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Hillman Academy

Authentic and immersive cancer research experiences for high school students with world-class scientists as mentors.

Each summer, high school students perform authentic research alongside world-renowned scientists at the Hillman Cancer Center and throughout the University of Pittsburgh. By engaging students in a rigorous, supportive, full-time summer mentorship program, the Hillman Academy is working to increase the diversity and quality of students prepared for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

HundrED 2020


HundrED has selected this innovation to

HundrED 2020

Pittsburgh, USA

Web presence






February 2019
The experience is unparalleled. To be a part of truly revolutionary research that will impact lives all over the world gave me such a sense of accomplishment.

About the innovation

How can an institution promote diversity and engagement in STEM education?

The Hillman Academy, previously known as the UPCIAcademy, was established in 2009. It is a joint initiative by the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), and the Hillman Cancer Center (HCC), which are, respectively, a top-tier Research I University ranked fifth in NIH funding, a nationally ranked academic healthcare system, and an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center. The HCC is the only National Cancer Institute designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in western Pennsylvania making it the preeminent institution in the region for the delivery of cancer care, performance of basic, translational, and clinical research, and the education of the next generation of cancer researchers and physicians.

Our Mission


We strive to provide one-on-one mentorship through authentic, cutting-edge cancer research and career preparatory experiences to a diverse group of highly motivated high school students interested in pursuing STEM fields, especially research and medicine. We aim to increase the number and diversity of students prepared for research and medical careers. Our long-term goal is to broaden participation in these fields, which will enhance cancer research and therapy and reduce health disparities.

What We Provide

Poster session

1. Research and Mentorship. The Hillman Academy is an eight-week, intensive summer program in which students spend the vast majority of their time in labs, immersed in a graduate-level research project. They work one-on-one with a faculty, postdoc, or graduate researcher at the University of Pittsburgh or UPMC. Over 120 unique faculty members and hundreds of additional graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have served as mentors, guiding students through a portion of their actual research agenda. Students become experts in their topics and at the end of the program create a poster and give a 10 minute presentation about their own research. Posters are presented on the final day in a judged poster symposium to give students an opportunity to show what they learned to over 200 people.

2. Academic and Career Development Experiences. We supplement the lab and research time with didactic lectures and activities such as journal clubs, lectures, and keynotes from career scientists. Based on their interests, students will be hosted by one of six research sites that has its own focus, tailored curriculum, and rich environment. The six sites are:

  • Cancer Biology

  • Tumor Immunology

  • Computer Science, Biology and Biomedical Informatics

  • Women's Cancer Research

  • Computational Biology

  • TechDriveX that consists of Bioengineering, Genetics, Regeneration, Cancer Environment, Aging, and Microbiology.

The experiences at each site are well-aligned with the next generation science standards (NGSS) with research projects and didactic training that both cover the eight NGSS-defined practices and focus on core and cross-cutting ideas in numerous scientific fields with culturally responsive pedagogy. Students will read scholarly articles to supplement their research topic and learn how to communicate effectively by sharing what they learned with their peers and mentors. We provide classes to teach basic science skills that are likely untaught at their high schools. The students also participate in career development workshops on diversity, inclusion, leadership, communication, etc. guided by leaders of community and institutional organizations. Lastly, we bring in a diverse group of researchers and STEM professionals to both educate the students and provide perspective and ideas about their scientific careers and career paths.

3. Stipends, lunches, and transportation. As part of our commitment to broadening participation, we pay stipendsof $2400 + free lunches and bus passes to all students from populations that are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences. We also offer free housing to a limited number of underrepresented students that live too far from campus or cannot easily commute. The program is free of charge to all other students, but they do not receive a stipend.

Our Students

Adelle and Beatrice

Our program recruits a variety of students both locally and nationally (25 states), from different ethnic, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We have grown from 5 students to support ~65 high school students and 4 undergraduates per year. Over our 10 year history we have offered 429 internships to 378 students, 155 of which are from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds (URM/DA). For their work in our Academy alumnihave won numerous scholarships and awards (7 International Science and Engineering Fair qualifiers and 2 Intel Student Talent Search Semifinalists in past 2 years), coauthored over 30 manuscripts, over 20 students have presented at national scientific conferences, and many continue research both with us and at the top institutions that they now attend. We continue to support our alumni for years after they participate. To date, 24 URM/DA students received paid research opportunities in leadership roles as senior students and/or resident advisers for participation in subsequent years of the Academy.

