Like every 21st-century kid, I desperately searched the world of information at my fingertips. I wanted to understand. At first, the online articles, generally not written for a lay audience, were dauntingly complex. I spent hundreds of hours looking up word after word — trying to break down the language of science. But as I persisted, the languages of science and research began to come together. I began to grasp the meaning of cancer. By the time I turned 14, I also realized that I wanted to make a difference by doing my own research.
I was so naïve. I didn’t see why I couldn’t start immediately, but I really didn’t know where to begin. Neither of my parents are scientists — how was I going to gain access to a research lab?
Looking back, maybe a high school biology class would have been helpful. But I persisted and reached out to about 30 different local professors and scientists who studied cancer. Most conversations and e-mail exchanges included the same question:
“How young are you?” followed, soon thereafter, by a polite rejection.
Eventually, one professor at University of North Carolina-Charlotte gave me my big break. He never told me why he let me into his lab. Of course I was the youngest in the lab and did not get paid. There were some senior-year college students who did not acknowledge my presence. I was assigned to shadow a PhD candidate.
Fortunately, he realized that I wanted to do more than just read about cancer and watch him work. So he let me put on the latex gloves and perform such menial tasks as restocking pipet tips and cleaning dishes. But, at the same time, he took the time to listen to my ideas and spark scientific discussions. This was where my curiosity and longing to understand cancer transformed into my ability to design experiments to fight cancer. I was limited to using whatever supplies were left over in the lab from others’ experiments. I was able to carry out a meaningful project during the two and a half months I spent there.
That summer launched my research career. I spent the next two summers working in different labs on increasingly more sophisticated projects. From there, I started working at the renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center under the direction of oncologists Patrick Hwu and Jodi McKenzie.
This past summer, the Houston heat melted away all presumptions I had about my role as a scientist. In Charlotte, I had become accustomed to my colleagues having no expectations from me because of my age. I was the “little high school student” given the freedom to explore whatever I desired and receive any assistance with ease.
However, at MD Anderson, I quickly realized that I had entered an environment where doctors and professors expected a lot from me. In fact, they relied on me.
There’s a subtle beauty to working in the lab acknowledging that there is an urgent need for your work to be able to help the patient in the room right next door. I plan to continue working on my current research project this summer and throughout my college years.
The findings from this project are going to be tested in clinical trials in the next few years. This will hopefully lead to improved treatment for melanoma.
My mother was fortunate to have had a treatable form of skin cancer that was detected early and surgically addressed. I am grateful that the technology and skills were available to help her, but cancer still kills more than seven million people a year. More work through research needs to be done. My journey has barely just begun, and I cannot wait to continue my work!
Emily Ashkin is a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search 2015. She was chosen by her fellow finalists as the recipient of the Glenn T. Seaborg Award, a distinction honoring the late Nobel Prize–winning chemist. Emily is a senior at Providence Day School in Matthews, N.C.