Illustration of cancer cells

Student’s curiosity about his family’s cancer history fuels award-winning research project

Participant in Youth Engaged in Science, a National Cancer Institute-funded program at Case Western Reserve

Connor Harris, a science-minded teenager from Hudson, Ohio, wants to know why African-Americans die from colorectal cancer at a higher rate than other racial groups.

His curiosity, fueled by his own family history of cancer, led to a 2018 summer internship program at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center (CCCC) to engage underrepresented minorities in biomedical and cancer research.

Photo of Connor Harris explaining his research at Research ShowCase.
Connor Harris

Connor’s research during the Youth Engaged in Science Research Education Program earned him a bronze medal this past summer at a national NAACP science competition for aspiring scholars. The NAACP Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics is designed to encourage academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students.

His research project centered on a gene mutation that CCCC researchers first linked to colon cancer in African-Americans in 2015. Specifically, Connor engaged with Case Western Reserve scientists on a study to find out whether the EPHA6 gene protein, when mutated, locates to another part of the cell.

Youth Engaged in Science (YES) is a National Cancer Institute-funded program at Case Western Reserve for the past three years. Its goal is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities that enter the cancer care and cancer research professions.

“I feel that, for underrepresented minorities, this program is very important and can help a lot of people,” Connor said. “My mom and my granddad had cancer. Just being able to do this made me very happy.”

Connor, who attends Twinsburg High School, was attending University School when he participated in the summer research program. He said the the national competition in Detroit in July was a bit intimidating at first.

“There were a lot of smart kids. It was kind of overwhelming, but after the first or second day, I really started to love it more than fear it,” he said.

Nathan Berger, director of the Center for Science, Health and Society in the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, oversees the YES program and the related Scientific Enrichment Opportunity Program. About 70 students participate in both programs, engaging in hands-on, independent scientific research. The training culminates in a public research presentation symposium, where students share their findings with peers, parents and the community.

Increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in biomedical and health-care professions is important not only to provide students with enhanced career opportunities, but also because underrepresented minorities are considered more likely to understand and be concerned with health-care issues of the groups they represent.

“Connor is a very bright student who wanted to get involved in a science project and help his community,” Berger said. With regard to racial disparities in colorectal cancer, “he understands there is a problem, and he’s working on it.”

Students who recently went through the university’s programs for underrepresented minorities and graduated high school have continued on to colleges that include Case Western Reserve, Harvard University, Notre Dame University and University of Pennsylvania, Berger said.

“I am extremely proud of Connor, and this NAACP science award is a testament to his hard work, dedication, and achievements,” said Kishore Guda, associate professor at CCCC and Harris’ mentor for this project.  “Moreover, this prestigious award mechanism serves a motivating platform for Connor and students alike, reinforcing that the society as a whole is invested in the growth of our young students into successful scientists and professionals of the future.”