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Episode 5, Part 2: Training the Next Generation of Cancer Providers

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Episode 5, Part 2: Training the Next Generation of Cancer Providers

Mar 19, 2024
As immigrants to the United States, Jose Hernandez’s family faced tough odds. Jose learned resilience and applied it to his training alongside some of the brightest minds in oncology.


Heather Simonsen, MA
Public Affairs Senior Manager
Huntsman Cancer Institute


Jose Hernandez
PathMaker Scholar
Huntsman Cancer Institute


Deb Smith
Science teacher
Bryant Middle School for the Salt Lake Center of Science Education

Welcome and Introductions (00:51)

Jose Hernandez (left) standing next to Heather Simonsen in the recording studio
Jose Hernandez and Heather Simonsen in the recording studio
Jose Hernandez dressed as a dinosaur when he was a child
Jose Hernandez as a child

Heather Simonsen: Hello, and welcome to cancer free frontier podcast where we ask the question, how can we deliver a cancer free frontier? I'm your host and executive producer Heather Simonsen. So today we're talking with a budding young scientist and a science teacher who were part of an incredible research opportunity at Huntsman Cancer Institute called PathMaker. The mentorship program gives bright students from tough circumstances a chance to work and study right in the lab along with investigators. It also gives teachers who serve these students the opportunity to learn more about the science of cancer. We have with us today, Jose Hernandez, and Jose was a part of the first cohort of PathMaker. Welcome, Jose, so glad you're with us.

Jose Hernandez: Hi!

Heather Simonsen: Well, tell us a little bit about you. You went to Park City High School, right? And graduated from there.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, I was the class of 2023.

Difficult beginnings and a new found passion (01:54)

Heather Simonsen: And did you know then that you were interested in science?

Jose Hernandez: I did. So, my first sort of realization that science was what I wanted to go into was when I took my anatomy and physiology class at Park City High School. And I loved the teacher, my teacher was Miss Riziki. And I don't know why I hadn't really thought about a potential career in science before then, somehow learning about how the body works was really fascinating to me. I especially loved learning about the nervous system. I think that was my favorite unit. And hopefully, that's what I'll go into after I graduate college.

Heather Simonsen: So, it sounds like that class, and that teacher, made a huge impact. Shout out to her and all the great teachers out there. And you shared with me earlier that you grew up with some challenges. A single mom who worked full time, talk to us a little bit about that.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah. So, growing up, my mom was a single mom. My dad, when I was young, was deported, which was sort of very eventful. I’d say more eventful for my mom. Because at the time, I was, I think, younger than a year. But growing up, I think that the most challenging part for me was sort of realizing that my household was a little different than everybody else's. And it was a little challenging, especially when I'd be at the park and I'd see other kids playing with both their parents. But yeah, that was challenging. But my mom and I, we got through it together.

Heather Simonsen: I can’t imagine!

Jose Hernandez: She's my biggest support system, I'm very close with my mom.

Heather Simonsen: So glad to hear that. And where was your dad deported to?

Jose Hernandez: To Mexico, deported to Mexico. In this kind of a small town called Museo.

Heather Simonsen: And so that's where your family's from, your ancestors?

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, my dad's side. My mom is from Acapulco. Which is very beautiful, lots of beaches.

A personal experience demonstrates the importance of addressing the unseen struggles of marginalized communities (04:09)

Heather Simonsen: Yes. Well, thank you for sharing that with us. And, you actually had a health scare that really informed, you know, what you wanted to go into as far as a future career. What happened?

Jose Hernandez: So, I think it was April of 2019, I believe it was my sophomore year of high school. Maybe 2020. Not sure quite exactly the year, but it was my sophomore year and I was having some stomach pains. So, we went up to our local doctor's office and they did a quick ultrasound and they found a lesion, which originally, we were told was malignant and cancer. So, we were asked to come up to the Children's Hospital and that was very scary. I think I still remember that phone call, sort of the dreaded phone call, when we knew that something was up, but we were just waiting for our doctor to call us and let us know if it was malignant or not. And it was, and it was really sad. I remember, my mom and I, we both sort of started crying. And it was, it was scary. It wasn't until a couple months afterwards that a biopsy did confirm that the lesion was benign, which, to me was sort of a relief.

