.” The work conducted in the Rashid Bashir lab under the mentorship of Gelson Pagan Diaz and Evin Kilicarslan has application to the maintenance, repair, and replacement of damaged tissue. Two additional teams of high school students worked in the labs of Carle Illinois Professors Martha Gillette and Hyun Joon Kong on research projects.

Both the REACH and SpHERES programs were conducted virtually in 2021 due to the pandemic. You can see the posters created by students in the SpHERES program here.

SpHERES is co-hosted by the UIUC Department of Bioengineering and is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS).