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Episode 5, Part 1: Training the Next Generation of Cancer Providers

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Episode 5, Part 1: Training the Next Generation of Cancer Providers

Mar 05, 2024
Don Ayer and Anna Marsden talk about the PathMaker program, special mentorship program that gives bright students from tough circumstances a chance to work in the lab alongside cancer investigators.


Heather Simonsen, MA
Public Affairs Manager


Don Ayer, PhD
Senior director of Cancer Training and Career Enhancement at Huntsman Cancer Institute
Professor and director of Faculty Affairs, Department of Oncological Sciences at the University of Utah


Anna Marsden, MBA
Senior manager of Programs to Enhance Diversity at Huntsman Cancer Institute

Welcome and Introductions (00:51)

Heather Simonsen: Welcome to Cancer-Free Frontier, where we ask the question, how can we deliver a cancer free frontier? I'm your host and executive producer Heather Simonson. Today, we're talking about some incredible programs at Huntsman Cancer Institute, to train the next generation of scientists. Many of these brilliant budding scientists come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, and some come from countries dealing with political instability and violence. We are so fortunate today to have my friend, Don Ayer PhD, Senior Director of Cancer Training and Career Enhancement at Huntsman Cancer Institute, and Professor in the Department of Oncological Sciences at the University of Utah. Welcome.

Don Ayer: Thank you, Heather, and very happy to be here.

Heather Simonsen: Well, we're so glad that you're here. Don and I know each other, I interviewed Don when I was a health reporter at KSL TV. And I learned a lot about these programs then, and since I've been at Huntsman Cancer Institute, and I am a big fan. I just think that they are amazing. And I get the sense from working with you and others on your team that you just really love these students.

Don Ayer: You know, that's absolutely true. And I will say that early in one's sort of academic career, I think one is very interested in, you know, what's the next accomplishment that I can achieve personally? But as one matures, and sort of goes along in their career path, it becomes much more about how can we help somebody else? How can we help somebody else achieve their dream, move up the ladder, really provide opportunities that, you know, they may not otherwise have. So, you know, that's the thing that at this stage of my career really motivates me, is really trying to open doors for others. And you know, these students have such amazing stories. They're so full of curiosity, they're so interested, and it's just a real pleasure to work with them. And I think, you use the word love, I don't think that's an understatement.

How diversity and inclusion leads to better health care (03:01)

Heather Simonsen: Well, I can tell, you know? I mean, you can tell that it's just such a passion and so important to you and your team, and, frankly, to cancer research. When you think about these brilliant students, truly, who have some obstacles to face, to be able to, you know, really dive in and learn about science and learn if this is, you know, the path they want to go. Who knows what kind of discoveries they'll make for cancer?

Don Ayer: Sure, that's absolutely true. You know, you mentioned our goal of achieving a cancer-free frontier, and training the next generation of cancer researchers is the key to that. People exit the sort of cancer research workforce all the time. So, we need to keep a strong pipeline of investigators, of young scientists, young learners, filling in that pipeline from the bottom. And, you know, I think the data shows that the more diverse workforce you have, the better it is for creativity, for innovation, for discovery. I think the data also shows that patients from underrepresented groups actually receive much better clinical care if they're actually treated by a patient that's so much of them demographically, racially and ethnically.

Heather Simonsen: Yeah. So in other words, having people in these positions as clinicians, scientists. For the younger generation, like thinking forward, having somebody in this position who looks like you, is so important, is that right?

Don Ayer: Incredibly important. And I think somebody who understands, you know, what it's like to be in those very same shoes. I think that is our ultimate goal, is how can we deliver the best clinical care? And I think having a diverse population of clinicians is certainly one answer to that quandary.

Heather Simonsen: For sure. And going to the doctor and seeing people from your community, people who look like you and who are like you, that creates better health care, as you said. And, really, equity, diversity, and inclusion is good for all of us.

Don Ayer: Absolutely. I think there's just a level of comfort that a patient might have by having a physician that shares some of their story.

Cultivating the next generation of cancer specialists through PathMaker Scholars (05:27)

Heather Simonsen: For sure. And then again, who knows who might have a cure? You know? Because I have been so impressed by these students, they're so incredible. And let's talk about these programs, let's break them down a little bit. First PathMaker, tell us about PathMaker.

Don Ayer: Yeah, so PathMaker is, really, probably calling it our flagship program is not an understatement. This program was started in 2016, it was started by a former vice president of Health Equity and Inclusion at the University of Utah, a physician by the name of Anna Maria Lopez. So, she started this program with institutional funds, and that eventually transitioned to supplementary grants, to our cancer center support grant. And in 2018, we were able to apply to the National Cancer Institute for something that's called an R25 Youth Enjoy Science grant, and we were lucky enough to get a perfect score on that application.

