Passing on the Torch: The Story of How Two Scholars are Helping Students Become Leaders

By Shauna Anderson, Manelly Castaneda, and Haarika Atluri

The Arizona Cancer Center (ACE) Scholars Program was co-founded by Drs. Cristina Baciu and Zachary Compton as a pilot program at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Fall of 2020 and was eventually formalized in 2021. Dr. Baciu and Dr. Compton designed the program to provide research experience and community for students across Arizona State University. With the co-founders' passion for mentoring, cancer evolution research, and professional development, the ACE Scholars program quickly became a powerhouse that has trained over 125 students to date.

The ACE Scholars attend virtual research group meetings, which consist of professional development hosted by Dr. Baciu and R Tutorials that are hosted by Dr. Compton. This is to prepare students for life outside of the center as well as to help students to be successful on their respective teams within the center. These lessons also help students to be valuable competitors in the job market and on their graduate school applications, as these are skills that are highly sought after in numerous scientific fields.

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The program currently features nine teams that conduct research broadly at the intersections of cancer biology and evolutionary theory. Each team has its own team leader, usually a more experienced graduate student who has been in the program for at least one semester, who is there to ensure that students are successful in their work at the center. To showcase their hard work and knowledge, the teams submit abstracts of their research to various academic events in the scientific community. The majority of the ACE Scholars teams have taken home top awards at these symposiums. In addition to being awarded for amazing research, a few teams have been successful in publishing their manuscripts. This is a huge feat for any researcher and it is a reflection of the great leadership provided by both Drs. Baciu and Compton.

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When Dr. Compton was asked what he envisions for the ACE Scholars Program he said, “To be both the largest and most productive cancer research team”. In almost three short years, that is exactly what the ACE Scholars program is doing. Numerous students submit applications each semester to be considered to work in the program as scholars and research assistants. The team leaders, along with Dr. Baciu and Dr. Compton typically spend a week each semester choosing those who are best positioned to move forward in the program and represent ACE Scholars in academia at symposiums and publish scientific papers that show the hard and meaningful work produced in the center.

Dr. Baciu was asked where she sees ACE in five years and she replied, “The ACE Scholars Program’s hallmarks are to provide rigorous research training and professional development opportunities while fostering a community of care for undergraduate students at ASU and beyond. We will continue to build on these program pillars while expanding and serving a diversity of students. We are actively working on establishing new partnerships and providing our students with more opportunities, including wet lab work, immersion opportunities, and more. The future is bright for the ACE Scholars Program. I cannot wait to see what we can achieve together while having fun, researching, learning, and working together towards our individual and collective goals!”