Poets tackle cancer research, one cell at a time

Annalisse Galaviz


A three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded summer research in sciences at Whittier College since 2017 via a partnership with Pepperdine University. This is the last year the grant has been offered to Whittier College students and its high-demand prize was awarded to eight research students. Candidates for the summer research grant turned in two-page proposals depicting their research ideas in detail to be reviewed by a selection committee of four faculty members. Eight students were accepted, meeting the maximum allowed, and received $3,000 to fund their research, which they will execute throughout the approaching summer. Students will keep the remaining balance after purchasing research materials as a stipend for their efforts. 

Annalisse Galaviz /  Quaker Campus

Annalisse Galaviz / Quaker Campus

There have been 18 first-year Whittier College students chosen over the past three years, which is surprising for first-years; most students that receive general grants for scientific research are upperclassmen. First-years Kelly Petro and Tommy Lyle-Temple make the exception by being “very strong students who have demonstrated a strong capacity and promise for research,” according to their research mentor, James Irvine Foundation Chair and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Dr. Sylvia Vetrone.

For Petro and Lyle-Temple, the research application was “simple.” Both completed original research analyzing the effects of organic compounds on cancer cells and C. Elegans (tiny worm-like creatures) in Dr. Vetrone’s freshman writing seminar course,  “Can We Win the Fight Against Cancer?” With the course’s wet lab experience, guided by a faculty member, under their belts, both candidates simply had to revise experiment proposals they had produced in class. According to Lyle-Temple, each proposal “explained the experiment [they] wished to run in a detailed way with other scientific experiments referenced in it.”

Petro supposes his acceptance hinged on his “unique” research concept: studying the effects of the Maqui berry’s abundance of antioxidants. Meanwhile, Lyle-Temple is studying “how Garcinol stops Neuroblastoma [brain cancer] from spreading” and believes his acceptance was due in large part to the clarity of his proposal: “I was clear and precise about how I was going to perform my experiment and left [unnecessary factors] out of my proposal.”

As for his schedule this summer, Petro would like to work “two hours a day, three times a week.” Lyle-Temple prefers a schedule of working roughly 10 hours per week to “run a Trypan Blue Exclusion Assay once a week,” which is a test that measures whether a compound kills cancer cells, that he will repeat “a minimum of five times.”

Petro and Lyle-Temple hope their experience this summer will open doors to more scientific research opportunities. Petro hopes “to gain more experience in research and hopefully more opportunities” from the experience while Lyle-Temple would like to “further [understand the] lab environment” and specific conclusions of his research.

Professor Vetrone is eager to know the results of candidates’ projects. “There were a few proposals looking at environmental issues and indicator species which I found very interesting,” said Vetrone. She believes research funded by the grant is “very important for the future of our society and planet.” 

Both candidates voiced their appreciation for receiving the grant enthusiastically. Petro was shocked and overcome with joy when he received news of his acceptance during a calculus class. He views it as a “great opportunity” that will “help [him] immensely.” Lyle-Temple, likewise, is excited to research: “I think researching with the NSF grant as a freshman is an amazing opportunity not many people get and I am ecstatic to be one of the few to receive this opportunity. It is a true blessing.”

Although NSF’s three-year grant concludes this summer, Professor Vetrone assures students there are still many opportunities to gain research experience on campus. “There are numerous other on-campus fellowships that will support STEM students to pursue research with faculty,” said Vetrone. “Our campus Office of Advancement is also working diligently to seek and secure further funding to support student scholarship across all disciplines.” Interested readers can contact the Office of Advancement and Whittier College research professors for opportunities.