And when I say we, it was really, none of this happens in isolation. Myself and Dr. Kola Okuyemi were the PI's, the principal investigators, of this grant and worked with, you know, a team of very skilled writers to create a narrative that the reviewers at the National Cancer Institute found compelling. And they were able to fund us for five years at about, to the tune of about half a million dollars a year. And using those funds, we can, you know, we can support roughly 25, late-stage high school, early-stage undergraduates for 10-week research experiences in Huntsman Cancer Institute labs. And, you know, there's a little bit of extra juice in that we also fund middle school and high school teachers to come to the institute for a little bit shorter of a time in the summer, but they actually do active bench research. But what I think is really interesting is they also develop a cancer curriculum that they can take back to their students. 

So, you know, we think this is a really great way to increase the impact of our program. You know, as opposed to one-on-one mentorship, which is great, we now take, you know, one-to-30, or however large these high school teacher’s classrooms are. And so, we think that's a great way to increase the impact.

Teaching teachers through the PathMaker Bridge program (07:58)

Heather Simonsen: Well, and isn't that called the PathMaker Bridge?

Don Ayer: That’s called the PathMaker Bridge Program. And, you know, these teachers are just so enthusiastic. And by rough estimate, I think we've reached over 1000 middle school and high school kids who are in these teacher’s classes. And yeah, just getting them exposure to thinking about what cancer really is, because I think for, you know, especially for young people in that age group, maybe they have some experience with cancer from a family member, etc., but I don't think it's super common. So even trying to understand cancer from its very beginnings, I think is not something that the students are that familiar with.

Heather Simonsen: Yeah, and if you're teaching a teacher, I mean, the ripple effect of that work, like you say, is amazing.

Don Ayer: Yeah, I guess that’s my exact point.

The importance of empowering women in STEM (08:50)

Heather Simonsen: Yeah, wow. And you also have the summer research experience in oncology for young women, students in high school, or young students who identify as a woman. Tell us about that.

Don Ayer: Yeah, so this is a really neat program. So, the American Cancer Society has built a division within their extramural grant portfolio that's interested in reducing health disparities, providing opportunities for underrepresented students. And we were approached by the American Cancer Society about three and a half years ago, to see if we wanted to be part of a pilot project to test out this summer health care experience in oncology program. And, you know, we gladly accepted. We're in very good company, there's only nine other cancer centers across the entire country that were invited to participate in this opportunity. And what it is, is it's a two-week virtual opportunity for kids from the Intermountain West, for young women from the Intermountain West. And by Intermountain West I mean our area we serve, which is Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana and…

Heather Simonsen: Idaho.

Don Ayer: Idaho! I had my fingers out, I was counting. And you know, it's really neat because these young people can do this virtually. They actually we work with a company called eClose, which is a not for profit, that generates a, they have a small sort of lab-in-a-box kit that they send to the participants. So, the very first week is they're actually doing a little experiment on their kitchen table using fruit flies. Which is a great experimental model system, it's very straightforward. So, they actually get their hands dirty a little bit. And probably to the, you know, the consternation of their parents, probably get gunk over their kitchen table.

Heather Simonsen: Sure, yeah.

Don Ayer: But you know, then the next week is all about learning more about the cancer problem, there's career development activities. So, I think it's a really great way to introduce young people to the aspect of what does research look like? Even a glimpse, I think, is really valuable. And I think the other thing that's sort of an unintended consequence is that these young people who participate in the SHE program, sort of, we don't view it as a formal pipeline program to PathMaker program, but we definitely have students who are applying to PathMaker who have participated in the SHE program in the past. So, I think this is exposing students early to a career in science and keeping them interested, I think you have to have as many touch points along the way. I think a one-off experience is useful, but it's not as useful as multiple experiences in a row.

Heather Simonsen: I love what you're saying there, because it's like sticking with that and developing that talent. And I'm glad you named the program, the SHE program, which stands for summer…

Don Ayer: Summer Healthcare Experience in Oncology.

Heather Simonsen: Great. And Don, what does that do for a young woman, or a young person who identifies as a woman, to have that experience? I mean, we've come so far in science and STEM and, you know, encouraging young women to be a part of it, but we still have a long way to go.

Don Ayer: You know, I think it's really foundational to give these people the experience. I think the data shows, or the data does show, that in elementary school young boys and young girls sort of have the same affinity and the same curiosity for science. But over time, it flips a little bit. And sort of, I think we know from just gender norms, that young men seem to be more interested in STEM fields, whereas young women are not.