Growth and Longitudinal Success


Over the past ten years, the Hillman Academy, which was recognized in 2014 with the Carnegie Science Center Leadership in STEM Education award, has trained and mentored nearly 400 students from over 60 high schools. Of the 160 URM/DA students, 99% have matriculated into college and 93% of those with declared majors have matriculated into science and healthcare majors and fields. Over 100 faculty members have supported our students as hosts and mentors. Since its inception, the program has grown from 5 students in the Hillman Cancer Center to become an internationally recognized STEM program that provides unique and complex science research learning experiences to approximately 60-70 high school students and 4 undergraduates each year in labs across 15 departments at the University of Pittsburgh and 6 physical locations throughout Pittsburgh. Altogether the program provides authentic research experience, professional development, and quality mentorship and has a proven record of helping students excel in the STEM fields and solidify their career choices .

Impact & scalability

Academy review results
Read more about our selection process

Implementation steps

Identify champions that can connect students to research

Identify individuals able to provide research mentorship or connect you with those that can. If you are part of an institution, university, hospital, or biotech company, discuss a pre-college program with your colleagues to gauge interest. If you are not part of an institution that can provide research experiences, identify those that might be willing to do so at local universities, hospitals, or companies. Most research institutions have websites that list researchers and their interests. You can reach out directly to them to ask if they would be willing to host a student(s) and ask if they have colleagues that are also interested.

Mentors are the lifeblood of a research internship program. Mentors volunteer their time, effort, lab space, reagents, and personnel in order to provide students with an authentic research experience. It is important to find people who believe in the cause. Mentors should be patient, flexible, and committed. The students also benefit the mentors. Most of our mentors find that the youth bring a renewed sense of awe and excitement to their labs. Also, for graduate students or postdocs this an opportunity to learn how to mentor for the first time.

Both top-down and bottom-up approaches work to find these STEM champions. A Senior Administrator, Department Chair, Vice-Chancellor has considerable sway in recruiting mentors, but you can also identify many researchers that enjoy teaching and believe in increasing diversity and access to biomedical research.

Identify administrative requirements

You need to identify the relevant institutional guidelines and polices that will dictate how and when a minor can perform research in the lab and whether or not they must be paid or can serve as volunteers. You can sometimes find these policies on the HR portion of the institutional webpage. If not, you can find a contact in HR or General Counsel that can guide you through the process. Just be sure to stick to the rules, which are there generally to protect the students, mentors, and paid employees.

Administrative requirements will also be the backbone of the paperwork sent to the students. You should create or may need the following documents to send to the students for them to read, understand, and sign:

1) Expectations and rules of the program.

2) Potential risks of performing research.

3) Media release form.

4) Emergency contact information.

5) Assent and consent form if planning to evaluate through a research question.

6) Payment and tax forms if you are offering compensation or financial incentives.

Recruit Students

It is important to find and recruit a DIVERSE group of students. This requires intentional recruiting practices to attract students from all backgrounds. Create a webpage and a one-pager describing your activity, mission, goals, and who your intended audience is, what is expected of them, and what benefits they will receive. These will be critical when building partnerships and reaching students. Reach out to local high schools and build relationships with guidance counselors, teachers, and administrators. Often teachers or administrators are more than happy to have a scientist (assuming you are a scientist) come to their classroom and discuss their work and advertise a program. Also leverage or connect with community partners that already have a relationship with a diverse student body. These can be informal educators, museums, intermediate units, teacher organizations, parent/teacher organizations, faith organizations, educational foundations, STEM ecosystems, etc. You will have no problem finding talented students from well-resourced families, however it is absolutely critical to reach students from underrpresented and/or disadvantaged backgrounds as increasing diversity in STEM and providing opportunities for students should be your guiding principles. These local organizations are extremely helpful in finding the diverse group of students that you desire. I also suggest running small workshops at local events if possible, whether it be at a science center, museum, community engagement center, or on campus.

