A group of 10 people pose together for a photo. They all are wearing white lab coats and surgical masks.

(Photo courtesy of Project STRIDE)


Column: My summer research experience at Charles R. Drew University for Medicine and Science

My research project was centered around examining colorectal cancer risk factors in a specific area of Los Angeles County.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/shaunthomas18/" target="_self">Shaun Thomas</a>

Shaun Thomas

August 15, 2022
“Under-resourced high school students need to be familiarized with multiple components of research in order to give back to their communities,” said Dolores Caffey Fleming, MS, MPH.

Fleming is the director of Project STRIDE (Students Training in Research Involving Disparity Elimination), Project STRIDE II, and Project ExSTRM (Exposing Students To Regenerative Medicine).

The STRIDE programs are funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation while the ExSTRM program is funded by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). According to Fleming, the goal of all the programs is to “allow students to be exposed to research and various healthcare careers in order for them to give back to their communities.”

This year, these programs were sort of combined as a lot of the activities that they did were interconnected. These research programs for high schoolers at Charles R. Drew University (CDU) have been consistently supported by Jay Vadgama, Ph.D., the Vice President for Research and Health Affairs (CDU), and have continued to operate for the past several years

Before actually going onto campus, we had to do CITI (Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative) training before we entered any labs or facilities. We took seven courses ranging from Biosafety for Researchers to Good Clinical Practice. After finishing, I had a virtual introduction with my mentor, Dr. Juanita Booker-Vaughns, and we talked about potential project ideas and her experience in research.

For the first week, Elizabeth Delgado, a project coordinator, taught us and administered quizzes from the university about lab safety, chemical hazards, and the Code of Conduct. The next week, I personally got to shadow some professionals in the Cancer Division lab and was able to watch them perform procedures like the Western Blot Test and Polymerase Chain Reactions (PCR). Although this was not related to my project, it was cool to learn and observe an important procedure. Many Tuesdays and Thursdays were also reserved for leadership training and resume-building classes.

A Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR. (Photo by Shaun Thomas)

My research project was centered around examining colorectal cancer (CRC) risk factors in a specific area of Los Angeles County known as Service Planning Area (SPA) 6. With my mentor’s help, we looked at public health data about all these risk factors in SPA 6, as opposed to L.A. County as a whole.

I first conducted literature about colorectal cancer risk factors in general ranging from biological factors like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) to behavioral health factors like diet. After that, using the data from the Key Indicators of Health Report (2017) by Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, I created graphs and analyzed the data. To put everything together, I created a poster showcasing my findings.

I had the chance to interview one student from each of the three cohorts.

I first interviewed Ivan Ixtlilco, a Project STRIDE senior at King Drew Magnet High School, whose project was about “how urban ecology affects epigenetics and how this, in turn, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease,” he said. He added on about how his mentor introduced him to a whole variety of careers in research that he had no idea about. 

Afia Ahmed, a Project STRIDE II rising second-year student at UC Irvine said, “Project STRIDE allowed [her] to gain a foundation for building a whole manuscript, skimming through articles for crucial information.” She said these skills were beneficial for her public health classes at UCI.

She also pointed out some key differences between the two. Now that she is doing STRIDE II, she mentioned doing a manuscript and going more into depth with her research on “the mental health of Asian American females who are infertile” in order to build an abstract and submit her abstract to conferences. She noted that there was a significant literature gap between Asian American female infertility and female infertility in general.

Ricardo Rodriguez, an ExSTRM senior at St. John Bosco High School, focused on a project that involved more lab work: ancestry-specific expression of stem-like markers in breast cancer cells. He believes stem cells are the future of research and can even be key to processes like regeneration. However, he also believes that governments will decide the fate of using this research. He had the opportunity to present his poster at the CIRM SPARK conference which took place on August 3 in Oakland, Calif.

Shaun Thomas with Dr. Jay Vadgama at the symposium. (Photo courtesy of Shaun Thomas)

The climax of the program was the Charles Drew Symposium which took place on August 5. At the symposium, some of us were chosen to present our projects in front of guests, university faculty, and all of our mentors. After the presentations, we all presented our posters in a gallery. The two-hour event showcased the culmination of our work over.

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