I think reversing that is important, and I think the more experience we can give to young women I think is a great opportunity just to try to diversify the workforce. And what's interesting, I think, is that our PathMaker program is made up mostly of young women, it's about a 60/40 ratio. And I think there's a number of potential reasons for that, which I don't think we need to get into, but it is interesting. And the data also shows that most undergrad institutions are starting to become more female than male, most of our PhD students are female versus male, and again, it's about a 60/40 ratio. But by the time you start to get into faculty positions, it switches, and it's much more male dominated. And I think there's a lot of reasons for that, that's probably a conversation for a different time. So, I think getting more women into the workforce is, it's just an incredible opportunity. And we not only consider ethnic diversity, but we also consider gender diversity.

Heather Simonsen: Yeah, I think that's so important. I'm the daughter of a PhD mathematician, and so, too bad that the gene skipped a generation with me, but, it was also, I felt like, coming up in school when I did, it wasn't cool as a girl to be smart. Period. I hate to say that, but it's the truth. In junior high, in high school, and definitely not smart in science. And I'm so glad to hear that that's changing. I have two daughters, and I would just be so thrilled to see them go into medicine and science, because I just have such a deep respect for what you do, and especially what you're doing for the students. So, thank you.

Expanding cancer education access to all (14:43)

Heather Simonsen: You also have the summer enrichment month. Tell me about that. And that's sponsored by Columbia University, and the cancer center there?

Don Ayer: Yeah, the summer enrichment month is really our response, and I have to say, it's only a partial response so far. So, the problem with the PathMaker program and the SHE program is they're so limited in the number of students we can actually take. You know, for example, for the PathMaker program, we generally average about 100 applicants every single year for about 12 spots. And for the SHE program, last year we had 160 applications for 20 spots. So, there's a lot of kids who are going away disappointed. And so, in some ways, we might be having exactly the opposite effect and outcome that we want. We want to encourage these young learners, but I think at that age getting a no, you know, by the time you're our age, you've heard no a lot, but if you're a young person hearing no for the very first time from something that you may have your heart set on, that might steer you away from science.

Heather Simonsen: Oh, totally. And you don't have that perspective of like any success, any successful person has had a lot of noes in their lifetime.

Don Ayer: Well, I think that, you know, I think it helps you be successful, because that builds resiliency and stick-to-itiveness. So, the summer enrichment month is really our solution. So, summer enrichment month is a month of virtual, sort of online cancer classes, creative element activities so that the students who don't get in our programs, they at least have an option of logging on every day for a month, in the month of July, to learn about the cancer problem. And I think what's really neat too, is they have breakout groups. Students from Utah, Idaho, Montana, etc., they can interact with students who are more sort of New York City Central, because this is sponsored by Columbia University. So, I think it's an interesting way to bring together kids from across the country to interact in a pretty informal and pretty unthreatening environment. Right? I mean, there's only one benefit to the pandemic, I can see. And that's getting used to being on Zoom, and feeling comfortable being on Zoom.

Heather Simonsen: Absolutely. In that way, it opened up the world. And tell me about cancer research and Cancer Education and Prevention Day.

Don Ayer: Yeah, we do a lot of community outreach type of events, and that's also part of our PathMaker grant. There's, you know, you already mentioned, we talked about PathMaker Scholars, PathMaker Bridge, but we also have PathMaker Connect. And that's where we go out into the community, and sometimes we do that in partnership with our community outreach and engagement team, and we provide cancer education materials. We have a pretty robust curriculum on sunscreen use and skin cancer prevention that we talk to high school students about, and we tell them just how bad tanning beds are.

Heather Simonsen: Yes! Oh my gosh.

Don Ayer: We really try to connect to the community. And I think that's useful for several different reasons, right? Getting the parents of these kids engaged in what it might look like for their son or daughter to go into medicine or biomedical research. You know, I think a lot of parents, I think we certainly did when our daughter was going up through high school, it's like, you really want to be a doctor, right?

Heather Simonsen: Subtle, subtle.

Don Ayer: But no, I think, lawyer engineer, you know, I think those are the canonical things that people think about as they transition from high school into college. But you know, a career in biomedical research is just as incredibly rewarding. And I think getting people to understand that it's not just doctor, lawyer, engineer. That you can have a really robust and interesting career as a scientist is something we try to stress in these community visits.

The endless possibilities of cancer research (18:49)

Heather Simonsen: Well, also, it's such an exciting time in cancer research. I mean, there are so many cancers where we’re to the point where it's stage four cancer that's treatable, which never used to happen, and immunotherapy, and precision medicine. I mean, what an exciting time to be a cancer researcher.

Don Ayer: Oh, I would say it's unprecedented. You know, when I was a student, a lot of it was trying to get there first. And you could do that through just a lot of really hard work. But now, I think for some of these things you mentioned, it's really more about are you asking the right question? Are you creative? Because the tools that we have available, are really the state of the art. And I think it was roughly 20 years ago, the first human genome was sequenced. I was looking at a paper just this morning, in fact, it said this particular group compared the genome sequences from over 16,000 individuals trying to sort of unravel what mutations throughout the genome mean, from a disease sense. So, I think just the tools are amazing.

