When her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in April 2017, Alexis Rooney ’23 was frustrated that more couldn’t be done to treat the disease.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t they fix this’? I wondered what could have been done differently,” she said. After her grandmother died that November, Rooney learned other family members also have the same kind of cancer – and she, too, carries the gene that causes it.
“I thought, this is a fight now. They’re picking on my family,” she said. “I knew I should do something.”
Rooney entered Cornell in 2019 interested in medicine, but she was unsure of her skills in chemistry, a core area that pre-med students must study. That changed after she participated in two summer academic programs – starting with Cornell’s Prefreshmen Summer Program (PSP) in summer 2019, which included a chemistry class as part of that curriculum.
“At PSP, I realized that I didn’t know how to study or think about these problems. It was like I was genuinely looking at a foreign language,” she said. “But by the end of it, I loved chemistry. I realized that the idea of having a ‘growth mindset’ was true. I knew I could be good at chemistry if I wanted to be.”
Last summer, Rooney continued her chemistry studies through a special summer course, the Organic Chemistry Summer Program, part of the Cornell-HHMI Accelerating Medical Progress through Scholarship (CHAMPS) program. It began in 2015 and was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, with five years of funding. This year, the College of Arts and Sciences is supporting the program through alumni gifts. The program provides opportunities for high-caliber students from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedical careers to engage in scholarship and research.
“I learned a lot about organic chemistry (during the Organic Chemistry Summer Program), so when I took the CHAMPS class – Introduction to Experimental Organic Chemistry – in the fall, things were making sense,” Rooney said. “And a lot of the teaching assistants were from PSP, so I felt comfortable asking them questions.”
This summer, Rooney is taking part in the research component of the CHAMPS program, which was postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s working in the lab of Justin Wilson, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). And she’s helping with this year’s PSP students, teaching math and problem-solving and also tutoring a student in chemistry.
“I was unaware of how much research contributed into treatments like chemotherapy,” Rooney said, “and a lot of it is chemistry.”
This summer, 15 CHAMPS students were on campus for nine weeks, June 14 to Aug. 13, and another 40 participated online. The rising sophomores took the organic/biochemistry preparatory course taught by older students and joined one of 15 faculty research labs to gain their first lab experience. Rising juniors took part in the lab experience that they missed last summer. Other resources included math tutoring and professional development sessions focused on writing and presentation skills.
While many of the students who take part in the CHAMPS programs plan to go to medical school, the experience also helps them consider additional options.
“I’ve always been pre-med but I’m now considering an M.D./Ph.D. program as well,” said Deborah Ogunribido ’23, who’s conducting cancer research this summer in the lab of Richard Cerione, Goldwin Smith Professor of chemistry and chemical biology (A&S).
The program has been highly successful in setting the participants up for success in a variety of fields and settings – anywhere that chemistry comes into play. Of the 120 students who have gone through the program since 2015, about 45 have graduated. Of those:
- 12 are enrolled or accepted into medical or dental school;
- five are in science, technology, engineering and mathematics Ph.D. programs;
- three are working as research scientists in the chemical or pharmaceutical industry;
- two are pursuing master’s degrees in education;
- one is in graduate school studying horticulture; and
- one is in the Teach for America program.
Many of this year’s graduates will take a gap year before starting medical school, as Héctor Ibáñez ’20 did in 2020. A chemistry major and CHAMPS participant, Ibáñez is now a research fellow within an institution led by another Cornell alumnus – Dr. Anthony Fauci, M.D. ’66, who directs the Laboratory of Immunoregulation at the National Institutes of Health. Ibáñez is being mentored by Dr. Paolo Lusso in the viral pathogenesis section and worked as the lead experimenter on three projects related to HIV and COVID-19. He’s also been accepted to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
“CHAMPS was effectively a lifeline, an opportunity to consolidate the best skills and techniques I had learned through my first year,” said Ibáñez, who was a member of the lab of Brian Crane, the George W. and Grace L. Todd Professor of Chemistry and chair of the department (A&S), as an undergrad. “I remember the lab as being filled with teachers and mentors, each willing to sacrifice a bit of their time just to let me learn something. I learned so much.”
Crane runs the CHAMPS program with Stephen Lee, professor of chemistry and chemical biology (A&S) and help from other colleagues such as Geoff Coates, Tisch University Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (A&S) and a host of CHAMPS mentors across campus. The organic chemistry class that is part of the program was originally taught by the late senior lecturer Thomas Ruttledge, who had a lasting impact on the program.
Crane meets with the students each week and also mentors one of them in his own lab. “For most of these students, it’s their first experience in a research lab, so they’re pretty green at the beginning,” he said. “It’s a bit unusual to get into a lab as a first-year student.” But many end up staying on in these labs; two of Crane’s undergrad lab members are past CHAMPS participants. “It takes that first year to become competent and independent, but after that, they are a real asset to the lab. Because they came in early, they get on papers and provide real contributions.”
For example, Amanuel Asras ’22 was a CHAMPS student in summer 2019 and continues to work in the Crane lab. “I love the lab and my mentors, so I’ve stuck with the same lab,” Asras said. “CHAMPS also helped me get into the McNair Scholars Program for students interested in getting Ph.D.s.” His summer research has involved trying to understand the molecular events that allow bacteria to sense chemical changes in their environment. Under the direction of postdoctoral fellow Siddarth Chandrasekaran, Asras has contributed important data to a study soon to be submitted for publication.
Emmanuella Brewu-Sarpong ’23 has been learning how to purify compounds and grow and take care of cells this summer in the lab of Mikail Abbasov, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology (A&S). The experience has opened her eyes to an exciting range of options – ones that she continues to explore in the lab with the help of her mentors.
“I know that I want to do something in health care. But now that I’m doing research, I also really like that, so I’m not sure exactly what direction I’ll go,” she said.
One unexpected, but welcome, effect of the program over the years has been the sense of community it creates among the students.
“They are the ones to go to if you have any questions or wonder about the future,” Asras said. “You know they’re there to help you out.”
Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.