Coding saves lives, and Fred Hutch Cancer Center wants the next generation to take note  – GeekWire

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Amy Rolph
2023-09-15 11:00:00

Coding for Cancer is designed to expose students to the possibilities of using code in cancer research with no prior knowledge of computational science. (Fred Hutch Photo)

Plenty of high school students plan to make careers out of coding when they graduate from college. And plenty of other students are probably planning careers as cancer-research scientists. 

But how many are planning on doing both at once?

“Coding for Cancer,” a program from the Seattle-based Fred Hutch Cancer Center, aims to let students know that computational research in the biomedical field is one potential career path, and that coding skills play a very important part in modern cancer research.

Raihan Hakim, a junior at the Overlake School in Remond, Wash., completed the Coding for Cancer program over the summer. Working with other students and two Fred Hutch computational biomedical researchers who served as mentors, he completed a coding project exploring how gene mutations relate to cancerous tumors in the body.

“I plotted each patient’s different cancer types, and I put that against whether they had [the mutation] or not, and what stage they were at,” Hakim said.

The project culminated in a Zoom presentation where all the Coding for Cancer teams presented their methods and findings — along with some of their missteps.

Hakim said the program opened his mind to the possibilities of coding and technology outside of more obvious career paths like gaming and app development.

“One thing I learned over the course of the program is how technology can be used in many spaces, especially cancer research,” Hakim said. “It makes our lives easier by doing the work for us.”

Hakim already knew a coding language before enrolling in the program, but that’s by no means a prerequisite for students interested in participating. Coding for Cancer is designed to expose students to the possibilities of using code in cancer research with no prior knowledge of computational science. Mentors teach coding during the first two weeks of the four-week program; the next two are devoted to research.

Hanako Osuga, the program’s lead at Fred Hutch, said an ability to thrive in a virtual learning environment is a better indicator of success in the program than any previous knowledge.

“Virtual programming is a bit difficult at times,” Osuga said. “Anyone who has that curiosity and the drive to learn that skill is more than welcome, and would be a great addition to this program.” 

The program seeks out students from backgrounds historically excluded from the biomedical sciences, and program staff will work with students to secure technological resources — computers or Wi-Fi, for example — that they might not have readily available. 

Students receive a $1,000 stipend after completing the program.

Because the program is virtual, it can reach a larger geographical area, including rural areas of Washington state. This year, three of the program’s 20 students were from central Washington, and one was from eastern Washington.

The goal is to reach students early, to teach them about the possibilities of coding in biomedical sciences before college sets them on other career paths.

“We learned that high schoolers have questions and curiosities around those computational pathways,” Osuga said. “College is almost a little bit too late.” 

Hakim hasn’t settled on what to study in college, or how to apply that skillset down the road. But the program has changed his perspective. 

“Cancer research was always a thing I wanted to do. That was one of the main reasons I applied,” he said. “The unique part was the coding language. I feel like after doing this program, that could be a possibility.”

Students interested in applying for Coding for Cancer’s 2024 cohort should check the program website in early January for updated instructions.

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