There was a really important announcement just last week about using CRISPR gene editing for sickle cell anemia cure, this is a technology that's only been around for a little over 10 years and it's really revolutionized medicine. And I mean, I guess I'm gonna put on my sort of little science preachy hat, and that you never know, when you fund basic research, what you're going to get. And CRISPR editing, like I mentioned, has revolutionized science. And it really came out of a very basic study, trying to understand how bacteria prevent infection from the viruses that infect them. And I think if you're always looking for the cure, not trying to understand the underlying mechanisms, you're missing something. But it is really an incredible time, as you said, as a scientist. I'm not sure I'd want to go back and start over again now, but I think it's really a fantastic time to sort of be involved in biomedical research and whatever area you find interesting.

Heather Simonsen: Totally, and, you know, it used to be that the treatments were more uniform for whatever cancer type you had. And now, like, you’re testing the person's DNA, the DNA of the tumor, and then taking that science and that information to come up with the precise treatment that's most likely to work and that a person's most likely to tolerate. I mean, incredible.

Don Ayer: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think we can sort of tailor match treatments. But even when you tailor match, and even with immunotherapy, there's, you know, still a pretty large percentage of the people who don't respond. So, understanding why people don't respond is going to be incredibly valuable going forward. And I think we're sort of approaching, for a lack of a better term, cures for many cancers, but we still have a long way to go.

PathMaker stories of success (21:55)

Heather Simonsen: Yes, we do. And with medicines that work for a while, and then stop working, figuring out why that is, and figuring out ways to overcome it. But to have these students that are coming up in these programs, you mentioned being a part of that, you're starting to see some of the success. I know one of your first PathMaker students is in med school?

Don Ayer: Oh, it's more than just one, I can give you a little bit of statistics. You know, we have had, I think it's 88 students who've come through the PathMaker program over the years? 86 of them have gone on to college, which I think is great track record. That's what, 98%? Many of the students, especially from our first cohorts, you know, they've completed their undergraduate degrees, many of them are out there in the workforce. Certainly, going to medical school is not the only metric of success, but about 10%, I think it's eight or nine students from our previous PathMaker cohorts, have gone on to medical school. We have a couple in MD PhD programs. I think it's considered that Duke University is sort of one of the very top MD PhD programs in the country, and we have one young man, Ruben Cano, who was in our very first PathMaker cohort who's in his third year of the MD PhD program at Duke. And he is just such a wonderful person, and I think he appreciates the value that PathMaker added to his career journey. And he's on our external advisory board, he helps us select the next cohort of PathMaker students. So, I think he really sees the value that we have added to his professional career. And a dream of mine is, maybe not Ruben, but someday, I hope we are able to recruit a PathMaker student that was in our program 10 years prior, to come back to the University of Utah as a faculty member. I would be so happy if that happened.

Heather Simonsen: I feel like that is very possible.

Don Ayer: I hope so.

Seeing the fruits of labor and long-term rewards (24:03)

Heather Simonsen: That's exciting to think about. And, again, I can just see in in your eyes and your facial expressions, just how much these students mean to you and this program means to you. Can you put into words what the most rewarding part of this work is for you?

Don Ayer: You know, I guess I'd answer that in a couple of different ways. Some people do this and find out that science is actually not for them, and I actually consider that a win. Maybe not the win we would like, but you know, my goal, as a mentor and a trainer, is to really help people along their path to figure out what is it that makes them fulfilled? What do they find interesting? Because ultimately, I think that's our goal. To really help people along their pathway. We'd love for them to all be HCI scientists, but that's probably not going to happen. But for me personally, just being able to help these young learners in some small way launch their careers, because I just think they have so much promise and I find them so inspiring. Some of their backstories are so heartbreaking, but inspiring at the same time, if you know what I mean. You know, we have students in our programs who were refugees in Nepal for virtually their entire lives, then they moved to the United States as part of a refugee relocation program. They don't speak the language, and yet three or four years later, here they are applying to the PathMaker program and just doing fantastic things.

Heather Simonsen: Yeah, and you think about, gosh, life can be hard when you've got the deck stacked in your favor.

Don Ayer: Oh, absolutely.

Heather Simonsen: You know, and then you think about growing up in a war-torn country and having to flee to a place where you don't speak the language, where your parents aren't trained in a profession where they can work and earn at the same level they could before. Like, everything would change, everything would be new.

Don Ayer: No, I think that's absolutely true. And I mean, I really, I don't think inspirational is, I don't think that's hyperbolic at all. But I think what these kids have been able to do, and I think, you know, watching how they develop, and watching where they end up, I think that's the part that's most rewarding for me.

