30 Years Later, WHK Program Remains a Singular Opportunity

Story and group photo by Chris Worthington, staff writer
The 2019 incoming class of Werner H. Kirsten student interns

The 2019 Werner H. Kirsten student intern class.

NCI at Frederick’s newest student interns smiled for a group photo outside the Advanced Technology Research Facility. Forty-eight young faces stared at the camera, looking excited but slightly overwhelmed. Later that same evening, the students took part in the Incoming Ceremony, the official start to what many in the past have considered one of the most meaningful journeys of their lives.

These days, the Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) Student Intern Program is an institution; the class of 2019 is the 30th since its inception, and more than 1,300 students from the Frederick area have taken part. But in the late 1980s, the idea of giving high school students wet lab experience was unheard of.

In 1989, NCI Administrator Gordon Cecil brought the idea to several NCI investigators, including Howard Young, Tom Schneider, and Nancy Colburn. Young still remembers Cecil approaching him as he walked toward Building 426 to ask what he thought of bringing high school students into the lab. The group of investigators all agreed: “Why not?”

“The first year, there were 12 applicants with six staff offering to be sponsors. We all thought it was a program worth participating in, as it was part of our responsibility to train the next generation of scientists,” Young said.

The program has grown steadily—there are now more than 40 mentors—and has expanded to include dry lab experience in areas such as information technology, bioinformatics, and communications. Many of the program’s alumni have gone on to distinguished careers, including two from Nadya Tarasova’s lab who recently defended their Ph.D. theses at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

“The students are smart, capable and energetic; they only need guidance and resources, which a scientist can provide,” said Schneider. “Then, they can make important discoveries. So many have published scientific papers with their mentors.  Whether or not they enter a scientific field for a career, the experience will help them make informed decisions.”

The WHK program is named in honor of Dr. Werner Kirsten, who served as the associate director of NCI at Frederick for four years until his sudden death in 1992. He was a strong supporter of the nascent student intern program, and when he passed, those involved agreed to name the program after him as tribute.

Before joining the NCI at Frederick, Kirsten chaired the University of Chicago’s Department of Pathology for 16 years and served for many years on the board of the Leukemia Society of America. He is best known for discovering the Kirsten mouse sarcoma virus, which was one of the first known cancer-causing viruses.

Prospective students and mentors can learn more about the WHK program by visiting the Werner H. Kirsten Student Internship Program website.