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Perelman School of Medicine second year Andrew Siaw-Asamoah and College junior Cristle Ike received funding from the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation to pursue pediatric oncology research. Credit: Ashley Ahn

Two Penn students have been awarded grants from Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation and the Northwestern Mutual Foundation to pursue pediatric cancer research in a lab.

Perelman School of Medicine second year Andrew Siaw-Asamoah and College junior Cristle Ike received funding from the foundation to pursue pediatric oncology research alongside a mentor. They are among 28 undergraduate, graduate, and medical students who received the grant in 2021.

The Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to curing childhood cancer through research, raising awareness, and supporting families. The foundation gives researchers and institutions grants, such as the Pediatric Oncology Student Training Program

As part of the program, students were offered $5,000 in funding to join an ongoing research project with a mentor or to begin a new investigation. Ike and Siaw-Asamoah both joined ongoing projects within Penn Medicine.

Ike, who is majoring in Health and Societies on the pre-med track, worked with attending psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics Lisa Schwartz at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The research project focused on the psychological effects of cancer predisposition testing on patients and their families.

The research team conducted interviews with caregivers of children who were tested for cancer predisposition and recorded psychological data over time. The eventual aim of the project is to enhance the information available to clinicians when working with families and to help them offer support to children and families affected by cancer, Ike said.

“We want to provide an evidence base for the needs of these families,” Schwartz said. “The goal is [to] take the observational data and use it to inform interventions.”

She added that Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation has made incredible contributions to pediatric cancer research while fostering the next generation of pediatric oncology researchers.

Siaw-Asamoah worked on an ongoing project with assistant professor of Epidemiology in Biostatistics and Epidemiology Kelly Getz and professor of Pediatrics Richard Aplenc at Penn Medicine. The grant concerns the treatment of leukemia in children.

The team of researchers is working to understand and trace the heart damage, which is a side effect of common leukemia treatments. Through echocardiograms, they worked to track patients' heart health during leukemia treatment.

In the long term, they research team hopes their work contributes to minimizing harmful side effects and improving patients outcomes with an end goal of minimizing child mortality from leukemia.

Both students said that they gained valuable experience from working on their research projects. Ike said the grant was particularly impactful for her because it was her first full-time research job, which allowed her to shadow research coordinators as they recruited patients for the study.

“It was really helpful to observe the interpersonal skills they used in these scenarios to work with these vulnerable populations, because these are skills and strategies that I will definitely be needing,” Ike said.

Siaw-Asamoah also felt that his participation in the study helped him build important research skills, and his experience reinforced his career aspirations within the medical field.

“Pediatric oncology is a really unique space in the sense that folks are really willing to get involved. No one can look at these kids and do nothing,” Siaw-Asamoah said. “If you cure a child with cancer, you’ve saved a whole life, decades of rich experiences that this child can have. I think there's something really special about that.”