Consistency and collaboration in pursuit of a cancer-free frontier (26:28)

Heather Simonsen: It's rewarding for me just to hear you talk about it. I just, I love this work so much. Finally, Don, what does it mean to you to deliver a cancer-free frontier?

Don Ayer: Yeah, I've been at Huntsman Cancer Institute since the very beginning, since 1995. I don't naturally know of anybody on the lab side has been here longer than I have. So, you know, I've really had the extreme pleasure of watching HCI grow up. It was such a different place in the very beginning. I could literally count the number of Huntsman Cancer Institute employees on one hand, and now we have over 3000. So, watching the growth of the cancer institute has been an incredible, professional privilege. And I think the danger is, when you get big, you sort of lose focus on the mission. I think that's one thing that I've really found so incredible about our cancer center is that drive to have a cancer-free frontier is always right front and center, and I don't think we've ever lost that over time. And for me, sort of the commitment to that, that's what I think about the institute, is the commitment to a cancer-free frontier and always really trying to push that forward. Whether it be on the research side, the training side, the clinical side, I think we have a reputation for being collegial, collaborative, and what I really love is I think we all row in the same direction. Every once in a while the oars kind of get out of whack, and we don't quite make it, but we're always heading in the right direction. And I think that's what I've really enjoyed about working at here. Yeah, since 1995,

Heather Simonsen: And PathMaker, PathMaker Bridge, the summer programs, you mentioned Five for the Fight, which we didn't have a chance to talk about, but is also a huge part of what you're talking about in that cancer-free frontier that we are all hoping for and working so hard to achieve.

Don Ayer: Indeed.

Heather Simonsen: Well, it's been such a pleasure having you here, Don. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your expertise with us today.

Don Ayer: Well, thank you, Heather.

Welcome, Anna Marsden, senior manager of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (28:48)

Heather Simonsen: Now we're fortunate to talk with Anna Marsden, Senior Manager of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Anna, welcome.

Anna Marsden: Hi, thank you for having me.

Heather Simonsen: So glad you're here, I'm a big admirer of your work. And when we interviewed Don a little earlier on our show, he just raved. He said okay, this is all because of Anna.

Anna Marsden: Oh, that's so sweet.

Heather Simonsen: And he just said, because you love these kids.

Anna Marsden: I do, I do. I joke that this program was my first child. I now have two real biological children, but yeah, I pretend. I tell all the real students that this program is like my first baby. So, I respect the program, because it's my child.

Heather Simonsen: That's right. And you can tell, you can tell because you do such extraordinary work.

Anna Marsden: Thank you.

How personal loss instigated a career of caring (29:45)

Heather Simonsen: Let's start with a little bit about your “why”. Your father had cancer, right?

Anna Marsden: He did. He had cholangiocarcinoma. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, but cancer of the bile duct, diagnosed in 2010. No, I'm sorry, passed away in 2010, diagnosed in 2007. He was treated elsewhere first and then his oncologist transferred him to Huntsman. He just loved Huntsman. We actually had his celebration of life at Huntsman in the auditorium, which is pretty wild now. When I'm up there, and I'm in that big auditorium, the view I'm like, it's pretty, it's interesting, but not a lot of people know that. So now everyone knows.

Heather Simonsen: Yeah.

Anna Marsden: But yeah, he loved Huntsman. And I have no background in science or healthcare at all. I have a degree in economics, and a business degree, and I've worked in all sorts of industries. I always wanted to work in marketing, but after college, I actually interned at the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. Because I wanted to work there, I wanted to be a part of Huntsman in some capacity. So originally, I was at the foundation, and then I moved, I bounced around, and then I finally came back to Utah. And I applied to every job I found at Huntsman that I thought I'd be potentially qualified for without having any sort of, you know, background in this space whatsoever. And I tripped and fell headfirst into the job that I landed at the time, which was with the original faculty member and original investigator who wrote the original grant for the PathMaker program. Her name is Dr. Anna Maria Lopez, she was wonderful. And I actually kind of had another job with her, and then we piloted this program. And then, you know, I slowly kind of transitioned to just doing that program full time over several years.

Heather Simonsen: So, it sounds like it was meant to be. And yeah, thank you for sharing that about your dad. And I'm so sorry for your loss.

Anna Marsden: Thank you.

Heather Simonsen: What an extraordinary wealth of experience, though, that you bring to your job. I mean, you mentioned like the auditorium, you know, that that has special meaning for you. And having your father as a patient I'm sure really helps with that mission part of the job.

