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First-of-its-kind undergraduate cancer biology program graduates first two students

  • July 05, 2022
At UAB, undergraduate students with a passion for medicine have the option to receive a specialized degree in cancer biology — a degree found nowhere else in the country.

Zoë Evans Zoë EvansFor undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in medicine or research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, there is an opportunity to obtain an education found at no other institution in the country: a bachelor’s degree in cancer biology.

Founded in 2020, Cancer Biology is a joint program between UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine and is the first of its kind found in the entire United States. Aimed at offering students a strong educational and research background that maximizes their chances to achieve career goals in cancer biology in particular and life sciences in general, UAB’s undergraduate Cancer Biology program gives students a broad background in biomedical sciences through courses that support current biomedical requirements in academic, private and government settings. The program’s required research component gives students early exposure to a cutting-edge research environment as they participate in investigator-led programs in multiple research-intensive departments at UAB and in the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“UAB’s undergraduate Cancer Biology program is a launchpad for students who want to focus on a career path in teaching, researching, treating and fighting cancer,” said Sadanandan E. Velu, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and co-director of the Cancer Biology Undergraduate Program. “Graduates of this program are expected to be extremely competitive for graduate/professional schools and be well-prepared for a wide range of employment opportunities in both the public and private sectors, such as in the fields of medicine, biomedical research, pharmaceutical/ biotechnology industry, veterinary sciences, medical technology, public health policy, optometry, and dentistry.”

In addition to the required research components of the four-year program and plan of study and core curriculum, Cancer Biology also enables undergraduate students to get a different look at UAB as an institution, as clinical opportunities for shadowing present themselves with the very professors leading their classes.

With more than 90 enrolled students in the undergraduate Cancer Biology program heading into fall 2022, the remarkable interest that UAB’s co-directors and faculty have seen indicates the need to specialize education for students who have a more defined idea of what they want to pursue professionally, but who would also benefit from an undergraduate course designed to set them up for that success.

Want to learn more about the undergraduate Cancer Biology program at UAB? Register below for the School of Medicine Joint Undergraduate Programs interest session and visit UAB campus.

“What’s really neat about this undergraduate program is that we are able to really expose these students to all aspects of biology and cancer together in a curriculum that will guide them on their desired postgraduate track,” explained Braden McFarland, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology and co-director of the Cancer Biology Undergraduate Program. “Cancer touches every single medical specialty, and this program explains the fundamentals to students that will then translate when they enter medical school or pursue research. For this program to continue to grow in size is a testament to the interest from UAB students and why an investment in a program like this matters.”

Graduating the first cohort of cancer biology undergraduates

In 2022, Hunter Lunceford and Zoë Evans were the first two graduates of the undergraduate Cancer Biology program. With both students having a specific interest in pursuing a career in medicine and cancer research, their involvement in the program has set them up for unique successes that will guide their professional interests moving forward.

For Evans, the program’s individuality and specificity in subject matter allowed her to better understand the connections between cancer and biology. It also helped her receive a highly competitive cancer research internship.

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“The great thing about a cancer biology major is that all the classes build on each other and often you are able to gain a deeper understanding of the subject because of this, and you have access to amazing opportunities to pursue research at UAB,” Evans said. “Without being in the cancer biology track, I do not think I would be considered for the highly selective research program I am involved in at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital this summer.”

Inside Hunter Lunceford picture UAB President Ray L. Watts and Hunter LuncefordIn Lunceford’s case, the program’s glimpse of what education in a professional school like medical school would be like was a tremendous advantage for him and his education, but also in helping him reframe some of his postgraduate goals.

"We have the opportunity to be taught by Heersink School of Medicine professors as well as take classes taught by actual physicians in the UAB Hospital," Lunceford, who is also a UAB Honors College student, recalled. "It was great to receive an in-depth education in refreshing ways. The classes gave us insight into how one in professional school may be taught and allowed us to regularly be in the Hospital environment where we learned a lot of clinical information from an oncologist. This program is one that I know I was fortunate to get, as it is not offered anywhere else but UAB here in Birmingham."

McFarland notes that, while many of the undergraduate students in the program do have medical aspirations and want a core foundation of knowledge to boost their applications, many students find their way to Cancer Biology because they have personally been affected by cancer in a loved one. Many of the students want to have a substantive understanding of what drives cancer, how research can cure different subtypes and more.

“I have really been blown away to see so many of our students who have a vested interest in this education because of a personal connection to cancer, and it’s a reminder about why a program like this really will prime the next generation of physicians and researchers well,” McFarland said. “Our introductory class had 10 students the first offering, and to see it have more than 25 students now is something I am excited about, and I hope the program continues to thrive and grow.”