For eight weeks, Christina Rupert has been culturing cancer cells in a temperature-controlled laboratory at Howard University. Robert Earl Rogers has been analyzing protein concentrations in unknown fluids at George Washington University, and Brooks Miller has been observing the effects of chemotherapeutic drugs on mouse leukemia cells at Georgetown University Hospital.

They are not professors, doctors, scientists or even college students. They are District high school students who have spent their summer researching the unknown, trying to unravel a few of the mysteries of science.

The students, 16 in all from eight private and public schools throughout the District, are participating in the American Cancer Society's Katherine Dulin Folger Junior Research Program, designed to motivate participants to work toward finding a cure for cancer.

Rupert's project was to test the effectiveness of retinol, a component of Vitamin A, on cells from human breast cancer patients. Her significant finding was that low doses of retinol slowed down the growth rate of the cancer cells, and with prolonged treatment, the cells changed form.

"Every woman is thinking about breast cancer," said Rupert, 17, a junior at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. She added that one out of 11 women in the United States will get breast cancer, 135,000 a year, and 40,000 a year will die of the disease.

Dr. Suresh Mohla, Rupert's mentor and associate director for cancer education at Howard University Cancer Center, said students Rupert's age are very impressionable. "That is one more youngster sensitized to the causes of cancer. This is something you will carry for the rest of your life," he said.

He added that decreasing the incidence of cancer starts with the young, "not when they are aged 45 when they are worried if they are going to get it."

Mohla said Rupert's findings will be tested by injecting cancer cells and doses of Vitamin A into athymic nude mice, mice born without a thymus gland and thus without the ability to reject foreign substances. The results, which will become evident in about one month, will help doctors and scientists treat the various stages of breast cancer, he said.

Rogers works under the supervision of Dr. Dan Drell and Vennie Deaz-Moore, chief technician of the lab for virus and cancer research at George Washington University. Rogers, a junior at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School, has been seeking ways to reduce the immune system's susceptibility to lung and colon cancer.

By determining the concentrations of protein in samples and using a protein very prominent in cow's blood as the basis for comparison, Rogers was able to gauge reactions and record his findings.

"I thought they were going to have me doing very difficult things that would require me to recall all my chemistry. I really didn't know what to expect," he said.

Rogers, whose father is a surgeon and mother is a lab technician, said he thinks more students, especially those in public schools, should be interested in the program. "I wanted to do something really beneficial," Rogers said. "The American Cancer Society is really going to have to hit them {public schools} over the head with this program."

Students must be recommended by their high school science department head to the society's 24-year-old program, funded by Katherine Dulin Folger, one of the founders of the society's District division and a member of its board of trustees. Winners are selected on the basis of an application, performance on a standardized scientific aptitude test and an interview. Upon completion of the program, all students receive a $300 stipend and are required to write a paper on their work and findings.

Miller, a junior at Washington International School interested in joining the Peace Corps and becoming involved in public health, tested the toxicities of drugs in cancer treatment by observing the effects of those drugs over a 72-hour period. His mentor, Dr. Aquilur Rahman, in the division of medical oncology at Georgetown University Hospital, said many drugs that treat cancer are harmful to other body organs.

The importance of Miller's study was to determine what drugs are "more specific for cancer and nonspecific for the normal organs of the body," he said.

Rahman said it is important that high school students receive hands-on experience in laboratory settings. "We really give them an incentive to go into the field of science and medicine. Even if they don't, it gives them an analytical capability and frame of mind to contemplate problems. And that applies, really, in every walk of life," he said.

Lois Callahan, director of public relations for the American Cancer Society, said more than 50 applicants applied to the program this year, but eight years ago, the applicant pool was "well over 100."

"Cancer research has become so much more sophisticated. We're on the verge of so many major breakthroughs that we weren't 10 years ago. To be a part of it has to be very exciting," she said.