Kentucky has the highest rate of cancer incidence and mortality in the country, with the Eastern Appalachian region bearing the highest burden due to health, socioeconomic and education disparities.

University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center program is training the next generation of cancer researchers and health care providers to take on the region’s cancer burden.

Since 2016, the Appalachian Career Training In ONcology (ACTION) program has engaged 116 students from Appalachian Kentucky, including 60 high school and 56 undergraduate students.

As it reaches its seventh year, the first cohorts of the early stage career training program are starting to make an impact. Out of 40 undergraduate ACTION alumni, 33 have matriculated to graduate/professional programs, with 25 currently in medical school.

Most students pursuing graduate study stay at UK due to their desire to stay and practice in central or Appalachian Kentucky, says ACTION Director Nathan Vanderford, PhD.

“Given the high cancer rates in Appalachian Kentucky, most students in the program have been personally impacted by cancer and they are determined to develop solutions to this challenge,” said Vanderford, a UK Markey Cancer Center researcher and associate professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology.

During the two-year program, students develop cancer research knowledge and skills through cross-disciplinary faculty-mentored research experiences, shadow clinicians, participate in career development activities and conduct outreach in their communities.

“The program has been so influential throughout my undergraduate career,” said ACTION alum Jessica Lamb, a senior in UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Lamb is a native of Garrard County who will be attending UK’s College of Medicine in the fall.

“Throughout the entirety of my time as an ACTION student, I was able to take the information that I was learning and use it to help my community and increase health care literacy where it is needed most. Ultimately, the ACTION Program provided me with a passion for research and service that will continue through medical school and into my career. I am thankful for the wonderful mentors and peers who I have connected with through the program.”

Recent studies published by Vanderford in the Journal of Cancer Education and Journal of STEM Outreach demonstrate how ACTION improved students’ understanding, comfort, and research skills regarding cancer.

ACTION is a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Youth Enjoy Science R25 program, which is intended to support educational activities that encourage individuals from diverse backgrounds, including those from groups underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences, to pursue further studies or careers in research.

Markey has been an NCI-designated cancer center since 2013, the only one in Kentucky and one of only 71 in the nation. UK’s designation as an NCI-funded cancer center has been fundamental to funding for programs such as ACTION.