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AR Biology Works to Better Understand and Find Treatments for Aggressive Cancer

To Upper School science teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida, providing students with research opportunities is a no-brainer.

“It’s important to invest in mentoring and guiding high schoolers,” she said. “This is how you’re going to build on the next generation of people who can impact big areas.”

With the introduction of the AR designation, Dr. Rida knew she could further expand student research opportunities in an AR Biology class, opening the door for more students to build strong research, critical-reading, and science-writing skills during school hours and under the guidance of a trusted mentor invested in their growth.

That’s why the former university research scientist and breast cancer researcher, who joined the faculty in 2021, has been on a constant lookout for ways to bring students into the process of research science. In addition to sharing her expertise in class, Dr. Rida has even welcomed students to the teams of researchers she collaborates with on peer-reviewed papers. (Two, now-alums Max Smart ’22 and Tianyi Su ’22, have already been published.) And with the introduction of the AR designation, Dr. Rida knew she could further expand these opportunities in an AR Biology class, opening the door for more students to build strong research, critical-reading, and science-writing skills during school hours and under the guidance of a trusted mentor invested in their growth.

And it all begins, she explained, by deciding what to study.

“Defining the scope of the work is itself a big step,” she said, and one she wanted the three seniors enrolled in her first AR Biology class to experience. Though Dr. Rida did provide some parameters (she encouraged students to choose a topic within her area of expertise, and one that can be done on campus—after all, the school has no biosafety clearance to work with cancer cells), she wanted students to have a say in what they studied. She also wanted them to get familiar with identifying research worth pursuing by learning what kind of questions to ask: What is already known about a topic? What are people not yet asking that is of value to the field? What are some of the gaps in our knowledge that we can help fill?

Armed with this guidance, the students kicked off the year by reading papers and brainstorming subjects that were both manageable and could make a contribution to the research field. By early November, they’d chosen their topic: to uncover more about why androgen receptor-low triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is so lethal. By understanding drivers of the disease, they hoped to help identify novel, actionable treatment targets, as this cancer currently has no approved targeted treatments and, as a result, poor outcomes, particularly in Black women.

“Black women are twice as likely as white women to get TNBC, and within this subgroup Black women are disproportionately afflicted with the androgen receptor-low form of TNBC,” said Dr. Rida. “Identification of potential treatment targets for androgen receptor-low TNBC could therefore help us ameliorate the stark racial disparities observed in breast cancer outcomes.”

To further keep research manageable, the students limited their scope to the centrosome biology that may play a role in this cancer subtype’s deadly impact. Centrosomes, miniscule structures in cells that organize the cell’s cytoskeleton, are critical for cell division; however, excessive centrosomes, which are commonly found in cancer cells (and at a higher level in tumors of Black women), are implicated in the aggressive clinical behavior of TNBC. That’s because cancer cells cluster their extra centrosomes during cell division via a process that increases genomic instability and clonal heterogeneity inside tumors, contributing to treatment resistance and disease progression. Although we have known for a few decades that, to survive, cancer cells must dial up their centrosome-clustering mechanisms as they generate extra centrosomes, exactly how this accompanying upregulation is achieved was undefined.

Rowland Hall students attend the 2024 meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.

The AR Biology students and Dr. Rida at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.


In pursuit of answers, the AR Biology students began analyzing publicly available gene expression data to identify the pathways that are in overdrive in androgen receptor-low TNBCs, while keeping their eyes peeled for crucial links that connect centrosome-amplification mechanisms to centrosome-clustering pathways. The students were fortunate to identify oncogenes (genes with the potential to cause a cell to become cancerous) that connect these two pathways, synchronously upregulating both drivers of aggressive disease, said Dr. Rida. This helped identify potential treatment targets for high-risk patients. And the students did all this alongside learning how to navigate databases and perform in silico analyses, wade through dense primary sources, create publication-quality figures, and collaborate with researchers outside Rowland Hall. It could be tough at times, but it was worth it.

We were working on something that actually had real-world value.—Sophie Baker, class of 2024

“We were working on something that actually had real-world value,” said senior Sophie Baker, as well as something that allowed the group to discover their own capabilities. “The most important thing that I learned about myself this year is that I can actually complete research of this scale,” Sophie continued. “It's impossible to know if you're capable of doing something until you try, so it was nice to be given the opportunity to try in a supportive environment.”

Best of all, the students’ potentially life-changing work didn’t stay in the classroom. In April, they traveled to San Diego to present their findings as a poster at the American Association of Cancer Research’s annual meeting. And later this spring, they were part of a group (including City of Hope researchers) that submitted a journal manuscript that’s currently in its first round of peer review. Dr. Rida said both opportunities have brought immense value to the students.

“It helps place work they did in the context of the real world issues—this actually can advance understanding of tumor biology, or guide clinicians or researchers,” she said. And on the flip side, she continued, these opportunities also show clinicians and higher education researchers the benefits of welcoming high school students to the table.

“We’re changing the culture,” said Dr. Rida.

Click the image below to view the poster presented by AR Biology students at the American Association of Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting.