Anna Marsden: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I, you know, I can remember being a person lost in that building, right? Like I can remember walking around not knowing how to get from the lobby of the hospital over to the infusion room, which used to be in research north on the second floor. So, every time I see some person walking around looking lost, I’m like, “I was you, let me help you.” So that's what I really like about being up there, too. It's just, and I don't get to interact with patients a lot, right? So I think that that's really what drove me to really, really enjoy working with the students, too. You get that one-on-one interaction with somebody, like on a personal level, that's kind of impacting things in a different way. I don't get that as much with faculty. So, it's fun working with young people that are very passionate about science and wanting to help in any way. So yeah, I mean, I think it's a weird blend for me of like, the personal touch, and then kind of loving and helping people grow.

Loving these students is more than just a job (33:31)

Heather Simonsen: Yeah. Well, and really extraordinary young people who you're working with. Budding scientists, who, you know, have so much to offer. Tell me a little bit about the PathMaker program and the students you've met. I mean, I'm sure you’ve had an amazing experience.

Anna Marsden: Yeah, wow. There's so many students. Over the years, this program started in, it’s like, I shouldn't know the exact date, but I think it’s 2016, I believe, was the first summer cohort that we had. And the students can be, you know, late high school, early undergraduate students. And the program is primarily for students that are from backgrounds that are, you know, underrepresented in science and in any capacity. So, you know, that's women, that's rural students, low income, first generation, racial, ethnic minorities. So, these students have the most, you know, insane stories. Beautiful backgrounds, that for me, as a very privileged white woman who grew up on the east bench of Salt Lake City, I personally could not relate to 99% of these kids. So, they teach me things every single day. Which is like, the biggest privilege for me to be able to work with them and learn from them. But then also, you know, help them grow on an individual basis as a person, and then let them work with these amazing faculty to grow in science and in their education. It's really fun working with them. They come to the University of Utah, obviously work at Huntsman, but they live at the University of Utah campus for 10 weeks during the summer. The students do not have to be local. They can, you know, be from really anywhere in the United States.

Heather Simonsen: You mentioned how much you love the students. I've been on shoots with you as a public affairs manager, and I can tell that, I mean, these are your kids, like you feel like, right? I mean, it goes beyond just a job.

Anna Marsden: Yeah. I definitely am very protective over these students. And, yeah, I mean, I like to make sure they feel safe and they feel like they have someone that is here, like physically on site. Because like I mentioned, you know, these students are living on campus, they're away from their family. For many of them, it's the first time they've been away from their family. So having somebody there to take care of them is just like, innate. I want to be their summer mom. Now that I've sort of like, grown into other roles, we all joke now in the past couple years, I'm now their summer grandma. We have other wonderful staff that lead this program, last summer and going forward. But yeah, I mean, I really, I really care about them and their growth as like an individual. If they decide after this program, they're like, “Oh, I, you know, science is actually not for me, this is not my path.” Like, that's a victory, that's fine. You learn that now when you're 18, 19, 20, versus pursuing medical school and going down that path and then realizing when you're like pre-med, or you're in medical school, that you do not want to do this. Which you hear about, right? People have that experience.

But we have so many kids that have gone on to do like, the coolest things. And you know, we started the program in 2016, and here we are now in 2024. So now we're seeing those outcomes with these students. You know, from the first year when they were juniors in high school, when they applied and went through our program, and they got accepted to wonderful colleges and universities. And now these students are in medical school or in PhD programs at places like the University of Utah. We have several students in medical school there. But we have students in medical school, an MD PhD student at Duke, we have a PhD student at Brown, we have a lot of students that are still in their undergraduate years at Columbia, at Brown. I think we have one at NYU. We have many at the University of Utah. We have students at like SUU, Southern Utah University, a lot in the state of Utah. We have some in California and the West Coast, one in Oregon. I mean, they're all over the country. And there's still a lot that, to this day, they'll email me for like a letter of recommendation for something, which is always so fun. So yeah, I mean, I love it. I love the students. And I love the teachers, too. We have teachers that participate in our program as well, which are wonderful.

PathMaker Bridge and its ripple effect from teachers (38:20)

Heather Simonsen: Yes. Let's talk about that because really, you know, training teachers through the PathMaker Bridge program, I mean, think how many students they will influence, right? And that's the idea.

Anna Marsden: Right, right. So back in 2016, the program just started with a small cohort of students. When we, over the years we got more funding, and we expanded that up to, like, 12 to 14 students. And then we got more funding that we could bring students back for two consecutive years. Around that time, I think that's 2019, we got additional funding to add a teacher program. And so, in 2019, technically it didn't launch until 2021 because of COVID, but in 2021, we were able to bring in four teachers for our first PathMaker Bridge program. So, these teachers are middle to maybe early high school teachers, is the group that we kind of primarily focus on, that are obviously science teachers. In the state of Utah, we focus on the state of Utah.

