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Today’s Bright Young Minds Poised to Unlock Pancreatic Cancer Mystery

Lauren Kelly, right, and her mother Kimberly, at Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day last June in Washington, D.C. Lauren is interested in a career in research since attending the event.

Young groundbreakers and trendsetters are everywhere, including in the field of pancreatic cancer research. If you’re not convinced, consider Jack Andraka, who at the age of 15 won the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a project focused on detecting pancreatic cancer. He’s not alone as a teen with a promising future in the lab.

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network recently interviewed Lauren Kelly, a 16-year-old from Charlottesville, Va., and the daughter of Pancreatic Cancer Action Network grant recipient and Scientific Advisory Board member Kimberly Kelly, PhD, about her budding interest in research.

Here, she shares a few of the reasons she has decided to study biomedical engineering and hopes to pursue a scientific career (ahem, her mother has been a huge influence!).

PCAN: Lauren, why do you support the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network?
Lauren:  I’ve seen what pancreatic cancer does to families. It’s incredibly sad to see the tragedies it’s caused. I want to do anything I can to help eradicate pancreatic cancer, or at least make it more treatable, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s mission is just that.  

PCAN: When did you get involved?
Lauren:  I came to Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day last June in Washington, D.C., with my mom. I remember seeing all these people that had been touched by pancreatic cancer, either by being diagnosed with it or having a loved one be diagnosed with it, and it was an eye-opener for me.
PCAN: What did you appreciate most about Advocacy Day?  
Lauren:  I felt like I was helping make a difference. I liked going to see various senators and representatives and lobbying to make pancreatic cancer a higher priority in the budget. Even though what I did wasn’t much, it still felt good to help in some way. One thing that sticks in my mind was just the emotion that everyone felt towards the cause. Everyone was determined to do all they could to help stop pancreatic cancer. During one of our congressional visits on the Hill, one man started to cry when he was talking about how his wife had died of pancreatic cancer. I could hear his voice break as he was speaking, and about two seconds later, my heart broke too. It showed me how devastating this disease is, not just for the patient, but especially for their families.

PCAN: What spurred your interest in research?
Lauren:  My mom. I had gone into her lab multiple times before and everything fascinated me. I’ve always loved science; it’s been one of my favorite subjects for as long as I can remember. Whenever I heard my mom talk about the progress she was making on her research or something new she had developed, I always wanted to know more and to one day make discoveries like that, as well.

PCAN: We understand that you had the opportunity to work in her lab at the University of Virginia over the summer.
Lauren:  I knew it would be a really great learning experience. It was my first real taste of what it really entails to be a scientist. I had always loved to come into the lab, and I was excited to actually be able to do more than just look around. 

PCAN: What did you learn, or what surprised you about working in the lab?
Lauren:  What surprised me was how complicated everything was! They were working on projects that I couldn’t comprehend. Everything just felt like it was miles above my head, so I was pretty useless. I did learn how to take care of living cells, measure protein levels and use an autoclave to sterilize lab equipment. My favorite was working with the cells since I actually understood it much more than I understood everything else.

PCAN: How does it feel to have pinpointed a career direction?   
Lauren:  It feels reassuring that I’ve already identified a career direction. It makes it a lot easier because I can choose the high school classes that will help prepare me the most for bioengineering school. It also makes finding colleges a little easier since I can just look for ones that have good biomedical engineering programs. It can be a bit scary as well, though. At the moment my top two schools are Duke University and Georgia Tech, but I’m open to any school that has a good biomedical engineering program…and a good marching band!

PCAN: How does it feel that your mother is at the forefront of pancreatic cancer research?
Lauren:  I’m happy for my mom. She’s amazing at what she does and I think the stuff that she’s discovered is really going to change the world. I think it would be pretty awesome to be able to collaborate with her once I’ve been educated and gotten my PhD, since she knows so much about her field. Although I can just see that everyone is going to be asking me, “Are you Dr. Kelly’s daughter?” It’s a big shadow I’ll have to live in since I’m going in the same direction as her, but I plan on making a pretty big shadow for myself as well.


Here, we turn the tables for a Q&A with Lauren’s researcher mom Kimberly on what it would mean to see her daughter’s career one day mirror her own.

PCAN: Kimberly, how did Advocacy Day impact Lauren?
Kimberly: She came back from Advocacy Day energized and ready to make a difference.  Her experience there solidified her desire to be a researcher. It also gave her some respect for what I do!

PCAN: How would you describe your feelings regarding Lauren’s decision to pursue a career in biomedical engineering? 
Kimberly: I’m ecstatic on one hand as I love research, but on the other hand, with the NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding being cut, I’m worried that there won’t be jobs for her and other students in the future.  The brain-drain that we are experiencing is going to have real impacts on medical research for generations to come.

PCAN: What is your hope for her future career? 
Kimberly: I hope that she finds the satisfaction that I have found in helping people and trying to solve currently intractable problems.

PCAN: Why is it important for Lauren, her peers and future generations to consider a career in research – specifically pancreatic cancer research?
Kimberly: Science needs their creativity, idealism and passion. 

PCAN: What would you say to other students who are contemplating a career in research but not sure how to get started? 
Kimberly: Reach out to researchers at your local college or university and arrange to shadow them in the lab.  Don’t be afraid; most researchers love it when students are interested in their work.  Lab exposure is invaluable to understanding what this field is all about. 


The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network thanks Kimberly Kelly and her daughter, Lauren, for their ongoing dedication to the cause.