Once the application is open, students and parents may have questions. Be prepared to answer phone calls and emails. We also find that hosting one or two webinars using open source software such as Skype with a phone call in number can address many of these questions at once.

After the applications close you will need to review applicants, send out admissions decisions, wait for responses, adjust accepted list if anyone does not accept your offer, send out administrative paperwork, wait for completed paperwork, and prepare for the students arrival---so leave yourself plenty of time.

For the logistics of the application process, we suggest using an electronic application for ease in distribution and record keeping. Google sheets is free and is familiar to many students. We recommend asking for 1-2 letters of reference and an essay or two. These parts of the application, in our experience, are more correlated to success than any traditional educational metrics such as GPA or SAT scores. If you have time, phone interviews, even if for just 5 minutes provide invaluable insight into the students.

Develop the curriculum

How long should the program be? The longer the better, but 6-8 weeks full time in the summer seems to be a sweet spot. However, there is certainly value to shorter summer experiences or even work after school through the school year.

Regardless of the timing, most of the program should be spent working in the lab on their research project with their mentor. Project ownership and mentorship are the keys to the program. If the research can connect students to their cultural identities even better. Students should be able to talk confidently about their topics by the end of the program and present them at a high level. This requires concentrated efforts by the students and mentors and thus should be the center of the curriculum planning.

Some additional curricular activities that we find beneficial are:

1) Lectures - High level, problem-based or interactive lectures/seminars can help the students place their focused work into a larger picture. We have material that we are happy to share for lectures on genomics, cancer biology, immunology, statistics, research, ethics, etc.

2) Workshops - These are hands on in nature and provide students with the skills necessary to not only complete a research internship, but also 'soft' skills that are transferable to many professions. Local organizations are often happy to give these workshops. Some examples that we provide are: 1) diversity and inclusion, 2) leadership, 3) general science communication, 4) how to find and read a scientific paper, 5) how to give a scientific presentation, 6) how to apply for college, med school, and graduate school, 7) financial aid and college admissions, 8) stress and wellness, etc.

3) Career spotlights - There is power in seeing someone like you in a position that you desire or did not even know existed. Have a diverse group of individuals talk about their careers and career paths. We try to expose all of our students to 4-8 of these over the summer. Some career speakers that we have are: 1) professor and researcher, 2) surgeon, 3) scientist in pharma, 4) scientist in biotech, 5) chief medical informatics officer, 6) graduate student, 7) medical student, 8) staff scientist at a research institution, 9) nurse, etc.

4) Social activities - Bringing students together outside of the academic setting to bond is key to the local learning environment and the feelings of inclusiveness. These can be as simple as having meetups at a park, basketball court, soccer field, or movie theater. We also like to take students to local museums, sporting events, and cultural events.

5) Research Symposium - Celebrate the last day by having the students show off all that they did through the summer. Book a room and invite parents, teachers, mentors, administrators, and all of your colleagues. We have students give a 10-minute talk at their respective research sites followed by a group poster presentation of all ~70 students. Hundreds of people attend this event and it is the highlight of the summer. Be sure to instruct the students on how to give a talk and make a poster. Give them 1-2 weeks to prepare these final presentations.

Run the program!

The best part of running a research program is interacting with the students. After a lot of time preparing and designing, it is now time to begin what is hopefully a long and meaningful relationship with a group of students. We find the key is to stay focused on the research, support the students and mentors in anyway possible, and just get out of the way. However, we suggest to stay organized and to prepare both groups before the program and on the first day.

Organization - We suggest maintaining an online calendar of events (seminars, workshops, career talks, final research symposium). Google calendar is great for this as it is free and almost everyone is familiar with their platform. We also suggest using Google Classroom to aid in communicating with students and sharing materials. Email is also fine, but given that the program is interactive, the use of Google Classroom provides a way for the students to contribute their work and to discuss among themselves and with mentors and program leaders.

First Day workshop - Have clear instructions for where the students should arrive and have activities to build the social dynamic of the group as well as prepare them for the summer of research. We use the first day to complete all required safety and responsible conduct of research training that is necessary to work in a Pitt lab. We have ice breakers/games led by undergraduate assistants for the group to become familiar with each other and to build friendships. We also use this day to collect any last forms in case some students did not submit them beforehand. It is imperative to set the varying expectations on this first day. Some students will need to be comforted as they fear the challenge ahead, others will need to understand that they will not win the Nobel Prize from their work in the summer. Be clear. We explain that science is a process of learning through failure and that because they are engaging in a real research project, it is possible that their hypothesis will be wrong and experiments will fail, but that is okay because they are driving knowledge forward.

