PHILADELPHIA — Every day, the families of 47 children find out their young one has been diagnosed with cancer. A group from Archmere Academty is involved in a pilot program in advanced cancer research that could put them at the forefront of bringing that number down.
The students recently visited Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and its research institute, where they got to see the subject of their class applied in real life. It’s an incredible opportunity that is likely unique among high schools in Delaware and others in the region, said Archmere principal Katie Thiel.
“I think it’s a game changer,” she said during the trip to the research institute, where laboratory technicians showed the students how blood samples are collected at the adjacent hospital and tested for the presence of cancer cells.
The class was made possible through a partnership with Dr. Jay Storm, a 1986 Archmere graduate and the chief of the division of neurosurgery at CHOP. Storm also is the co-director of the Center for Data Driven Discovery in Biomedicine at Children’s Hospital.
During the covid pandemic, he reached out to the director of development at Archmere to create this partnership, Thiel said. It is an interdisciplinary class, with a semester of the biology of cancer and a semester more focused on the coding and data analytics, she said. The program has evolved to include an internship program, guest speakers at Archmere and a reception with Storm at his home. In November, he brought one of his former patients who now works at CHOP to Archmere.
“He’s really had an active role in seeing it come to fruition,” Thiel said.
Storm said he had always wanted to get involved with Archmere’s educational programming. Initially, he thought about perhaps teaching some medical classes after retiring from neurosurgery, but with changing technology, the chance to get something off the ground sooner emerged. This was about seven years ago.
He and his partner at CHOP, Dr. Adam Resnick, created the Kids First Data Resource Center, an open platform that Archmere students could explore in their classroom. They worked with others from CHOP, the research institute and Archmere to create the class.
“I know how much it meant to me, starting with Archmere, to have a teacher and mentor take an interest in me and my career, and I wanted to provide the same support for the Archmere students,” he said.
His teachers and coaches had a profound impact on his life, and he made friends there that remain close to this day. He learned there about how “approaching problems, practicing with a questioning attitude (but always with deference and respect) and that being curious, inquisitive and interested in people is extremely informative and rewarding.”
“I left Archmere with a strong sense of self, a strong drive to be a good human, and wanting to give back to the place that meant so much to me and formed the foundation of my neurological career,” he said.
Getting into the advanced cancer research class is not easy. Students need prerequisites in computer science and biology. Prior to the first year it was offered, Archmere required students to attend a summer “boot camp” for the coding prerequisite. The numbers are limited.
“It’s at capacity at 20 maximum this year,” Thiel said. “It is going to be something where we can probably only have one section at 20 kids each year.”
Storm said he has been very impressed with the students who have taken the class. He said he has discovered that the students are “much smarter than I am,” that they are enthusiastic about cancer research, he and Resnick picked the right school for the pilot program, and some of these students will go on to advance the field.
“Interacting with the students and faculty has been even more rewarding for me and my D3b colleagues than we could have imagined,” he said. D3b is the Center of Data Driven Discovery in the research institute.
Most of the students who have taken the class are interested in a science- or medicine-related field as a career. That is the case with Ava Hughes, a senior who will attend the neighboring University of Pennsylvania next year while majoring in neuroscience.
“This is a really interesting opportunity to learn about different types of genes,” Hughes said. “Not just in a general format like you would get in a bio class or even an AP bio class, but it’s really a different experience. It’s really hands on, and you’re really involved.”
At school, the students had the opportunity to do polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, but what they saw at the research institute was at a different level. She is not aware of any other school that has this experience available.
“We’ve also been doing virtual simulations that walk us through what we would be able to do if we were in this environment,” she said.
Her classmate, Ella Strohmaier, expects to major in pharmaceutical science next year, although she has not yet decided where she will attend college. She appreciated the opportunity to hear from people who work in the field.
“I think it’s great to come see things in real time and not just in a classroom. It’s a really unique opportunity,” she said.
Thiel said she would like to take the template of the advanced cancer research class and clone it for other departments.
“I think it would be amazing,” she said.
One of the most important aspects of the class in Thiel’s mind is that the students have learned that no professional operates in a vacuum.
“Dr. Storm, yes, he’s a brain surgeon, but this whole research branch is trying to find different cures and treatments for cancer. That means he has to interface with lab techs and researchers and PR people and all different departments. I think it’s taught the kids that they can’t just think about the one-track approach, that the best approach is to be nimble and to be able to interface with lots of different people,” she said.
She also believes career programming offered at Archmere can tell students what they might not want to do as much as what they do want. That is the case with the cancer research class.
“I think for a lot of kids, it may help them decide, do I want to be patient-facing or do I want to work in a lab behind the scenes?” she said.
Archmere junior Grace Yang said her interest in medicine comes at least in part from knowing people who have experienced cancer.
“It’s just been really cool to have an idea of what cancer actually is, an actual concept of what it is, and to understand what they’ve been going through and to see the advancements that have been made to help people,” she said.
Photos courtesy of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.