Image of Elisabeth Martin. 

Urbana, Ill. High school students are often unsure of their career path and unable to obtain early hands-on experience in the fields they are interested in. This can be especially true for students with an early interest in oncology. The Cancer Center at Illinois’ (CCIL) researcHStart program looks to provide promising students with hands-on experience in cancer research labs.

The researcHStart program at the University of Illinois selects high school students from Champaign-Urbana and Chicago to participate in an 8-week program that provides students with direct cancer research experience under the mentorship of an established investigator at Illinois.

Students in the program have the opportunity to gain experience in cancer immunology, pharmacogenomics of anticancer agents, bioengineering, cancer therapeutics, and more. The experience culminates in a multi-institutional symposium that allows the students to present their work to other researcHStart students and faculty.

Elisabeth Martin, a student in the CCIL’s Cancer Scholar Program and Illinois senior, spent last summer as a debrief captain who was responsible for mentoring eight researcHStart students and guiding them on their summer projects. Martin had personally received great mentorship throughout her own undergraduate research experiences and believed it was important to share her knowledge with others.

“What I enjoyed most about mentoring was being able to share with them how to talk about their research. It’s a skill to explain your research clearly to someone who doesn’t have the same background as you do,” Martin said. “It’s important to know how to keep things concise, detailed, and targeted to what your audience can absorb in a few minutes.”

The researcHStart program aims to introduce high school students to career opportunities in cancer research, to provide students with foundational knowledge in biochemistry, immunology, biophysics, and pharmacology, and ultimately, to help students better understand the impact of cancer.

“It was a great experience for the high school students to get their feet wet in the biomedical space. They might have an idea of what they want to do, but it’s important for them to experience what different careers can look like,” Martin said. “researcHStart is especially valuable to students who have never had exposure to these disciplines before. You have to know what something looks like before you can do it.”

Keshav Gandhi, Martin’s mentee, expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to partake in this experience and gain tangible skills that will help him with the rest of his college career.

Coming from the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all seen how important biomedical research is to our society. researcHStart was an amazing opportunity to become familiar with tools that researchers in cancer genomics use daily, and it solidified my interest in the field,” Gandhi said.


In her future career, Martin hopes to continue implementing the skills learned in her researcHStart program experience to serve as a mentor for other students in the field of medicine and cancer research. After graduation, Martin plans to attend medical school and continue her work in cancer research.

Written by CCIL Communications Intern, Lisa Mei

Read more about the researcHStart program here.