PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is renowned for the treatment it provides.

But did you know that the building also houses hundreds of cancer researchers working to improve treatments and find a cure?

For the past ten years, high school students have helped those researchers in an incredible program, called Hillman Academy, that brings in young people who are underrepresented in science and medicine.

The high school students work side by side with research scientists, studying immunotherapy, which is when the body’s own immune system attacks cancer cells.

Nicole McGaa — a senior at North Allegheny High School — and Tiara Oldfield — a high school student from Maryland — said working in the lab is a lot different than high school science class.

“It was definitely not what I thought it was going to be like,” Oldfield said. “There’s a lot of messy, unglamorous details of being in the lab. You love it more for all the little tidbits.”

McGaa said she is among those underrepresented in science as a female of Chinese and American-Indian descent.

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Her mentor, UPMC Immunologist Dr. Greg Delgoffe, said having young people from different backgrounds is critical to new discovery in science.

“The goal of this program is to increase the quality, the quantity but also the diversity of the biomedical research workforce,” said Dr. David Boone, director of the Hillman Academy.

Tiara’s mentor, UPMC Immunologist Dr. Tullia Bruno, said as a woman she’s always been a minority in her field and hopes the program will not only recruit but retain women in science.

“Starting young with kids … sometimes it is good, to get in their mind they can be a scientist,” Bruno said.

These mentors recognize that it’s critical to get new, diverse minds in science, especially when it comes to cancer. Dr. Delgoffe said. “The only thing that really matters is if you can train the next generation of scientists to discover things.”

Hillman Academy had 73 students in the program this summer, 53 of them from the Pittsburgh region.

Many of the students get a stipend for the summer.

Much of the funding for Hillman Academy comes from grants and NIH funding

Kristine Sorensen