REACH Program’s Emphasis of Research Plus Clinical Confirms Alexis Chamorro-Ortiz’s Career Goals: To Both Treat and Research Cancer

“I'm not going to be one of those people who say, ‘I'm going to cure cancer,’ but I want to help to develop treatments for those people.” – Alexis Chamorro-Ortiz

Chamorro-Ortiz working in the Spinella Lab.

July 18, 2018

Alexis Chamorro-Ortiz didn’t just wake up one morning and decide he wanted to spend the summer after his sophomore year at the University of Puerto Rico doing cancer research at Illinois as part of the REACH (Research and Education for the Advancement of Compassionate Health Care), a new USDA-funded RCEU (Research Experience for Undergraduates with an added clinical component). For most of his childhood, he had watched his grandfather first overcome a brain tumor, then lose his battle with brain cancer when Chamorro-Ortiz was a freshman in high school. “He passed away so quickly, and it made me want to help other people who are like my grandpa,” Chamorro-Ortiz explains.

Chamorro-Ortiz has loved both science and the arts since he was little. In middle school, he focused more on the arts side, but when high school rolled around, science won out. He participated in scientific competitions and research. Then, his senior year of high school, he got to do a pre-college research program, “and that's what really made me fall in love,” he acknowledges. “They polished me up for life as a researcher, and it was an amazing boot camp. It's what ultimately led me to want to do research on top of medical care. I just feel like it’s fulfilling.”

So when the REACH offered him a chance to participate in its inaugural cohort in a program designed to give underrepresented minority students both a clinical experience and a research opportunity, and when he discovered that his research would help to prepare him for his dream job—researching cancer treatments—Chamorro-Ortiz started some research of his own: looking into flights to Illinois.

“When I was notified that I was accepted into this special program, I felt somehow special,” he admits. Upon receiving the information about the program, he looked the program up online and saw that Carle-Illinois is a new College of Medicine and that he and his cohorts are the first class of the REACH program.

“With all these things, to just be chosen and be these special five, and not only have the opportunity to do research but to also work at Carle Hospital and do all these different things, I think is very important. It is a great opportunity for undergraduates.

Chamorro-Ortiz examines a sample while conducting his research.

Chamorro-Ortiz’ research in Professor Michael Spinella’s lab was trying to find a correlation between ATP-binding cassette transporter gene and resistance to a drug, Cisplatin, a chemotherapy medication used to treat cancer and testicular germ cell tumors. Around 15–20% of patients develop this unknown resistance to the drug. He explains that they were working with different cell lines which would then be translated to human research.

How did his lab assignment so perfectly match his research interests? Chamorro-Ortiz explains that during the application process, they had to write a statement of research interests: “I'm guessing the people at REACH program just tried to match us as well as they possibly could and they obviously did a perfect job with putting me in Spinella’s lab working with cancer!”

Chamorro-Ortiz and his fellow REACH cohorts have been kept quite busy. They were in the lab eight hours a day, four days a week doing research. For the clinical component, on their “day off” from the lab, they spent the morning shadowing Dr. Kevin Teal, a neurosurgeon in the Carle Clinic Spine Institute. When Dr. Teal gave the students the opportunity to watch him perform a spine surgery, Chamorro-Ortiz was the first one to experience it.

Chamorro-Ortiz explaining his poster to Ruby Mendenhall (left) and Lisa Goodpaster (middle)

“It was just great,” Chamorro-Ortiz reports. “I thought I would be way far in the back, because obviously surgery is very delicate and all these things, but Dr. Teal is just great, and he pulled me closer, and I was right next to him, and he just said to be careful. I was right there in the OR next to the patient. It was a great opportunity.”

“You read about all these things in textbooks,” he adds, “but seeing them in person is just so different.”

Chamorro-Ortiz and his cohorts also had additional workshops, such as SROP training (a research writing course on Monday evenings and professional development on Wednesday evenings), as well as weekly research team meetings. The program wasn’t all work, though. Chamorro-Ortiz reports that some of the social events included luncheons and days in the park.

Plus, since the Carle-Illinois College of Medicine not only focuses on engineering, but also social sciences and the humanities, REACH participants were also to incorporate the humanities/social sciences into their end-of-program presentations. Chamorro-Ortiz had chosen to look at the psycho-social afflictions trans-women develop when they acquire testicular cancer. After talking about his research idea with Professor Toby Beauchamp in Illinois’ Women and Gender Studies Department, Beauchamp recommended that Chamorro-Ortiz postpone the study until the fall, since his question was so broad that it would be difficult to include it this summer. Beauchamp even offered to serve as Chamorro-Ortiz’ advisor for the project this fall. So starting in August, Chamorro-Ortiz will be working on that, even though he will no longer be at Illinois.

Chamorro-Ortiz working in the Spinella Lab.

What did Chamorro-Ortiz like most about the experience? Other than “obviously, the research opportunity and the clinical side of things,” Chamorro-Ortiz says his favorite part of the summer was the people. He called being around “so many different but incredibly smart people amazing.” He explains that they all became close friends, but not in the way one normally chooses friends, “Here, we're kind of pushed into a group because we all have an interest in research and different things that somehow intertwine with each other. Just the fact that you get to meet with those people and become friends...This program has brought a lot of people closer together, and I think that's one of the best parts of this program.”

Some other people he grew to appreciate were the REACH program leaders, especially Ruby Mendenhall and Lisa Goodpaster. “Working with all these people has been amazing, because they not only have given support over all, but I feel like since we’re only five people, they've actually taken care of us, and it's like a home away from home. Even through all the harshness, such as homesickness, we know we have people to rely on and who are always there to help us.”

Along with all of the things he learned over the summer, Chamorro-Ortiz says he also learned some things about himself. “This program really opened my eyes to all the things that I'm capable of doing,” he says. “It's not meant to be a stressful situation, but all the work induces stress on you. But just the fact that I could get a hold on things and actually do things and get positive feedback towards them was great.”

Despite the stress (he admits that the program “has been a lot of work”), Chamorro-Ortiz believes it not only helped him to learn and grow, but also reaffirmed his career goals. “I feel like my research includes higher level biology courses, and I have only finished my general biology course. Getting here and learning about all these different things that usually seniors or graduate students learn about, it's great. It really confirmed what I wanted to do.”

What’s up for Chamorro-Ortiz down the road? A lot of changes. Having completed his sophomore year at the University of Puerto Rico, he’s transferring to University of Central Florida where he’ll be a junior this fall. Also, although he’s been majoring in chemistry, after he transfers, he’s going into biomedical sciences. Regarding research, while he’ll be focusing on his research with Beauchamp in the fall, starting in January, he plans to work with the biomedical scientists at UCF.

Alexis Chamorro-Ortiz, a 2018 REACH participant.

So for him, personally, since he will be moving from home and transferring to Florida this fall, another benefit of REACH was that it has served as a “halfway milestone to start living independently. This was a chance to grow and get ready for what's coming,” he admits.

What are Chamorro-Ortiz’s long-term education/career goals? Actually very similar to the research + clinical emphasis of REACH: he wants to get an MD/PhD, and also impact students the way he himself has been impacted.

“That's actually why I love the REACH program, because I get to do both sides. I see myself working in a hospital as an oncologist. I feel like I have this renaissance point of view, because I want to do so many things. I wanna have my own research lab and have students work under me, and give undergrads the opportunity to experience things like [I did this summer]. I want to help them push themselves and give them that platform, especially students of color.”

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

For additional stories about the REACH RCEU, see:

For more related stories, see: REU, Student Spotlight, Summer Research Programs, Underserved Students / Minorities, 2018