We have so many wonderful applicants, always, but the for the first group of four teachers we had, we'd never worked with teachers, so the first time I was kind of shocked and blown away at the excitement from the teachers. And they follow the same model, so we bring them in for a research experience with the goal of taking back cancer education or cancer curriculum back to their classroom. And, you know, over the years, these first initial four teachers, right, since 2021, have reached over 1000 students with some sort of curriculum that was developed based off of this research project they did with a scientist at Huntsman Cancer Institute. And I think you'll be hearing from one later, but the feedback and the information you hear from these teachers is just how much this program impacted them as an individual and their learning. And then how they were able to translate that into exciting education and exciting curriculum for their young learners, like their eighth graders.

What's really neat is the faculty that have hosted these bridge teachers are also really excited to have these teachers, and knowing that these teachers are going back to these kids. And a lot of them have created these wonderful relationships that they actually, the faculty will go into these teacher’s classrooms, and will teach, like, will do hands on activities with these young kids. So, you know, and I think Deb will maybe talk about this later, but she really loved, she's told me that she's loved seeing her young children, like her young students see people that look like them. That are these, you know, scientists. They are these professionals that work at the University, and they do science every day for a living, right? So, I don't know, the reach of the teachers is just fascinating, right? Because PathMaker scholars, we've had, I think, around 84 students that have gone through the program, since it started in 2016. We have now had 12 bridge teachers and their reaches, you know, kind of…

Heather Simonsen: Hundreds.

Anna Marsden: 1000s. There's been so many.

The future of cancer care is unbiased and bright (41:45)

Heather Simonsen: Yeah, that’s amazing. I love what you said about, you know, seeing the scientist who looks like you, because when we have that example, how important is that? I mean, if we see it, we can do it, right? That's this spark, right? I mean, I think that's so profound, and so important. What do you think these students bring to the table that's unique? I mean, I've had the privilege of interviewing some of them, and I find an incredible resilience and determination to succeed. What have you found?

Anna Marsden: I mean, I think for me, working with young people, any young person, I feel like I'm always learning from them. Whether it's like, you know, the new lingo of what's cool to say or just like genuinely cool stuff that the youth knows that I don't; but also just being excited about the next generation of people. Like, I don't feel like I'm very old, but when I work with these students, I get excited about the future. I guess, because, and that sounds so cheesy, but you know, and in today's world, and at times, you can get very down on how things are moving lately, but then you interact with these students.

I have had the privilege to interact with them very closely, for several years, for 10 weeks day in and day out, and they are so smart. And they are so passionate, and they truly care about people, right? Like they care about themselves, but it's pretty remarkable that there's 19–22-year-old kids that already know, and they're driven, right, they already know that they want to be like an oncologist for a specific population. Like they already have this planned out. When I was that age, it was like so far, like, I still don't know what I want to do when I grew up, right? So, I don't know. I just think it's, they're like encouraging, but empowering, but also just like, so youthful, too that you like you want to help them and support them and guide them. But it's also like, they already have this path, and they're gonna go and you just need to almost like help them go a little bit. But they really are on it in you need to make them feel confident that they are. Because I think that's the thing that I've seen is it's like, sometimes the confidence isn't there.

Heather Simonsen: And it’s kind of the missing piece, right?

Anna Marsden: Yes.

Heather Simonsen: Like you bring a toolbox, right, to anything you want to do. And confidence is a part of that. A big part of it.

Anna Marsden: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

How inclusion can heal disparities in health care (44:48)

Heather Simonsen: Well, I think this is so important and, you know, encouraging that you have faith in the future, because of the work that you do. And talk to me a little bit about that. I mean, beyond the wonderful experience, this benefits science. And specifically, the science of cancer.

Anna Marsden: I mean, on so many levels, right? Because these young people that this program is primarily serving are from backgrounds that have been missed, right? In prior generations, you could say. So, you know, ideally, a lot of these students will go on and want to do research in areas that their background represents. There's a lot of cancer health disparities out there. Ideally, hopefully, a lot of these students will want to research how cancer impacts their community, or how cancer impacts people that have experienced the same backgrounds or disadvantages or privileges that they have, right? So that can change the outcomes of cancer care, that can change the outcomes of cancer treatments. Really, long term, it should have a significant impact on cancer. Like as a whole, period. Right? Not just care and treatment, but just cancer.

Heather Simonsen: Gosh, it's sobering if you think about it. Like, who has been missed. Who might have that potential to cure that type of cancer, or the ability that the world will never know. And then you think about the doors this opens and the potential breakthroughs.

Anna Marsden: Right, yeah. It's gonna be profound if you really think about it. But, yeah, I mean, and, you know, maybe even in other, like, diseases outside of cancer, because this isn't just cancer. There's not just disparities in cancer, right? There are disparities in all sorts of things. So perhaps one of these students just wants to study diabetes, anything else, and make an impact in that space. Really, all of them are gonna make an impact in whatever they do because they were all so, so wonderful. I mean, I can talk about, like, individual students. I can talk about them all day, but I'll save you.