Introduction to mentors - We connect our students to their mentors before they arrive electronically or via phone, but meeting on the first day is critical. The mentors should have a shovel-ready project or two ready to go on their first day. The student/mentor relationship is key to the entire experience and should be monitored and attended to regularly. The program leaders should check in with the students and mentors early in the experience to assure success and to do what is necessary to make the experience as beneficial and rewarding as possible to both students and mentors. Remember, the lifeblood of the program is the mentors! If they enjoy their time and find it rewarding the program will sustain and grow annually.

Transportation -Host the events mentioned in the curriculum sections. We hire a busing a company to move the students around campus, but start small and this will not be an issue.

Final day research symposium-This is a celebration of the work of the students (and mentors). We host a large event where all students give 10 minute talks followed by a poster session. We invite all of the students, parents, teachers, mentors, administrators, and the community at large. The students love this event, and it is wonderful to watch the transformation from a high school student to a nascent scientist confident in the research that they know better than almost anyone in the world. Celebrate this event and make it a big deal for the students. Create an abstract book with the work of each student. Our students have taken these to college interviews to discuss their work. During the final symposium, tell the students of other opportunities available to them. Can they return next summer? Are there other precollege programs that you recommend? Can they submit their work to science fairs? Will you help them develop their drafts? Will you help with college applications. I recommend to do all of these things as you grow in capacity.

Review, track, keep in touch, and reflect

After the summer research program ends, evaluate and improve the program for the future. Our evaluation plan is designed to assess all aspects of the Hillman Academy using a multimodal approach that includes formal assessment with an expert evaluator in the Pitt School of Education, numerous interviews and surveys, use of national databases of student information, and examination of student-generated deliverables. However, you can keep it simple and learn a great deal about the overall quality of your programming, your recruitment practices, and the goals of your program. We set out to increase student understanding of cancer, foster interest in cancer research, train students to perform research, support scientific identities, solify career choices, demystify what it means to be a scientist, demonstrate paths to becoming a scientist, and encourage pursuit and persistence in STEM for our minoritized students. But, you can set your goals to be consistent with your mission, and then design your evaluation accordingly. Below are a few suggestions that have worked for us.

1) Start with published surveys. We started from theSummer Undergraduate Research Experience Surveyand the survey published by the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt. It has evolved a bit over the years based on input from our Education Research partners and slight changes in focus.

2) Talk with your students. Interviews near the end of the summer can provide a wealth of information. You can do these either individually or as a group. Each way has advantages and disadvantages, but both will teach you about your program.

3) Stay in touch with your students. We try to email our students and advertise opportunities to them. These include science fair applications, scholarship opportunities, places to share their scientific results from the summer such as local and national scientific conferences, and the opening of applications to other quality precollege programs. In fact, we help our students navigate the application process and write submissions for local science fairs and national scientific conferences. This has resulted in dozens of scholarships, science fair awards, qualifications for the International Science and Engineer Fair, and more than 20 abstracts accepted for presentations at national scientific symposiums. We also invite 4-8 undergrads back each summer to work with the program and all high school students can also reapply for subsequent years of training.

4) Track your students. Keeping in touch and providing opportunities will help to do this. You can also use national databases such as the National Student Clearinghouse to evaluate your longitudinal impact on your students. This has helped us to know that over 90% of our students matriculate into STEM fields!

5) Don't be afraid to change. Your students and the results will let you know your strengths and weaknesses. Ask your local partners for advice on how to take action to bolster all parts of your program.

6) Grow. We started with 5 students and grew to nearly 70 in 10 years. This was possible because of the dedication of mentors and the impact of our students on them. The easiest way to grow within an institution is looking for another champion in another field that can open the door to another set of mentors and the opportunity for more underrepresented students to experience an authentic mentored research project! Or grow by connecting with more partners and developing more robust outreach to have small offerings to large groups of students in their own communities.

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