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'ACES' up: Online students get cancer research experience

Mentoring program provides undergraduate students with hands-on research experience, career skills


photo illustration of students working on cancer research
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August 22, 2022

For online students living far away from campus — more than 2,000 miles in Ryan Kilinski’s case — being able to participate in the research process can be tricky. 

So when Kilinski, an Arizona State University online student who lives in Oregon, learned about the ACE Scholars Program, he jumped on the opportunity.

The ACE Scholars Program is part of ASU’s Arizona Cancer Evolution (ACE) Center. It was created in 2021 to provide mentorship and undergraduate research experience on projects in the emerging field of cancer evolution. The program is open to students in any major, whether they attend ASU on campus or online.

Kilinski is a sophomore majoring in physics as well as astronomical and planetary sciences, but he was open to learning something new.

“I have an interest in science in general, but biology and even cancer wasn’t a specific passion of mine. But I knew that going into something that I might not be familiar with at all could prove to be even more beneficial,” he says.

Inclusive opportunities

The ACE Scholars Program began during the coronavirus pandemic, when most workplaces and schools were in a virtual, work-from-home format. The program still holds most of its meetings through Zoom so that students from Arizona and elsewhere can attend.

Cristina Baciu, a research program manager for the ACE Center, and Zachary Compton, a fourth-year PhD candidate studying evolutionary biology in the center, created the ACE Scholars Program as a way to give students hands-on research experience that many of them were missing out on. It has grown to become a 50-student program that provides rigorous training and a community of support.

“We both had really great experiences as undergrads that shaped us into who we are today,” Baciu says. “So a good part of it is us just wanting to help students who don’t have access to the same opportunities that we had.”

The ACE Scholars Program is open to both online and on-campus students in any degree program who have an interest in cancer and evolutionary biology research. It is supervised by Carlo Maley, director of the ACE Center, a researcher in the Biodesign Institute and a professor in the School of Life Sciences

Though the research at the ACE Center is rooted in evolutionary biology and oncology, the ACE Scholars’ projects span a variety of disciplines, from the psychology of cancer to modeling the life history of reproductive cancer risk. 

One commonality is that most of the projects require students to work closely with data. In some cases, this means developing code to assist in sifting through large data sets to determine the differences in cancer risk between different groups of animals. In other cases, it involves analyzing survey responses about preferred cancer terminology when it comes to doctor-patient interactions.

Since the projects have both clinical and social implications, any type of student can find an area of interest in the program.

“A student’s background — their CV, GPA, whether or not they’re in the honors college — has really had no predictive power in their success in our group,” Compton says. “Really, the only prerequisite to being in the group is having an interest in the group and the work we’re doing.” 

A student’s average week involves attending a lab-wide meeting and a professional development seminar, as well as working on the project at hand. Since the meetings can be attended virtually and the projects don’t require a physical laboratory, the structure of the program allows for seamless collaboration between in-person and online students.

For online students like HD Cross, a senior studying biological sciences with a concentration in genetics, cell and developmental biology, the program has made their experience feel less isolating.

“I love the research and being able to be published and all the great things that come from that and the experience, but the social connection has just been the best,” Cross said from their office in North Carolina. “You miss that as an online student sometimes.”

Level up leadership

In addition to working on research projects, students have a chance to prepare for their post-graduation careers through bi-weekly career and professional development courses taught by Baciu. On the off weeks, they can hone their coding skills in sessions taught by Compton.

“I think that positions students in a really great way for whatever their future goals are,” Baciu says. “That’s another purpose of ours, to help students build a really solid application for whatever it is that comes next for them.”

Students who have spent at least a semester in the program also have the opportunity to become mentors for the newer cohorts. 

Walker Mellon, a third-year economics and computer information systems major, says that the experience has encouraged him to think differently. 

“The way that the ACE Scholars Program is set up has really enabled me and a lot of other students to not only follow the lead, but also really take charge and answer the questions we might want to know,” he says. 

For Harshini Darapu, who graduated last spring with a degree in biological sciences with a concentration in neurobiology, physiology and behavior, the leadership experience was the most rewarding part of the program.

When she joined the center in spring 2020, she couldn’t picture herself leading and mentoring a group of her peers. After guiding her team through poster presentations and working with them on projects throughout the semester, the experience taught her how to delegate and check in with a team, but more importantly, it boosted her confidence to take on future leadership opportunities.

“I’ve definitely felt a lot more confident taking that leadership role,” Darapu says.

Next steps

After two successful years of the program and 10 awards at the 29th Annual SOLS Undergraduate Research Symposium, students are currently preparing six manuscripts for publication, something relatively uncommon at the undergraduate level.

But for the directors, the only thing that matters is making sure their students have a platform to get involved.

“If all we ever accomplish is providing undergraduate research opportunities, we’ve accomplished enough,” Compton says.

As the program expands, they hope to provide more in-person lab experiences in collaboration with the School of Life Sciences and SOLUR, the school’s undergraduate research program.

The ACE Scholars Program will be accepting applications for spring semester in November 2022. Fill out an interest form to be notified when applications open.

The ACE Center is a National Cancer Institute-funded research program housed in ASU’s Biodesign Institute. The ACE Scholars Program has received additional funding from the Online Undergraduate Research Scholars program in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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