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North Hills students spend summer helping with cancer research

| Friday, Oct. 23, 2015, 9:27 p.m.
Alyssa Bell, 17, of Ross did cancer research in the summer of 2015 through the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Academy. She is a senior at North Hills High School.
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Alyssa Bell, 17, of Ross did cancer research in the summer of 2015 through the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Academy. She is a senior at North Hills High School.
Sarah Glatz, 17, of Ross did cancer research in the summer of 2015 through the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Academy. She is a senior at North Hills High School.
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Sarah Glatz, 17, of Ross did cancer research in the summer of 2015 through the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Academy. She is a senior at North Hills High School.

When describing the perfect summer for a high school student, going on vacation, catching up on sleep or hanging out with friends usually comes to mind; spending several weeks doing cancer research typically doesn't.

But that's exactly what two North Hills High School students did during their time away from the classroom.

Alyssa Bell and Sarah Glatz, both 17 and of Ross, were selected to be a part of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Academy this past summer.

Though just about to become high school seniors, Bell and Glatz were working alongside longtime cancer researchers.

Glatz participated at the Center for Integrated Oncology site in Cologne, Germany, which is open only to students fluent in German. She was the first American student in the program.

“Well, for me, I didn't really tell my mom the details of when I was applying, except what the program entailed. The one day, I was just like, ‘Hey, Mom, um, this doctor sent me an email, and he wants me to go to Germany for a month this summer, so he's going to call you later,” Glatz said.

Bell spent eight weeks with the Cancer Environment, Bioengineering, Imaging and Genetics program in Pittsburgh.

“I looked at two protein mutations that are involved in drug-resistant and prostate cancer and in what causes cystic fibrosis in children,” Bell said.

“The department that I was in was more on the bioengineering side of, like, making stuff that can help prevent cancer and things like growing organs, so that was really interesting.”

The Pitt Cancer Institute Academy, which was started by Dr. Michael Lotze, a Pitt professor, in 2008, allows students from around the world to learn about cancer and careers in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields.

“It actually has been one of the most gratifying things that I have done in my career. It is really great to see these young individuals who are ambitious, who want to play a role in the world,” said Lotze, 63, of Pittsburgh's Shadyside neighborhood.

Part of what drives Glatz and Bell to the field of cancer research is the fact that they have family members who have faced these illnesses.

“Cancer has always been an interest to me because when I was in second grade, my mom had breast cancer,” Glatz said. “It was just really amazing to finally see the science side when I was so used to seeing the personal side of cancer.”

Bell also has had relatives who have battled cancer.

“My aunt died of lung cancer. My grandpa died of a brain tumor,” she said.

Though both students want to continue their work in college, they do not have any plans set yet.

“From the very beginning of our program, about half have made the transition to the biomedical sciences and most of them cancer,” Lotze said about the young scholars who participate in Pitt's Cancer Institute Academy.

The students presented what they learned through a poster presentation during “Science 2015 — Unleashed!” — the University of Pittsburgh's 15th annual celebration of science and technology on Oct. 8.

“For me, this was sort of an exciting opportunity because it looked like something that was culminating of all of the things that I like,” Glatz said.

“And so it was just really amazing to finally see the science side when I was so used to seeing the personal side of cancer.”

Kyle Gorcey is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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