Heather Simonsen: I bet.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, I worried the most I would say about the cost, which I sort of realized, prevented me from being able to worry about myself and my own health. And I was more worried about the cost, which is why a program like PathMakers was so important because it really helps address all of the struggles that a lot of marginalized communities face. A lot of communities that you don't normally see in research and medicine.

Heather Simonsen: Oh, absolutely. And you also experienced, you know, that struggle of getting to those appointments when you have the health care challenge with a single mom working full time. I mean, that had to be really hard.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, it was definitely a challenge. I've always liked school, so it was also a challenge because doctor’s offices are usually open Monday through Friday, and I’m at school, and then my mom works. And yeah, that was definitely a very big challenge. Which is why when I heard that the Huntsman is getting another hospital, I believe you said in Utah County?

Heather Simonsen: Yes, in Utah County. Yes.

Jose Hernandez: So, I'm glad that there will be a lot more access for a lot of the other communities that have to drive really far.

How feeling that you belong can make all the difference (06:50)

Heather Simonsen: Yes. And for listeners, that will be a second Huntsman Cancer Institute campus in Vineyard. We announced that over the summer, and are so excited to bring care to more people. So, thank you so much for mentioning that, Jose. Tell us about your experience in PathMaker, who did you work with? Were you in the lab? Tell us about what you did.

Jose Hernandez: So, my first year I think that one of my biggest mentors was definitely Anna Marsden. She was an amazing support. And she was, I think, program manager that whole time. And then she was just very involved. Obviously, being a PathMaker scholar means being away from home for the summer, which as a high school student was definitely a big adjustment. But Anna made that really easy, and was always there to support me. Also, for the first, my first summer I was with the Rutter Lab, which was a biochemistry lab. And it was definitely very challenging. For me as a high school student, I’d only taken chemistry and biology. So, coming into sort of college lab, a very professional lab, was definitely a big challenge. It was a big obstacle that I had to overcome. And of course, I had my support systems. In particular, my lab mentor was a grad student, his name was Aaron, and he was very helpful. He definitely helped me especially learn about enzymes, which I learned about the following year in my AP Biology class. And it was really cool to get to class and for once sort of be the student who knew what we were talking about.

Heather Simonsen: And we interviewed Anna in part one of this episode, and I can see why you had such a great experience with her and with all the other mentors. And you mentioned that this experience also really helped you feel like you belonged. Talk to me about that and the importance of feeling like you belong.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah. So, as a first-generation student, I don't know a lot of people from my family and furthermore, from my community, my Latino community, that have pursued doctorate degrees, college degrees, or chose to work in research. So, I definitely, at the beginning, didn't feel like I belonged. I sort of felt like maybe I didn't have enough qualifications, like I wasn't prepared enough. But it was definitely through PathMakers, and seeing all the support systems, and getting into the lab, and seeing more people like me really making a change that I sort of realized that there was a place for me in science. And that I did belong, and that my confusion at the beginning wasn't because of me as a person but just because I hadn't gone through college yet and hadn't learned all the things that these amazing scientists have.

Heather Simonsen: Well, gosh, that's just, it's so profound to me when you say that. It's easy to underestimate how important that is. Because when we aren't familiar, or we don't feel like we belong, we tend to go the other direction. Right? And so this belonging, I don't know, that just gave me a chills moment, because that made all the difference. Do you agree?

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, because I felt like I haven't belonged before. And yeah, I definitely walked away from those amazing opportunities and PathMakers, and especially Anna, and then my lab mentors, really inspired me to keep going and reassured me that I deserve to be there.

Heather Simonsen: Absolutely. And did it help build your confidence as well?

Jose Hernandez: It did. I’d say it definitely helped build my confidence a lot more, like I mentioned, especially when I got into those AP science classes, and I knew what I was talking about. And then, furthermore, now that I'm in college, especially I feel like I belong. And when I get into my chemistry labs, and all that, which they can be daunting as three-hour labs, but I sort of have done a lot of the procedures. So, I definitely feel more confident in my ability to succeed.

Heather Simonsen: Your parents must be so proud of you.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, she definitely is. It's a bit of a challenge, because my mom made it through some of high school, she didn't make it through all of high school. So, me going to college, it's hard to sort of talk with my mom about what I'm studying, and everything that I've learned. But she's always interested, even if she doesn't understand what I'm talking about. She always supports me in my journey.