It takes a village (47:17)

Heather Simonsen: I love hearing about it. And I just am so impressed with, again, with the work that you do, and the students who have come through this program. And, you know, it impresses me as being so forward thinking about the future and, and I love that.

Anna Marsden: Yeah, I love it, too. Honestly, it's really wonderful to be a part of it. And I, you know, I always joked if I could just keep doing it forever, I would, but, you know, I’ve got to help other people too. So, we have a wonderful team that runs the day to day, I'm still involved with our leadership, with Don, but it's just so wonderful. It's just grown, right? The program has grown so that not just one person can do it. Which is wonderful, right? That's the goal, is to scale these programs. So, we support more students, we support more teachers, we're making a bigger impact, but it's just bigger than what one person can handle now. So it's so fun to work with the students, but also the really passionate team that we get to work with, and all the faculty, right? And there’s the graduate students and the postdocs. I mean, it's not just me, right? Obviously, there's so many people that make a huge impact on these students lives.

They see me as like, you know, the outside of the lab mom, maybe, but the faculty that hosts these students, they are what makes the program successful. And their other trainees, like I said, their graduate students and their postdocs that are in their lab, are very hands on with the students, and they're the ones that are actually doing that training with them, right? And they're giving them that one-on-one experience and that mentorship. So, they really are what drives the success of the program outside of the, you know, admin, logistical folks behind the scenes. So, yeah, there's a lot of people involved. I just want to make sure I give them all a shout out, to all of those wonderful people, because they are huge.

Heather Simonsen: It takes a team.

Anna Marsden: It takes a village.

All gifts contribute to a cancer-free frontier (49:23)

Heather Simonsen: Yeah. Finally, Anna, I would love to ask you a question we ask all our guests and that is, what does a cancer free frontier mean to you?

Anna Marsden: Oh, man. I mean, not having cancer be a burden or a fear for people would be amazing, right? I mean, just as a person that has been impacted by cancer, I would love for nobody to experience what I've experienced. Like, honestly. That's the only thing that can come to my mind. Like, I would never want anyone to experience that. I mean, I don't know how to articulate that outside of that. Like, I would just love to not have anyone have to feel what that feels like.

Heather Simonsen: I think you articulated it beautifully. And do you think about your dad often in your work? Like that this is to honor him?

Anna Marsden: Yes? I mean, I think I think about him all the time, obviously. I think about, my dad was a very business oriented, he worked in finance, so I know that the way I operate in general is because of him. I think that I bring a lot of different skills and different viewpoints and different ways of doing things than people traditionally and academics. So, I know that he'd be proud of that. Sometimes I joke, I think he's like, “Oh, why aren’t you in finance? Why aren't you doing this, this and this?” But no, he wouldn't care, as long as I'm happy and successful. Key being he cares about success. But yeah, I think that he would be very thrilled to know that I work in a space that took such good care of him. Because he genuinely like, he was an impatient for a while, like he genuinely felt cared for there. So yes, I think that my dad would be very proud that I am giving back, and in the way that I think that I can contribute to patients. Even if it's an interesting path to get back to patients and families and caregivers, this is sort of like my way of kind of helping in some space.

Thank you (51:48)

Heather Simonsen: Yeah, in a profound, impactful way. Anna Marsden, it's just been such a pleasure to have you on the podcast today. Thank you for being here.

Anna Marsden: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It was wonderful.

Heather Simonsen: We extend our sincere gratitude to Don Ayer and Anna Marsden for being with us today on the podcast and sharing their experiences and expertise. Training the next generation of cancer providers and researchers makes such an impact in bringing care to the community. The students are our future and have the opportunity to grow and share with those around them. Coming up in part two of this episode, we'll sit down with a PathMaker student and teacher to learn about their experiences and their training at Huntsman Cancer Institute.

To our dedicated listeners, we appreciate your support. For additional resources, be sure to check out our show notes. And if you want to stay connected with us and be the first to know about our upcoming episodes. Don't forget to hit that subscribe button on your favorite podcast platform. And we would be so very grateful if you could take a moment and leave us a rating or review. Your feedback is so important and meaningful. And please tell your friends family about a podcast and share it on social media. We're always eager to hear from you whether you have questions, comments, suggestions for future topics, or a personal story you'd like to share, please visit our website, I'm your host and executive producer of a cancer free frontier Heather Simonsen. Avery Schrader is our producer with help from Carly Lehauli and Jill Woods. Thanks to the Communications and Public Affairs team at Huntsman Cancer Institute. We truly couldn't do this show without you. Also, a special thanks to the pod Mel and mix it six studios for their help with this episode.