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Student Takes Initiative in Starting Her Own Cancer Research

What happens when a student wants to learn between the lines of traditionally defined classes?

For most, the interest in knowledge goes untapped outside of the school walls. For BIG student Tianyi Han, a senior at Kennedy High School, that passion for learning has taken her into the field of Immuno-Oncology.

“I’ve always been interested in cancer because it’s so common. You always hear about people passing away, ineffective treatments or different research projects that seem hopeful and then all of a sudden don’t turn out to be very successful. I want to, if I can, contribute to that,” Tianyi said.

The idea of Immuno-Oncology came from school. “When I was in AP Biology we learned about it, I was just so interested. At first I was interested in the genetic component, then I read different articles on how the immune system and cancer are very related,” Tianyi explained.

Not for school, but because of an interest in a topic that she couldn’t pursue further in school, she began reading more.

After meeting with BIG Headmaster Shawn Cornally, they turned her enthusiasm for cancer research into a project that would let her further explore the field.


The picture shows what Tianyi is researching: how antibodies may be used to label tumor cells, making them easier for T cells to identify.

The picture shows what Tianyi is researching: how antibodies may be used to label tumor cells, making them easier for T cells to identify.

“There are so many more benefits to using the immune system to attack cancer than what current cancer treatments are doing,” she discovered through her research.

“The role of the immune system is to find things that are going wrong in the body and to either fix them or stop it. Cancer tumors are something that go wrong in the body but for some reason the immune system isn’t able to detect or correct it.”

“It’s a really exciting field because it’s developing very quickly. It’s very promising too. If you’re able to use the immune system to attack cancer then it’s much more personalized. You can get a very strong response. It would also have memory,” Tianyi said.

How did she learn all of this? Not from a classroom. Not from a worksheet. Not from an old biology lab book.

Self-Guided Learning

Tianyi has built her own curriculum and has taken control of her achievement. She learns content that she has selected for herself, and has learned how to most efficiently find this content independently.

Unlike many other BIG students, Tianyi’s work is not based on a particular project. Her journey is based on exploring a topic, learning as much as she can about it and getting her foot in the door with her future career.

How does a 16-year-old actually contribute to cancer research? “I want to work in a lab and research T cells and tumor cell interactions,” Tianyi said of her future goal. “We contacted some professors, we’re still in the process of getting there,” she explained.

She was recently invited to a lab meeting at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center  at the University of Iowa Hospitals.

In the meantime, Tianyi is using her research to help better inform the public. “I read a lot of different scientific articles. They’re very technical, so it takes a long time to read and understand,” she explained.

After reading these articles, Tianyi has begun to turn what may seem like unreadable medical jargon to most, and reiterate it into layman’s terms.

She translates the med-talk into a blog post that can easily be read and understood. “We tailored the project with the goal of helping people better understand what causes cancer, what doesn’t, and the science behind it.

As part of her blog, Tianyi tackles common cancer myths such as Microwave radiation danger.

As part of her blog, Tianyi tackles common cancer myths such as Microwave radiation danger.

Also part of Tianyi’s blog is busting common cancer myths. “The articles will tackle different myths. There’s a lot of them and people worrying for no reason,” she explained.

“The general public has misconceptions about the causes of cancer. For example, that plastic can cause cancer or microwaves, are they harmful? Some people think that cancer is only a genetic thing. Misconceptions like that, I’ll make clear,” she explained.

Freedom to Explore Interests = Increased Retention and Achievement

Tianyi’s work shows that it is not a lack of interest that causes engagement to fall, but a lack of freedom to explore.

“It’s something that I’m really interested in and I want to do. I just find time to do it,” she said of her project.

Tackling such a highly-technical and evolutionary field like cancer could seem daunting to students. Most wouldn’t know where to begin, let alone think they could contribute. Not Tianyi.

“It makes me want to learn more. I try to stay as updated as I can be. It’s a field of research that is progressing quickly. New discoveries are being made every day. That’s part of the reason why I like it. I like learning and I like helping. I want to get into this field because I want to contribute and help make discoveries.”

Planning for the Future

Exploring interests allowed Tianyi to pick a potential career path. “I knew [cancer research] was a thing that I wanted to do as for a career, and I thought I could get an edge on it. I get to see if I liked it or not,” she explained.

She has built a unique resume, learned how to research efficiently independently, explored a potential career path, all while earning the same credit most students earn sitting in a classroom copying notes from the overhead.

“What I’m doing is kind of what I see myself doing in the future, so it gives me exposure to that. It gives me a step ahead.”

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