The endless possibilities for a bright young mind (11:53)

Heather Simonsen: And we should mention you're a freshman at the University of Utah.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah.

Heather Simonsen: Tell us what you're studying.

Jose Hernandez: So, I am studying biomedical engineering. I've always liked math.

Heather Simonsen: Just something very light, a very light topic. Wow, that’s impressive.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, I've always liked math and science, and then I realized that I really like learning about how things work, like the human body. So, I found biomedical engineering to be the perfect match. And the classes are hard, I won't lie, but I think they're fun. They're interesting; I like when I actually understand something and I can apply it to the real world.

Heather Simonsen: So, let's talk about that. What do you hope to do in your career?

Jose Hernandez: Right now, I am, of course, an undergrad student, but I'm hoping to either go to med school, I'm interested in neuro psychiatry or some of the surgical specialties, or get my PhD in Biomedical Engineering with maybe a focus in biomaterials. I'm still deciding, got a bit of time. But yeah, I'm deciding between if I want to work in healthcare more in the front line, or stay more in the back and do a lot more of the research.

Heather Simonsen: Certainly, you'll bring the experiences you gained throughout your life and PathMaker to whatever field you go into.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, PathMaker has definitely showed me a lot of the patient impact. Research is very important, because I think that researchers aren't always, like I mentioned, in the frontlines like the medical doctors.

Heather Simonsen: More in the quiet lab behind the scenes, sure.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, but research is really, really important. I think that especially, one of recent developments in my family, is that my grandma has arthritis. And just seeing how the arthritis has affected her in her daily life is really heartbreaking, but it's good to know that there are researchers out there tackling these issues. And hopefully one day all of these patients can return to how their life once was.

Returning to normalcy through the achievement of a cancer-free frontier (14:15)

Heather Simonsen: Yeah. And it's that hope piece of it, right? To know that there are scientists working in the lab to solve what can be a really debilitating problem like arthritis or cancer. Jose, I'd love to ask you finally a question we ask all of our guests, and that is, what does a cancer free frontier mean to you?

Jose Hernandez: To me, it definitely looks like sort of a return to normalcy. I think a lot of the families and communities that are affected by cancer have experienced a lot of setbacks in their lives. They can't go to work or they can't attend their children’s school events, and to me that's heartbreaking. Like I know, in my experience, the cost factor was definitely a big one; and seeing my mom worry about costs, but also having to take time off of work to accompany me in my doctor's appointments was very heartbreaking. So, a cancer free frontier, for me, definitely looks like that return to normalcy, that ability to really take part in each other's lives and support each other without worrying about cancer.

Heather Simonsen: So beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that with us and sharing your heart and your experience. I'm inspired about the future. I know we're in good hands with you and students like you. Jose Hernandez, thank you so much for being with us today.

Jose Hernandez: Yeah, thank you for inviting me. It was a great experience.

Welcome, Deb Smith, PathMaker Bridge teacher (15:58)

Deb Smith, science teacher, working in the lab at Huntsman Cancer Institute
Deb Smith, science teacher, working in the lab at Huntsman Cancer Institute

Heather Simonsen: Now I'm delighted to introduce you to Deb Smith, who's a teacher at Bryant Middle School for the Salt Lake Center of Science Education. Deb, welcome to our podcast today.

Deb Smith: Thanks for having me.

Heather Simonsen: You’ve been a teacher for a long time.

Deb Smith: I have. I've been a teacher for, this is year 18.

Heather Simonsen: Wow. Well bless you for being one of those amazing teachers who's so devoted. We're just so grateful to you.

Deb Smith: Thank you.

Heather Simonsen: Yeah. And you're also a cancer survivor?

Deb Smith: Yes, I am. I had a really super rare form of cervical cancer, and lost my reproductive system and had chemo and radiation when I was in my 30s. And so, there's kind of a drag, bad timing.

Heather Simonsen: For sure. And how did that shape your life?

Deb Smith: I think it shaped my life a lot, by the fact that it changed a lot of focus that I've had in my life. At the time, I was working in advertising. And so, I kind of put more time into work. And also, you know, doing things like I love mountain biking, and road riding and those types of things. So, I spent, you know, try to divide my time up between, you know, working hard, but also playing hard.

