While most of her classmates and teammates have spent their summer soaking up the sun, Dartmouth volleyball player Kaira Lujan has logged six to eight hours a day in a lab with researchers at Northwestern University.

The sophomore middle blocker traded in her sunscreen for a lab coat during her off term, as she was one of 12 students chosen from a pool of over 170 to participate in the Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience Program (CURE) at the Illinois institution. CURE gives selected students from across the country the opportunity to work with cancer researchers at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern. Each member of the program has a mentor within the lab.

Lujan, a biomedical engineering major, is working with a Ph. D. candidate in the Shea lab.

“I’m working with Brian Aguado and the focus of our project is to examine how different immune factors act in the establishment of a premetastatic niche,” Lujan said. “Brian and I are attempting to identify specific immune factors that affect how cancer cells spread. We are doing migration, invasion, and proliferation assays as well as cell arrays to determine what affect the immune factors have on the growth and spread of the cancer cells.”

As the soon-to-be Big Green sophomore explains, the lab she is working in is studying the connection between factors secreted by immune cells and the establishment of a premetastatic niche and subsequent recruitment of cancer cells.

The Sante Fe, N.M., native is quick to point out that it’s not all work and no play as the program offers weekly seminars with guest speakers to provide students with a foundational understanding of cancer biology and research.

Lujan first heard about the program after receiving an email from the Nathan Smith Society about summer research opportunities.

“While looking at the program details, I was very excited for the opportunity to work in a biomedical lab studying cancer,” the second-year member of the Big Green stated.

Lujan’s interest in the disease and studying it, isn’t just scholarly, but deeply personal as well.

“Cancer terrifies me. My grandmother died of lung cancer in 2005 and my mother is is a breast cancer survivor,” the six-footer added. “This has fueled my interest in cancer related research. At Dartmouth, through the Women in Science Program (WISP), I worked with Professor Venkataramanan Krishnaswamy on breast cancer imaging with the overall aim of improving pre- and intra-operative breast cancer screening. From my great experience at school, I wanted to continue doing research over the summer. I was also excited to work in a big research environment.”

The connection that Lujan and many others have with cancer make the early mornings and late nights in the lab all the more meaningful.

Outside of the lab, Lujan is making the most of both her free time and commuting time each day. Her schedule is regimented during the week, and on her travels into the city, she has time to read relevant research papers and current fiction. On the weekends, she has had the opportunity to take sailing classes and explore the city of Chicago.

“It’s really wonderful because we are working right in downtown. I went to the Navy Pier to watch fireworks for the Fourth of July and during the Taste of Chicago I was able to see the band Fun. perform,” Lujan said.

“I’m glad to be in the windy city though because it is excellent fall sailing conditions,” she quipped.

Despite enjoying the big city environment and her work in the lab, Lujan admits that the summer program is now the longest she’s been away from her Dartmouth teammates since joining the squad last fall.

“I can’t wait to see all my teammates again for preseason. We have a group text where we all share what we are doing and frequently exchange stories and photos. I’m a little disappointed that I can’t make it up there to help with the volleyball camp, but I’m really excited for the fall season,” Lujan exclaimed.

Although her schedule has been busy, she has been keeping up with the team’s summer workout program. She has found some time this summer for the sport she loves.

“For the two weeks I was at home, I joined my friends club team for practice as they prepared for Nationals,” Lujan said. “I was able to get on the court for about nine hours a week. It was fun, but I’m looking for forward to being back with my Big Green family in Hanover.”