A seed was planted during the summer of 1998 when 10 Brigham Young University undergraduate students traded in a summer of sun and swimming to work full-time in research labs spread across campus.

Their time spent hunched over microscopes and petri dishes marked the beginning of the cancer research fellowship program at BYU, a tradition celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Composed of distinguished professors across various fields, the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer Research maintains the goal to “provide experience to students that begins the training of the next generation of cancer clinicians and researchers.”

The center’s means to accomplishing its goal is their student fellowship program, which enables selected undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students a full summer of cancer research under the direction of a faculty mentor. Student fellows are paid a stipend to allow for their efforts to be exclusively directed to cancer research throughout the summer.

“(The summer fellowship) provided me the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of cell and molecular biology at a very early stage in my career,” said Dr. Greg Chipman, one of the first 10 students through the fellowship program. “(It) sparked my interest and gave me a strong foundation for the information I use on a daily basis to treat cancer patients.”

Since completing his undergraduate at BYU, the cancer specialist has returned to Utah to practice as an oncologist. That first class of 10 fellowship students has grown since Chipman’s time spent with the Simmons Center, and this year’s fellowship class will see a record-breaking 24 fully-funded student fellows.

“On top of our research being conducted on campus, this year we’ve got students going to Harvard, National Institutes of Health, Ohio State University and Tolero Pharmaceuticals,” said Dr. Merrill Christensen, director of the Simmons Center for Cancer Research. “We’ve also been in a position to set up endowments whose payouts will fund students to go to meetings and present their results at national conferences. That is invaluable.”

Dr. Daniel L. Simmons, director of the center from 1997-2014, helped create the student fellowship program with a goal to help develop cancer research among students, who he says are BYU’s greatest resource.

“The center has been able to develop a program that has benefited so many students and their faculty members,” Simmons said. “The research that is done (by the students) makes its way into patents, publications and presentation. Many of these students end up going on to receive further training in Ph.D. programs and medical school, and they contribute to contribute to our knowledge base in cancer research after they leave BYU.”

2018 Simmons Center student fellows began their research on May 1, and will continue their full-time work until mid-August. Their desire to join the cancer community is prevalent and fortifying.

“I applied to the SCCR fellowship program because I want to be a part of something much bigger than what I can accomplish by myself,” said Concordia Lo, a 2018 fellow and doctoral student. “Growing up, my mom fought breast cancer, so that’s one of the main reasons why I decided to do research, and I’m very grateful that I can spend all my time in the labs and give all my effort to (research).”

The seed that took root in 1998 is now branching, creating a link and heritage of cancer research among students, faculty and the community. The fellowship program at the Simmons Center for Cancer Research has given BYU students a role in defeating cancer, that’s exactly what they are doing.

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