Heather Simonsen: So, you really learned some good life lessons early on in your life.

Deb Smith: Yes, I did. Yep.

How new connections prove scientists are people too (17:33)

Heather Simonsen: And Deb, you were a part of the first cohort of PathMaker Bridge, right?

Deb Smith: Yes, I was. It was awesome.

Heather Simonsen: I hear it is just such an incredible opportunity for teachers. What was it like for you?

Deb Smith: It was probably some of the hardest things I've ever done, but also one of the very most rewarding things I've ever done. I was assigned to the Alana Welm Lab at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, and they are studying breast cancer, and how it metastasizes into other parts of the body. I worked on a project that basically looked at what was happening when cancer metastasizes into the bone and was there a way to turn that signaling off. And so that's kind of what I worked on, for the two summers.

Heather Simonsen: That's so incredible. And you're able to take the things you learned and bring them back to your students at Bryant Middle School.

Deb Smith: Yeah, that was what was really super cool too about that experience is during the school year, we were working as a cohort to develop lessons, you know, learn more about cancer, learn more about cellular biology and those types of things so that we could bring that information and those lessons like real life lessons into the classroom. And in addition to that, what was really great about it was it's an opportunity, with an opportunity and still is for me, to share that kind of experience with students that might not even know about the different types of scientist or technicians that work in a science lab. And so, I've developed a couple lessons that have introduced those people that worked in the lab with my students. And they had an opportunity, and still do, of looking at posters that I created about them. But we really emphasize not just what do they do to become that scientist, but also what do they like to do outside of work and so that way the kids could connect with those people and see they're just normal people.

Heather Simonsen: Yeah.

Deb Smith: And a few of them had great experiences where they talk about really, like not liking school, or not feeling they weren't good at science, or some of those kinds of things that they shared with students that kids can really relate to you. And that it makes them feel like, oh, wow, I really can do anything I want to do.

Creating access proves anyone can have a career in science (20:26)

Heather Simonsen: Well, and isn't that everything. I mean, you hope every student gets that glimpse of what's possible in their schooling. And talk to me a little bit about your students, tell me about them and some of the challenges they face.

Deb Smith: So, I work at what is called a Title I. It's typically made up of about 60% or more of the population, that is basically lower income. And so, students at my school literally come from all over the world, which something that I totally love. They come from all different kinds of backgrounds, and all different types of socio-economic situations, all types of family makeups. And so, it's incredible to work here, I love it so much.

Heather Simonsen: I can tell you have such a passion for it. So, I mean, those are very lucky students. And how does exposing them to science at such a young age benefit their lives?

Deb Smith: Well, one of the first things is trying to convince them that it is a part of their life, and trying to convince them that science is everything. And so, we always start the year out with like, “so you come up with something that has nothing to do with science”, okay, and I send them out, and they come back the next day. And a few of them will have a couple ideas, “well science has nothing to do with this.” And then we go, “well, but does it?” And then we kind of break those things down. And when they can see that science touches every part of their life, then all of a sudden, they're much more open to it. And one of the things I talked to them about, you know, at the beginning here, in particular, and when I was teaching eighth grade, we talked about it a lot. Like for instance, cancer, or climate change, or those types of things that happen to all of us. I don't think any of us, you know, hasn't had a friend or a family member that hasn't been touched by cancer, or climate change touches all of us. And so, by knowing more about those things, it makes us so that we can understand a lot more what's happening to us, and have more choices and those types of things. And when we have bills that come before us in elections, we can be better prepared to make, you know, informed decision. So that's kind of what we talked about.

Heather Simonsen: I love what you're saying, because it seems to me, what it's doing is really creating access. So, like science, medicine, oncology, it's not this strange, inaccessible thing, but a field that, you know, is very much within their reach.

Deb Smith: Yes, very much so.

Heather Simonsen: That's great. And are you seeing some students who really have like a knack for it and a spark where it's like, wow, I mean, this could really do some amazing things in science?

Deb Smith: Yes. So especially since I was in the PathMaker Bridge program, I, in particular, have really looked for that in students. And I have probably seen at least anywhere from an increase of about 10 to 25% more students interested in going into those fields, because of the time we take to really talk about that.

Heather Simonsen: Wow, that’s huge.

