Standout Students Shadow Researchers in the Lab

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This summer, Troy Shirley is working full time at USA Mitchell Cancer Institute researching better treatments for cancer. His work is impressive, but even more so considering that Shirley is still in high school.

Shirley is part of MCI’s summer internship program, which was started seven years ago at the cancer research and treatment facility in Mobile. Each summer, the program gives 15 to 20 students the opportunity to gain real-life experience in cancer research and administration. The interns range from high school students to medical students.

“Currently, I am working on things that might eliminate cancer stem cells from a tumor,” said Shirley, who will be a senior at UMS-Wright Preparatory School this fall. Shirley plans to continue working for MCI during his senior year of high school before pursuing medicine in college, and focusing on oncology and cancer research.

The 17-year-old is working alongside Steve McClellan, coordinator of the summer internship program and manager of research operations at MCI. Their work is important considering that cancer stem cells can sustain cancer growth and cause metastasis to other parts of the body. Cancer stem cells can also go dormant and enable a relapse, even years after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy have eliminated all observable signs of cancer. “There is no known cancer treatment that kills cancer stem cells,” McClellan said.

Nearby, Jonathan Dismukes, a junior in biomedical sciences at Auburn University, is working with Peter Sykora, Ph.D. They are focused on testing a revolutionary way to analyze the DNA damage that creates cancer.

“This method is as much as 1,000 times faster than what is currently available,” said Dismukes, whose interest in medicine can be traced to his grandfather, Dr. Robert Kominek, considered the longest practicing physician in Alabama.

Dismukes shares a 40-hour internship with Pooja Revanna, a junior at the University of South Alabama who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 14. In remission for three years, Revanna is interested in pediatric oncology. Her mother, Brunda Revanna, a physician in Jacksonville, Ala., inspired her career track.

Revanna said she is surprised at how much she has enjoyed the internship. “I’ve always enjoyed the clinical side of science and medicine, but I did not really think I would enjoy the research side because there is not much patient or human interaction,” she said. “But I actually like it a lot.”

The summer program gives Revanna and other students a rare opportunity, McClellan said. “When we identify bright young scientists, we have to nurture their interests,” he said.

The students, many of whom volunteer full time, conduct hands-on experiments in MCI’s basic research lab. “But even if they come once or twice a week, they are still shadowing researchers, and are still learning and getting exposure to how research is done,” McClellan said.

MCI exposes the students to unparalleled high-tech equipment. For example, MCI’s Advanced Imaging Lab houses two super resolution confocal microscopes that can only be found together at three other research institutions in the country – Harvard University, Northwestern University and the University of California- San Francisco. “We offer a great opportunity to be exposed to technology you will not see most places,” McClellan said.

Dismukes said the program gives students an academic advantage as well. “The things we do here at MCI are 10 years beyond what you find in undergraduate school,” said the Auburn junior, who is considering specializing in plastic surgery. “The biochemistry and molecular biology we are learning here, we have not even started studying in college.”

A third to a half of the summer interns are high school students, McClellan said. By the time they enter college, they will know their way around a research lab, and they will have mastered safety rules, and learned research methods and techniques. Participation in the program also looks impressive on college resumes and medical school applications, he said. Sometimes, students’ names are even included in published scientific papers.

“That is so exciting because it is virtually unheard of for high school students to have their name on published papers,” McClellan said.

McClellan said he works closely with the Alabama School of Math and Science, UMS-Wright and other local high schools to recruit students. Otherwise, the summer intern program isn’t widely publicized. “So far, our only advertising has been a blurb on our website, and astute students like Jonathan email us,” he said.

McClellan hopes to eventually offer the program to students outside the Mobile area. He recently began reaching out to philanthropic agencies to this end.

“We would love to have a funded program where three to five students could earn a small stipend and have a place to stay in Mobile for the summer,” he said.

McClellan said students who are interested in the MCI summer internship program should apply no later than January of the year of interest by emailing him at

“I always tell students, ‘If you think this is something that interests you, you have to volunteer and shadow our researchers,’” he said. “We really want to expose these students to someone who can offer advice and get them that mentorship.”

CaRES summer program

Meanwhile, three USA graduate students are delving into the dangers of indoor tanning and sunless tanning products as interns in the Cancer Research Experiences for Students, or CaRES program. The program was founded at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and funded by the National Cancer Institute.

Overall, about 40 students participate in the 8- to 12-week paid internship, but this is the first year the opportunity was made available to USA students.

“It is a competitive program, and we are extremely fortunate that it has been extended to students at USA this year,” said Casey L. Daniel, Ph.D., assistant professor of oncologic sciences and USA’s liaison for the CaRES program. “The internship is designed to give students exposure and experience in different areas of cancer research to foster interest and promote careers in the field,” Daniel said.

Working with Daniel is Will Gambla, a second-year medical student at USA. He is primarily working on a project to assess the tanning practices and attitudes of college students on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Gambla has helped to analyze data from surveys conducted by MCI last spring and has assisted USA surgeon Dr. Marcus Tan with local skin cancer screenings. He also has contributed to a project assessing the tanning behaviors and attitudes among Distinguished Young Women participants, and presenting to them about sun safety.

“Will is looking at indoor tanning and other tanning practices of college students so we can determine long-term risks for skin cancer,” said Daniel. “We conducted a survey of students in the spring concerning indoor tanning, and you would be surprised at how many students engage in this.”

Daniel, who was diagnosed with melanoma in her teens, said that tanning beds pose a greater cancer risk because they expose users to UVA rays as much as 12 times greater than those they receive from the sun. “It is really concentrated and up close and personal to their skin,” she said.

Another student, meanwhile, is exploring another method of tanning.

Interning with MCI cancer research Natalie Gassman, Ph.D., is Molley Granberry, a pharmacy student at the Mobile campus of the Auburn’s Harrison School of Pharmacy. She is helping to evaluate the effects of the active ingredients in sunless tanning products on DNA damage and cell death. 

“They are looking at the effects on a cellular level -- not only what they look like on the skin, but what they do to the cells,” Daniel said.

For more information on the CaRES program, visit the website at


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