On Tuesday, 40 school students from Canberra visited us to learn about cancer and how we’re working to cure it. For the budding scientists among them, it was a chance to find out what a career in medical research is really like.

Our scientists don’t spend all their time in the lab. Sometimes you’ll find them in front of a room of school students, waving a nerf gun or dodging screwed-up balls of paper. They’re part of a community outreach program called Kicking Cancer’s Butt, a program designed by our scientists to educate young people about cancer and cancer research.

Kicking Cancer’s Butt celebrated its 10th anniversary in March. It began as a joint initiative with the cancer support group CanTeen. Our scientists gave their presentations at CanTeen Healthy Living Camps in Sydney and Newcastle.

A roomful of children sit listening to a scientist presenting Kicking Cancer's Butt
Kicking Cancer’s Butt has been educating kids about cancer since 2008

Over the years, the program has been adapted to accommodate different audiences such as high school students. On Tuesday, 40 students from Narrabundah College, Canberra, visited us for a Kicking Cancer’s Butt presentation and a tour of our labs.

Careers in Kicking Cancer’s Butt

This time the focus was on careers in cancer research. And who better to give the students the lowdown on what it’s really like to be a scientist, than two young researchers? PhD student Ashleigh Fordham, and young post-doctoral researcher Dr Caroline Atkinson, gave their personal perspectives on a career in medical research.

At the age of five, Ashleigh knew what she wanted to do. That’s when her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Ashleigh thought, “when I grow up, I want to cure cancer”. Ashleigh’s currently in the final year of a PhD researching a rare childhood cancer called Inflammatory Myofibroblastic Tumour. She’s still just as motivated to make a difference.  “Every day I’m learning how rewarding a career in science can be,” she says.

Caroline studied chemistry, biology and maths at high school. At university she completed a degree in Biomedical Science, and then took a pathology/phlebotomy course to learn about patient care. Interacting with patients (particularly cancer patients) motivated her to do a Masters and PhD on breast and colon cancer, while also providing a good, stable job to fund those studies. Last year she joined our Experimental Therapeutics program to research a childhood cancer called neuroblastoma.

Here’s what we do

The young audience was told how cancer arises, and what our cancer researchers are doing to find cures. One approach is to identify treatments that target cancer cells specifically, without toxic side-effects on normal, healthy cells. Hence the screwed-up paper balls and nerf guns. The paper balls represent conventional chemotherapy, which hits normal cells as well as cancer cells. The nerf guns, with their laser sights, represent a targeted therapy that only hits cancer cells and leaves normal healthy cells unharmed.

PhD student Ashleigh Fordham points a nerf gun at a screen full of cancer cells to demonstrate the concept of targeted cancer therapy
PhD student Ashleigh Fordham demonstrates the concept of targeted cancer therapy

Ashleigh and Caroline briefly outlined their research projects and described a typical day. A career in cancer research provides the opportunity to do many different things. For example, you could be setting up an experiment in the lab, analysing data, discussing your results with other scientists, or presenting your work at a conference.

Empowering the next generation

One of the founders of Kicking Cancer’s Butt was our Researcher Development and Strategy Manager, Dr Amanda Philp. For her, the program is about empowering young people with knowledge, in a way they can relate to.

“Science can seem a nebulous thing. School students aren’t sure what a career in cancer research might look like. We try to give them an idea of what’s involved in getting there, and what it’s like day-to-day being a scientist,” she said.

After the presentation, the students were divided into groups and taken into the lab to see first-hand what our scientists do.

Find out how your school can visit us and be a part of Kicking Cancer’s Butt.

Top image: Dr Caroline Atkinson explains what cancer research involves



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