Spring on the York College campus

Mentoring Cancer Research

"My plan was to go to med school. I fell in love with research and decided to change my career path to continue doing research." - Kayleigh Phillips '19

In a small windowless room on the second floor of the Appell Life Sciences building, Biology senior Brandon Hubbard (Dallastown, PA) crouches over a microscope, looking down at one of the most feared diagnoses in medicine. The cells he is scrutinizing are from a type of tumor known as a glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that typically has a very poor prognosis. This is the same type of tumor with which Senator John McCain was diagnosed, and it remains very difficult to effectively treat. Hubbard hopes that his research may provide insight into a novel gene-based therapy for glioblastoma, but before he can start trying out his ideas of how to kill these cells, he first needs to learn how to grow them.

For more than two decades, Biology majors at York College have performed research with a faculty member as part of their degree, a program that has come to be known as Senior Thesis. This unique program has provided hundreds of students with research opportunities of a kind that are typically reserved for only a select few students at most other colleges. Instead, every Biology major at York College has the opportunity to do a research project with a faculty mentor. Through this process students learn a variety of research skills, with projects ranging from fieldwork studying turtles in Codorus State Park, to how to grow and maintain cancer cells. “It’s really like taking care of a pet,” says Dr. Sean Georgi, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, who is mentoring Hubbard in his project. “These cells need to be fed and their health needs to be checked regularly. If you’re not careful, they could become contaminated with bacteria or a fungus, so you have to keep them clean. Every step of the project requires careful planning and precision. The skills that Brandon is learning through this project are key to many biomedical research projects, and that’s the ultimate goal of the Senior Thesis program – to provide each student with a real-world, hands-on research experience that will be beneficial in preparing for a career, whether in research, medicine, or any other field.”

At a microscope next to Hubbard, Kayleigh Phillips ’18 (Westminster, MD) is also looking at her cancer cells, but these look smooth and glassy, very different from Hubbard’s long, spindly glioblastoma cells. 

For her Senior Thesis project, Phillips has chosen to study breast cancer, and her motivation is very personal. “My grandmother is a breast cancer survivor for the last eight years and, unfortunately, my grandmother’s sister passed away from breast cancer six years ago,” she says. “It’s something that affects my family directly and I wanted to learn more about it.” Her project has done more than just give her a new skill set; it has also given her a new direction for her career. “Before my research,” Phillips says, “my plan was to go to med school. During the research process, I fell in love with doing research and decided to change my career path to continue doing research.”

At the completion of the summer, both Hubbard and Phillips have collected a significant amount of data, which they will write up in a formal thesis and present at a poster session, together with other graduating Biology majors. Although they haven’t found any breakthroughs in how to treat these cancers, they both found the Senior Thesis program to be very valuable. “I really appreciated the opportunity to perform and see my own research completed from start to finish,” Hubbard says. “Not every undergraduate student gets to participate in such an experience and understand the work that goes into scientific research. I also appreciate the one-on-one guidance provided to me by professors in the department. I believe the Biology program here at York College is an amazing program and has placed me on the right track to succeed after graduation as a professional. Looking back to where I began in the program, I realize I have come a long way and have learned a great deal.”