How to Become a Cancer Researcher, When You Turn 18

Lucas Penny’s solution to starting his dream career in high school was brilliantly simple. Take notes.

Here’s a question: if there’s something you love doing, and you know you want to try it as a career, what are you waiting for? The time between right now and graduation will pass by anyway. There’s no actual, officially enforced starting line to the marathon of your career.

You might as well start going for it now.

Take Lucas Penny, a student at Grimsby High School, as an example of what happens when it works out. He’s already developed a breast cancer detection device by the age of 18.

Think of what that means: to develop the device, Lucas has been working in a lab since ninth grade (yeah, you read that right). And he didn’t have well-connected parents to help him get there, Lucas got in on his own.

I started off by emailing about 20 – 25 professors at McMaster University, just looking at different fields, to see if I could work in someone’s research lab.

Based on how Lucas explains he got in, we’re pretty sure you can put his strategy to work for you, too. No matter what industry you’re gunning for.

What’s this device you invented?

I made this device, it uses saliva samples as an early determination of if you have breast cancer or not. It looks at specific genetic information, called RNA, to do this. No one’s actually been able to use saliva as a test for breast cancer before, or even tested the method.

You’re 18 today. How young did you get started in research?

I actually started in grade 8. I was looking to go into medical research but I didn’t really have a clue what part of medicine I was interested in, and I felt like the best way for me to get immersed in it was to get into a lab.

And so… You just started working in a real lab? Explain.

I started off by emailing about 20 – 25 professors at McMaster University, just looking at different fields, to see if I could work in someone’s research lab. I had help from my grade 8 science teacher to write up the emails, because in grade 8 I hadn’t had much experience corresponding with professors and stuff.

Only one professor responded to me.

Only one professor responded to me. But she said she was interested, we met for an interview, she gave me three textbooks to read, then two months later I started researching in her lab. We were looking at Alzheimer’s disease with mice models.

So how did you jump into cancer research then?

I worked in that first professor’s lab for about three years. Then, in grade 10, a close family friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I wanted to shift my focus from Alzheimer’s research towards something I was impacted by personally.

I must have sent over 350 emails total to different professors in the area.

Also, when I was working on the mouse models it didn’t really feel applicable to what was going on in the real world, because with mice you can take brain tissue out to diagnose a disease. With a human, you can’t, obviously. That made me want to go into a non-invasive approach for diagnostics, like saliva samples. I had already learned little bits of biological information along the way, so I took those aspects from what I was learning in the first lab and created a proposal for it.

And, let me guess, you sent off more emails?

When I was pitching my proposal out I thankfully had a really good foundation for understanding the material I was working with. I must have sent over 350 emails total to different professors in the area. I spent a long time just drafting those emails so they were concise and also came across as professional, to show I wasn’t just some kid looking to screw around.

Was it hard to be taken seriously because of your age?

Funny story, I sent out an email to essentially a whole building at a university, and then this one guy messaged me back and he said, “please stop emailing the people at my lab.” He wasn’t too impressed.

I believe only 4 people out of those who received my proposal … got back to me to say they were interested.

Getting a lot of rejections was a little sad when I was younger. I believe only 4 people out of those who received my proposal for the saliva/breast cancer diagnostics got back to me to say they were interested.

What would you say is the most important thing to focus on for other students (in any field) who are considering taking a chance to develop a project or a product?

The biggest thing that helped me move forward, not only with my research but with who I am as a person, was finding a professional or someone in my field who was willing to help youth out. A mentor, essentially. Without having that mentor I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done.

Finding that person who’s willing to help you out sets you apart from other people who are just trying to tackle something by themselves.

Finding that person who’s willing to help you out sets you apart from other people who are just trying to tackle something by themselves. Not that it’s a bad thing to go by yourself, but I feel like someone who’s really knowledgeable and has a lot of expertise is able to iron out a lot of those questions you have right away so you’re able to move forward with what you want to do.

Any other challenges you’ve had as a high school cancer researcher?

I had to miss a lot of school to get my research done. I think last semester I missed 30 or 40 days of school, so there was a lot of catch-up time that I really had to put in after.

It took a lot of persistence to really know that it was eventually going to work.

Not only did I have to go to the lab from 9 to 6, I had to come home and kind of catch up on my school work from the day, or not and face the repercussions after.

What quality do you have that was most important for getting your cancer detection project to work?

Persistence. So, whether that be when I was trying to get my proposal accepted, trying to get my device sorted out, or the biology sorted out, it took a lot of persistence to really know that it was eventually going to work. And if it wasn’t right away, that it wasn’t a big deal because I still had time to move forward.

Where do you and the device go from here?

I’m going to try to take advantage of my summer time. Then I’m hoping to go to university next year for biomedical engineering, because it’s kind of like the big stepping stone. It means I can access bigger sample sets, for example. I also want to look at different options I can take with my project, like working on the device, or working on the business side of it.

Tiann Nantais

Tiann Nantais

Tiann is a Political Science student at the University of Guelph. She enjoys boring her friends with political news and is surprisingly smooth on the dance floor.

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