Northeastern Illinois University biology student Alexis Chappel listens during a session in a biology lab.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

As Northeastern Illinois University prepares for the start of a new academic year, six students will bring the summer fellowship learning experiences of a lifetime back to class with them.

The Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (ChicagoCHEC) Research Fellows Program provided a diverse and talented cohort of 16 students from Northeastern, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the City Colleges of Chicago with eight weeks of full-time, hands-on learning from some of the nation’s leading researchers. In addition, three of last year’s students served as senior fellows, mentoring and helping new students navigate the program. The goal: help these students from underrepresented communities with the development of academic, technical and professional skills in preparation for careers in social, behavioral and biomedical research and in health care.

“This program has opened the doors for me where they were once closed,” said Biology senior Nicholas Martinez, a first-generation college student. “This program has literally made my dream a reality and has given me the opportunity to do things that would have never before been possible.”

The fellowship program is in its second year as part of ChicagoCHEC, a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer partnership led by Northeastern, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and UIC whose mission is to advance cancer health equity through meaningful scientific discovery, education, training and community engagement.

As full-time paid fellows, the students focused on health disparities, community outreach and cancer research and education, splitting their time among the partner institutions. Each experience offered important opportunities to network at the highest level.

“The students feed from each other’s experiences while meeting top National Institutes of Health researchers, visiting leading community organizations fighting against health disparities and visiting some of the top national labs doing research in cancer and health disparities,” said Northeastern Assistant Professor of Computer Science Francisco Iacobelli, who is part of the fellowship program’s organizational team.

Naturally, the students also experienced hands-on training. During a visit to Northeastern, the fellows spent a day in the biology lab studying various model organisms that can be researched on a cellular level to understand the fundamental processes of developmental biology. With the guidance of Northeastern faculty members Michael Stern, Cindy Voisine, Jorge Cantu and Mary Kimble, the fellows studied model organisms such as worms (C. elegans), fruit flies (D. melanogaster), and zebrafish (D. rerio) and how mutations that disrupt normal cellular processes can lead to the development of cancer.

“It is hard to ask questions about subject material you do not know anything about,” said Martinez, who plans to pursue medical school. “This program has opened my eyes and has shown me those requirements and details, which allows me to ask the right questions.”

Through this program, the fellows say they have found inspiration and reassurance in their career goals.

“I don't think I would have obtained an opportunity like this if it weren't for Northeastern,” said Rut Ortiz, a recent Economics graduate. “Yes, I've graduated and pursing medical research would mean having to come back to NEIU to take post-baccalaureate classes in some hard sciences, but to me it is so worth it. Even if this sounds cheesy, education is so unbelievably important. As a Hispanic/Latina woman, I'm from two underrepresented groups and I cannot express how much my education means to me.”

For Biology major Alexis Chappel, the experience assured her that her dreams of medical school are not fantasy.

“Due to this program, my career trajectory is clear,” Chappel said. “My favorite experiences are meeting doctors and getting advice from medical students about how to get into medical school. Not knowing any physicians personally made my goal of being a doctor appear to be a far reach. Now, I know that my dreams are more attainable than I thought.”

Northeastern student Esperance Urayeneza served in a leadership role as a senior fellow, while students Faiza Sulaiman and Noe Vasquez also represented Northeastern as fellows this summer, learning about prostate cancer disparities, how to read and critique research articles, and how to conduct socially responsible research, among many other topics.

“I believe in community-based research,” Iacobelli said. “This program is unique in that it shows students the importance of community organizations as full partners in research, and not simply a place you come to do research in and then leave. These students are more informed and will be able to make better evidence-based claims about the status of health disparities in Chicago.”

That message has been received by the fellows.

“I want to be an advocate for people and bridge gaps caused by health care disparities,” Ortiz said. “I fully believe that health care is a fundamental human right, so I want to stand against elitist systems and stand for the minority demographics that are negatively affected by them.”

Top photo: Northeastern Illinois University student Alexis Chappel listens during a session in a biology lab.