From make-believe to biomedical research, student is a step closer to achieving dream

July 24, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Tom Haffner stands outside the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center campus where he spends most of his summer days working on two separate research projects. By Lillian Tucker

Growing up on Tiger Mountain, Tom Haffner used to like to make-believe that he was a doctor.

Years later, the 21-year-old is working on projects at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center that could improve prostate cancer patient care and research.

A senior at Whitman University studying biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, Haffner is spending his summer interning at Fred Hutchinson. The world-renowned research center in Seattle is one stop on Haffner’s way to becoming a doctor. And so far, he said it’s proving to be invaluable.

“From talking to patients to seeing where 10,000 specimens are stored, it’s really giving me a whole picture of what medicine is,” he said. “There is so much more to it than meets the eye.”

With a team of three other interns headed by Biomedical Informatics Lead Paul Fearn, Haffner is working on two research projects that deal with prostate cancer and how information is stored. Both mean that much of his nearly 40-hour workweek is spent talking with patients, physicians and laboratory staff and looking at current data systems in order to come up with better ones.

“Talking to these different folks, he sees the health care system through multiple perspectives,” Fearn said.

These two projects, he added, intrinsically show the many faces of medicine.

“It reaches far back into the processes of the health care system,” he said.

The first project involves implementing and testing a prototype system that tracks thousands of patients to see how they are doing long after their cancer treatment has finished. Not only can better organizing that information improve patient care, Fearn explained, but it could also lead to future breakthroughs in treatment.

The second project aims to find a better way to track specimens and the patient information that goes with them. When patients donate blood or tissue for research, things such as their medical history and experiment results need to be maintained as well.

“It does take some independence and maturity to do an internship like this,” Fearn said.

Haffner and the three other interns were selected from a group of more than 30 applicants. Fearn said that Haffner’s maturity was first apparent in his application essay.

“I made this one very intense and Tom seemed like the kind of student that would thrive when pushed,” Fearn said.

By the end of the second project, the team hopes to have a manuscript ready to present for publishing in the journal “Biopreservation and Biobanking.”

“It’s an interesting thing, not many undergraduates get the opportunity,” Haffner said. “Hopefully the paper, beyond helping out the local UW lab, can be used anywhere where they want to implement a new system. They can pull up our paper and see for themselves…definitely contributing to the scientific field is a noble idea.”

However, he didn’t always think so highly of the scientific field.

“I remember having biology classes in middle school and thinking, ‘Why would anyone want to go into science?’” he recalled.

But that all changed when he took a class taught by Angela Hammong at Liberty High School.

“I tried to take as many classes with her as I could. It really got me into biology, life sciences and from there, medicine,” he said.

After graduating in 2009, Haffner set off to study all things biology at college.

“When he sets his mind on something, he puts a lot of effort into it,” said his mother, Michelle Haffner. “He works really hard and he likes taking advantage of his opportunities.”

Having been bitten by the travel bug at a young age, Haffner pursued that passion with the same vigor. He wasn’t even in high school yet when he enrolled in a Japanese course at Bellevue College. It wasn’t long until he left his parents behind to travel to Japan with a group from his class.

“It was just a Tom thing to do — to say I have this opportunity and I want to do,” Michelle Haffner said.

That same year the entire family visited London and took a road trip in Ireland.

“That’s really important to us, that he get exposure outside of just Issaquah,” she said.

Thankful for his parents’ philosophy about travel, Haffner spend several months last year studying abroad in Vienna, Austria. He was not fluent enough in German to take science classes abroad, so he used the break to learn about music and architecture.

“Going somewhere where they didn’t speak English was a big draw, even if it meant I couldn’t take science courses,” he said. “It’s amazing how deep of a conversation you can have when you only know a few hundred words of a language.”

After graduating from Whitman next June, Haffner said he plans to take a gap year to travel before heading to medical school.

“I think he would make a great surgeon. Twenty years from now I could see him being department chair,” Fearn said. “He’s got that personality. Putting him out front, practicing and leading would be great fit.”

Lillian Tucker: 392-6434, ext. 242, or Comment at

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