Cancer REU Connects Researchers with Advocates

In May the Department of Biomedical Engineering welcomed ten undergraduate students enrolled at universities across the country to its NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program called BME CUReS Cancer.

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REU Scholars and graduate student mentors at a Texas 4000 kickoff event.

REU scholars are spending 10 weeks researching cancer alongside faculty and graduate student mentors in Austin, which will culminate with them taking place in a university-wide poster session in August.

What makes this particular REU program unique is its community engagement component. The 10-week program coincides with Texas 4000’s 10-week charity bike ride for cancer from Austin to Alaska.

Texas 4000 is a Texas-based philanthropic organization whose mission is to engage communities in the fight against cancer. Each year a group of 60 to 100 UT Austin student cyclists bike 4,000 miles to Anchorage, Alaska. The group was founded in 2004 by BME alum, Chris Condit (M.S. 2011), and has supported cancer research in the Department of Biomedical Engineering through seed grant funding and an endowment.

The purpose of the Texas 4000 partnership is to build connections between people who fight cancer through advocacy with those who contribute through research. Each mile of a Texas 4000 rider’s journey is similar to another step an REU scholar’s research experiment.

Texas 4000 riders share messages of cancer prevention and early detection in the communities they pass through, post about their motivation on the Texas 4000 blog, and, before riding each morning, share dedications for loved ones or people they know who are fighting cancer. These actions keep at the forefront riders’ inspiration during the 70-day long bike ride.

Similarly REU scholars share blog posts about their connections to cancer and what or who inspires them to conduct research.

REU scholar Matthew Vasquez, a chemical engineering major from Prairie View Texas A&M University is grateful for the Texas 4000 riders.

“Their fundraising and awareness activities allow us to pursue research,” he says. Vasquez specifically is working on polymerizing nanoparticles and conducting experiments to determine essential and nonessential components of drug carriers.

Vasquez is pleased that his mentors have treated him like a graduate student, and he plans on pursuing graduate or medical school after he earns his bachelor’s degree.

“No matter how much as been done, there’s still work to do. There will always be health-related challenges.”

The community engagement aspect of the REU program adds a human component as scholars use engineering approaches to identify challenges in cancer research while at The University of Texas at Austin.

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