AR Biology Works to Better Understand and Find Treatments for Aggressive Cancer

To Upper School science teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida, providing students with research opportunities is a no-brainer.

“It’s important to invest in mentoring and guiding high schoolers,” she said. “This is how you’re going to build on the next generation of people who can impact big areas.”

With the introduction of the AR designation, Dr. Rida knew she could further expand student research opportunities in an AR Biology class, opening the door for more students to build strong research, critical-reading, and science-writing skills during school hours and under the guidance of a trusted mentor invested in their growth.

That’s why the former university research scientist and breast cancer researcher, who joined the faculty in 2021, has been on a constant lookout for ways to bring students into the process of research science. In addition to sharing her expertise in class, Dr. Rida has even welcomed students to the teams of researchers she collaborates with on peer-reviewed papers. (Two, now-alums Max Smart ’22 and Tianyi Su ’22, have already been published.) And with the introduction of the AR designation, Dr. Rida knew she could further expand these opportunities in an AR Biology class, opening the door for more students to build strong research, critical-reading, and science-writing skills during school hours and under the guidance of a trusted mentor invested in their growth.

And it all begins, she explained, by deciding what to study.

“Defining the scope of the work is itself a big step,” she said, and one she wanted the three seniors enrolled in her first AR Biology class to experience. Though Dr. Rida did provide some parameters (she encouraged students to choose a topic within her area of expertise, and one that can be done on campus—after all, the school has no biosafety clearance to work with cancer cells), she wanted students to have a say in what they studied. She also wanted them to get familiar with identifying research worth pursuing by learning what kind of questions to ask: What is already known about a topic? What are people not yet asking that is of value to the field? What are some of the gaps in our knowledge that we can help fill?

Armed with this guidance, the students kicked off the year by reading papers and brainstorming subjects that were both manageable and could make a contribution to the research field. By early November, they’d chosen their topic: to uncover more about why androgen receptor-low triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is so lethal. By understanding drivers of the disease, they hoped to help identify novel, actionable treatment targets, as this cancer currently has no approved targeted treatments and, as a result, poor outcomes, particularly in Black women.

“Black women are twice as likely as white women to get TNBC, and within this subgroup Black women are disproportionately afflicted with the androgen receptor-low form of TNBC,” said Dr. Rida. “Identification of potential treatment targets for androgen receptor-low TNBC could therefore help us ameliorate the stark racial disparities observed in breast cancer outcomes.”

To further keep research manageable, the students limited their scope to the centrosome biology that may play a role in this cancer subtype’s deadly impact. Centrosomes, miniscule structures in cells that organize the cell’s cytoskeleton, are critical for cell division; however, excessive centrosomes, which are commonly found in cancer cells (and at a higher level in tumors of Black women), are implicated in the aggressive clinical behavior of TNBC. That’s because cancer cells cluster their extra centrosomes during cell division via a process that increases genomic instability and clonal heterogeneity inside tumors, contributing to treatment resistance and disease progression. Although we have known for a few decades that, to survive, cancer cells must dial up their centrosome-clustering mechanisms as they generate extra centrosomes, exactly how this accompanying upregulation is achieved was undefined.

Rowland Hall students attend the 2024 meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.

The AR Biology students and Dr. Rida at the annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.


In pursuit of answers, the AR Biology students began analyzing publicly available gene expression data to identify the pathways that are in overdrive in androgen receptor-low TNBCs, while keeping their eyes peeled for crucial links that connect centrosome-amplification mechanisms to centrosome-clustering pathways. The students were fortunate to identify oncogenes (genes with the potential to cause a cell to become cancerous) that connect these two pathways, synchronously upregulating both drivers of aggressive disease, said Dr. Rida. This helped identify potential treatment targets for high-risk patients. And the students did all this alongside learning how to navigate databases and perform in silico analyses, wade through dense primary sources, create publication-quality figures, and collaborate with researchers outside Rowland Hall. It could be tough at times, but it was worth it.

We were working on something that actually had real-world value.—Sophie Baker, class of 2024

“We were working on something that actually had real-world value,” said senior Sophie Baker, as well as something that allowed the group to discover their own capabilities. “The most important thing that I learned about myself this year is that I can actually complete research of this scale,” Sophie continued. “It's impossible to know if you're capable of doing something until you try, so it was nice to be given the opportunity to try in a supportive environment.”

Best of all, the students’ potentially life-changing work didn’t stay in the classroom. In April, they traveled to San Diego to present their findings as a poster at the American Association of Cancer Research’s annual meeting. And later this spring, they were part of a group (including City of Hope researchers) that submitted a journal manuscript that’s currently in its first round of peer review. Dr. Rida said both opportunities have brought immense value to the students.

“It helps place work they did in the context of the real world issues—this actually can advance understanding of tumor biology, or guide clinicians or researchers,” she said. And on the flip side, she continued, these opportunities also show clinicians and higher education researchers the benefits of welcoming high school students to the table.

“We’re changing the culture,” said Dr. Rida.

Click the image below to view the poster presented by AR Biology students at the American Association of Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting.

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