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

Hillman Academy

location_on Pittsburgh, United States
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.
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.

- Elizabeth McGrady, Hillman Academy Alumna


HundrED has selected this innovation to

HundrED 2020

Pittsburgh, USA

Key figures

Innovation Overview

15 - 18
Age Group
2 821
Updated on November 12th, 2021
about the innovation

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

The Hillman Academy, previously known as the UPCI Academy, 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 stipends of $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 alumni have 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 .


HundrED Academy Review

Academy review results
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See this innovation in action

Student Accomplishment: Science 2018
Aria Eppinger, Marie Gerges, Ned Mitrovich, Nicole Shigilitchoff, Hera Mukthar, and Zahra Medhi all participated in Science 2018, a science fair and poster session hosted by the University of Pittbsurgh.
Alumni Testimonial
Survey of Hillman Students
We asked students about their confidence with several topics and tasks before and after the program. As shown in the chart, students across the board reported improvement in these topics.
Alumni Testimonial
Student Accomplishment: PS3
Tojo (Terric) Abella won 2nd place on his presentation at the Pacific Symposium for Science & Sustainability, qualifying for the 2018 ISEF.
Student Accomplishments: AMIA 2017
Aria Eppinger, Janet Wang, Cece Baek, Shania Khatri, and Adam Moritz all attended the 2017 American Medical Informatics Association Conference.
Student Accomplishments: ISEF 2017
Shania Khatri, Jahnik Kurukulasuriya, and Elizabeth Huh all participated in the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Alumni Testimonial
Student Accomplishment: IEEE Biomedical and Health Informatics
Adam Moritz, an alumni from 2017, gave a presentation at AMIA and IEEE.
Other Activites
In addition to research we also facilitate other activities and trips for students. These are both academic and recreational and give students a chance to learn outside the lab as well as expereince the city. Past events included Pirates games, museums, and operating room tours. 
Final Presentations and Poster Sessions
One of the most important things we want our students to be able to do is share their research and communicate the science they know effectively. Each research site hosts its own final presentations where students will speak for about 10 to 15 minutes. Afterwords all students are gathered to present their research at a judged poster session with overt 200 attendees, including mentors, faculty, parents, and educators. 
Poster Example
At the end of our program students will create a research poster that encapsulates all they have done and learned in the 8 weeks. Students are encouraged to present these posters at science fairs, events, and conferences. 
Keynote Speakers
Each year we bring in a variety of keynote speakers to talk to the students. Past guests have included doctors, surgeons, research faculty, admissions and financial aid, researchers in industry, and more!
Student Accomplishment: AMIA 2018
For the last few years we have had several of our students attend and present at the American Medical Informatics Association.
Student Accomplishment: Regeneron Science Talent Search
Kerollos Kamel qualifiyied for the 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search.
Student Accomplishment: NCWIT Aspirations in Computing
Isha Das was selected as a 2019 Pennsylvania: Western & Central Affiliate winner.
Student Accomplishment: IEEE
Caroline Yu was accepted for presentation at the IEEE International Conference on Biomedical and Health Informatics
Tracking Data
Some tracking data on our program alumni. A large majority of these students go on to pursue undergraduate education and most tend to stay in STEM.
Where are our students now?
2019 ASL Recruitment Video
Last year we accepted deaf and hard of hearing students for the first time. This is our recruitment video soecifically made for these students.
2016 Student Video
A video made by students from the 2016 program.
Like us on Facebook
We post program information, potential opportunities for students, and accomplishments from our alumni.
Visit our Website
Our website is the best resource to get information about our program. Students can apply through this site when applications open.


Achievements & Awards

May 2019
Pittsburgh, USA
May 2019
February 2019
Innovation page created on

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Inspired to implement this? Here's how...

Identify champions that can connect students to research
Reach out to local universities, institutions, labs, hospitals, or companies that perform research. If you are at a research institution, connect with like-minded colleagues interested in providing opportunities to students.
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Identify administrative requirements
There are likely institutional-specific guidelines and policies to govern working with minors. You need to abide by or argue to change these policies.
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Recruit Students
Recruit students through partnerships with schools and community organizations.
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Develop the curriculum
The research project should be the center of the students' experiences, but added academic and professional development is a bonus.
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Run the program!
This is the fun part, connect the students and mentors and oversee the program.
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Review, track, keep in touch, and reflect
Collect data and keep in touch to extend your impact and improve the program.
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