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Pine-Richland senior participates in prestigious Cancer Research program

November 18, 2018

For many high school students, the ideal summer might mean sleeping in, spending time at the pool or with friends and maybe earning some money at a part-time job, but definitely relaxing after a long year.

Not for Jackson English.

The self-proclaimed science and medicine nerd and senior at Pine-Richland spent eight weeks this summer working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. doing research at a lab at none other than UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

“I enjoyed the lab work but my favorite part was how serious they made it feel,” he said. “You don’t feel like kids at summer camp. You felt like you were actually doing something, which was great.”

English was one of 65 students accepted out of approximately 350 applicants to the Hillman Cancer Center Academy. He worked in a lab under a principal investigator and a post-doctoral student on a project called “ATR kinase inhibition promotes generation antigen-specific CD8+T Cells.”

While there isn’t necessarily an easy way to explain what that means, English said, essentially they were studying colon cancer in mice and the affects that inhibiting a certain protein had on the immune system.

“I spent most of my time working in an actual lab processing tissues and cells,” he said. “I learned how to keep a sterile workplace and learn proper lab procedures, which seemed intimidating at first but you pick it up quick, which I found interesting.”

In fact, most of the work seemed fairly intuitive, English said, despite some first-day nerves. His father is a dermatologist at UPMC and his mother works in medical insurance and English believes his lifelong exposure to the field, and interest in science and medicine, helped prepare him for the summer. Getting through AP biology with an “A” last year didn’t hurt, either.

“Some days I was actually working with the mice themselves,” English said. “I also got to see the facility at the cancer center, which was great. I loved seeing all that equipment. They showed us microscopes that were worth half a million dollars. I was like, ‘That’s great. Won’t touch that.’”

English’s interest in science and medicine may date back to childhood but his interest in oncology is more recent. In March 2018, just months before starting the program, English lost one of his best friend’s, Zachary Kass-Gerji, to sarcoma.

“That was my primary inspiration and that’s what I want to do in life,” English said. “I’m attending Pitt in pre-med next fall and my goal is to become an oncologist for him, because I don’t want to see anyone go through what he had to go through.”

English and his friends run a fundraising dodgeball tournament at Pine-Richland to benefit the Make-a-Wish foundation in Kass-Gerji’s name because the organization meant so much to his friend when he was sick, English said. He urges anyone who’d like to donate to do so to Make-A-Wish in honor of Zachary Kass-Gerji.

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