OPTIMUS High School Cancer Research Internship

What is OPTIMUS?

The Outreach Program To Inspire Minority and Underrepresented Students (OPTIMUS) is an educational 6 week cancer research internship for high school students at UC San Diego's Moores Cancer Center. Our mission is to increase diversity in the clinical and biomedical research workforce.

Applications for 2019 are now closed and are under review.

We were featured on the news last year. Check it out here!



The OPTIMUS Curriculum has four main components: Research, Clinical Experience, Active Learning, and Outreach
These four fun and exciting components give students an early opportunity to: explore different career paths in oncology and the greater medical field, interact with other students interested in medical science, and learn real-world skills to bring to college and future professions.
Image of student at a computer doing research
Each student will be paired with a faculty researcher and given the opportunity to work in a unique oncology lab over the course of the program. Students will take on responsibilities of a research project, learn laboratory techniques, and practice the scientific method.
Clinical Experience
Image of student checking blood pressure
Students will learn about clinical oncology by participating in hands-on activities such as learning to suture, working through patient-centered cases on teams, and shadowing professionals.
Active Learning
Image of student learning from a group presentation
Each week will involve interactive lectures, activities, and field-trips focused on a specific cancer-related topic. This dynamic environment will allow students to use and develop their problem solving skills, critical thinking, and creativity.
Image outlooking ACTRI's 4th floor
Community outreach is a vital aspect of medicine. Students will have the opportunity to see how doctors and researchers conduct outreach, especially to underserved or at-risk populations. Students will have the chance to work with their mentors to create a meaningful outreach program to present their research findings.

Educational Curriculum by Week

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3​

Week 4​

Week 5​

Week 6​

What is cancer?

  • Biology

  • Types of cancer

  • What cancer does

What is cancer research?

  • Rationale/ scientific method

  • Basic science

  • Translational

  • Clinical

  • Safety/Ethics

How do we prevent cancer?

  • What causes cancer

  • Which ones we can prevent

  • Challenges/ solutions in preventing cancer

​How do we detect cancer?

  • Symptoms/ exam

  • Imaging/tests

  • Biopsy and Pathology

​How do we treat cancer?

  • Surveillance

  • Surgery

  • Radiation

  • Chemotherapy

  • Immunotherapy

​Career paths to explore

  • Providers (MD, RN, PA etc.)

  • Investigation (PhD, MPH etc.)

  • Systems (MBA etc.)

  • Support (SW, RD, etc.)

Example Schedule







Welcome Festivities


Suture Clinic


Research Lab

Research Lab


9:00am - 3:00pm

Field Trip to SDSU


Research Lab ​


Research Lab


Lunch & Lecture

"How we Treat Cancer"


Shadowing Physician

Radiation Oncology


"The Life of a Tumor"

Scavenger Hunt @ Moores Cancer Center

This is an example of what a weekly schedule during the program might look like. The actual times and events will change on a weekly basis based on the lecture components for the week.

Timeline and Logistics

  • OPTIMUS will take place Monday through Friday, across six weeks during the summer.
  • For the summer of 2019, these six weeks will be July 8, 2019 through August 16, 2019.
  • Applications for the 2019 cycle are due March 22, 2019. Applicants who are accepted for the program will be notified by early May.
  • Daily transportation to and from students' schools to UC San Diego will be provided.
  • Students will be awarded a stipend for participation.



Minority/Underrepresented status is required for OPTIMUS participation. Applicants should identify with one or more of the following criteria:
  1. African American, Hispanic American, Native American/Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander descent.
  2. Socioeconomically disadvantaged/low-income background (e.g., participated in the National School Lunch Program).
  3. Neither parent/guardians graduated from a four-year US college or university.
Age requirement: due to hospital rules for shadowing medical providers, applicants must be 16 years old at the start of the program (July 9, 2019). Students in grades 10, 11, and 12 are welcome to apply.

Eligible Schools: due to transportation limitations, the 2019 program will only be open to students from the following high schools: Crawford, Morse, Hoover, and Lincoln.

 Meet the Team

Ekene Akabike, BA
2018 Program Fellow
Ekene Akabike is a medical student at UC San Diego and a member of UCSD School of Medicine's PRIME-HEq (Program in Medical Education - Health Equity). As someone who has multiple identities regarding minority status and under-representation in the fields of medicine and S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), she enjoys undergoing activities that provide opportunities to encourage others to pursue their goals and aspirations in areas that need more diverse populations. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, baking, binge-watching the latest Netflix craze, and traveling.

Alexa Azuara, BS
Administrative and Finance Officer

Alexa Azuara, BS, is a UC San Diego graduate where she studied Human Biology. She works as a research fellow and clinical trials coordinator in the department of radiation oncology at UC San Diego. She enjoys working on projects aimed at serving underserved and minority populations. Other interests include traveling, trying new food, and spending time with her son.

James Murphy, MD, MS
Faculty Lead

Jim Murphy, MD, MS, is an Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology at UC San Diego, and he runs a cancer outcomes research laboratory focusing on improving cancer care quality and addressing health disparities, among many other areas of research. Other interests include palliative care, cycling, surfing, and spending time with family.

Daniel Seible, MD

Dan Seible, MD, is a senior radiation oncology resident at UC San Diego with research interests in defining and addressing language disparities in cancer care among the Hispanic underserved. Other interests include outdoor adventures with his wife and two kids, mentoring, surfing, and reading epic fantasy.

Elena Sojourner, BS
Communications Officer

Elena Sojourner, BS, is a recent graduate of UC San Diego where she studied Neuroscience and Physiology. She now works as a research assistant in a radiation oncology lab at UC San Diego. She is interested in becoming a physician and doing research to combat health disparities. Other interests include cooking, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

Cristal Vieyra
Operations Officer

Cristal Vieyra is a first generation junior nursing student at SDSU and is interested in becoming a Nurse Practitioner focused on improving health disparities in patient care. In her spare time, she likes to give back to prospective first generation college students, hike, play volleyball, and spend time with family.

Nic Villaneuva, MD
Hematology/Oncology Curriculum Chair  

Nicolas Villanueva, MD is a 3rd year Hematology/Oncology Fellow and Chief Fellow at UC San Diego. His research interests are in clinical investigation of targeted and immune therapies for advanced non-small cell lung cancer. His other interests include coffee, cooking, traveling, and rooting for his favorite baseball team, the Atlanta Braves.

Team OPTIMUS Leadership Alumni

Robert Casey Mundt
Brand and Web Designer (2017)

Robert Casey Mundt (you can just call him Casey) is a college student working part time in the radiation oncology research lab at UC San Diego. His primary focus as of now is to complete his bachelors degree. His hobbies include working out at the gym, volunteering, and keeping up with the newest games and movies.

Contact us

Our email is OPTIMUS@ucsd.edu
Everything sent there goes straight to an inbox that we check regularly, so please feel free to contact us about anything: program details, questions, comments, or concerns!

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