Deb Smith: Exactly, yeah. And one of the things that we talked about too, is at the end of the unit, we look at all, you know, not all of them, because it changes every day it feels like, but we talked about a lot of the different job opportunities there are attached with, you know, is it biology that we just talked about, or geology or whatever, so that they can see, oh, wow, look at all of these things. And one of the most interesting things that happened is I had this one student a couple of years ago, she was adamant that she wanted nothing to do with science. And we went through one of those exercises where they had to pick three jobs that were of interest to them. And she literally shouted out, “I had no idea that I could do art and biology at the same time!”

Heather Simonsen: Wow, that’s amazing! A breakthrough, really.

Deb Smith: Yes. And so those are the kinds of things that I see happening where students like can relate to this. Some students even it's like, “do you mean I could make this much money while I was in college working as a tech?”, you know? And we talked about those kinds of opportunities, you know, I always encourage them to look into the PathMaker scholar program when they're in high school, because what a great opportunity. Even if they don't decide that field, what a great opportunity to put something incredible on your resume, but also to have an incredible experience, you know?

Heather Simonsen: Truly.

Deb Smith: And to gain confidence, doing something completely new.

The importance of seeing doctors who look like you (25:52)

Heather Simonsen: Yeah, well, and training the next generation of scientists is so important and good for the entire healthcare community. And also, how important do you think it is to really support diversity in medicine? Because if we go to our medical appointments, and our doctor looks nothing like us, and we can't relate at all, that can be a barrier. But if some of these students that you're talking about, you know, go on to medical school, go on to become PhDs in science, I mean, imagine the ripple effect that could have on the world.

Deb Smith: Exactly, and that was one of the things that I really loved about being in the Welm lab, was because it was a very diverse lab. So, it made my job a lot easier bringing things back. But I feel like I have incredible students, it doesn't matter what socio-economic class they come from, it doesn't matter, their ethnicity, their culture, none of those things matter. Because these students are amazing. And literally, you know, we've worked really hard on growth mindset. So, they know they can do anything. And it's so important for us to have people from different backgrounds, you know, in these fields, bringing different thought processes and stuff into the field, as well as just what you just said, being able to go to a doctor that looks like you, that's a huge thing.

Heather Simonsen: It's huge. And like you said, these brilliant minds that might not have been discovered otherwise and nourished.

Deb Smith: Yes, and they need to be.

Heather Simonsen: Exactly, and I love how we just heard the bell ring for your class. And I know that you're such a busy teacher, and that, you know, that duty calls. And that's why we're on the phone instead of having you in the studio. But I really admire you for that.

Deb Smith: Thanks.

A cancer-free frontier provides the freedom to shift focus (27:50)

Heather Simonsen: And, Deb, I'd like to ask you, finally, what does delivering a cancer-free frontier, mean to you?

Deb Smith: You might get a little tears out of me here. It means that, you know, people, like I have a friend right now who's stage four, and he lost his eye last week. He's going through a really tough time. And it means that we don't have to have our friends and loved ones go through this. And that we can focus on other things instead of, I mean cancer is huge. There's no one that hasn't been touched by it. And so, to get rid of that and eradicate it would just be the best thing that ever happened. And we can just work on other things then.

Heather Simonsen: Well, now I'm getting teary. And I'm so sorry about your friend. And I agree wholeheartedly, that cancer free frontier looks bright and beautiful.

Deb Smith: Yep, thank you so much.

Thank you (28:51)

Heather Simonsen: Well, thank you, Deb Smith. What an honor to talk to you today, and thank you for the amazing work that you do in the community.

Deb Smith: Okay, thank you. And thanks so much for letting me tell my story.

Heather Simonsen: Absolutely, take care.

Heather Simonsen: We extend our sincere gratitude to Jose Hernandez and Deb Smith for sharing their expertise and experiences with us today. You heard firsthand how important and valuable it is training the next generation of scientists, and especially reaching those brilliant minds who might not be discovered otherwise.

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 Simon's and Avery Schrader is our producer with help from Carly Lehauli and Joe Woods. Thanks to the Communications and Public Affairs team at Huntsman Cancer Institute. We truly couldn't do the show without you. Also, a special thanks to The Pod Mill and Mix It Six Studios for their help with this episode.