Experiencing a real life of science at 16

Changes to Center's minor work permit allows high-school students to perform 'real lab duties'
Peter Kirk (left), worked with lab technician Dave Metzger
The Center's new minor work permit expands what teenage employees can do in the lab. High-school senior Peter Kirk (left), worked with lab technician Dave Metzger last summer in the Parkhurst Lab. Photo by Stephanie Cartier

As high-school senior Peter Kirk contemplated college application essay questions this fall, thinking of a "most meaningful experience" to describe was easy. Kirk wrote about his work at the Hutchinson Center over the past two summers in Dr. Susan Parkhurst's lab in the Basic Sciences Division.

"Working in Susan's lab was such a great experience. I was kind of bummed when I had to go back to school in the fall and leave the lab," Kirk said. "This was my summer of getting up at 8 a.m. to go to work while my friends were all sleeping until noon, but it was worth it." Instead of slumbering the days away, Kirk worked with lab technician Dave Metzger to manage the long process of growing bacteria to purify protein and DNA for one of Parkhurst's studies.

The possibility of hands-on volunteer and paid summer laboratory work for students like Kirk recently became easier with changes to the Center's work permit that dictates what minors may do in the workplace. The state license has been greatly expanded to allow high-school students just the kind of meaningful, real-world scientific tasks they're looking for.

The new minor work permit, which became official Nov. 1, 2006, allows high-school employees to perform molecular and biological research techniques, including micropipetting, DNA gel electrophoresis, plasmid preparation, bacterial transformation, DNA extraction, fruit-fly breeding and histology-slide preparation and staining. However, minor workers still cannot be exposed to radioactivity, hazardous chemicals, biohazardous agents and human blood or tissue.

Why limit learning?

When the Center first applied for a minor work permit in 1995, the license stipulated minors were only allowed to perform general clerical duties or basic lab assistance like cleaning, restocking pipettes and transferring fruit flies. The permit, while restrictive, gave minors access to Center labs for the first time.

"It was frustrating for so many of the scientists who are such advocates of education and learning for these children. They wanted to offer an opportunity to expose youths to science and learning," said Jon Flowers, employee relations supervisor. "When I'd give them a copy of the restrictions and the duties a minor could perform, they'd say, 'That's it? That's not science. That's custodial work.'"

Flowers and Kathe Watanabe, human resources specialist, worked with Parkhurst last summer to create a case to present to the Department of Labor and Industries, which oversees the Center's work permits. Parkhurst, who hired the Center's first official minor in 1995, champions giving young employees a chance.

Instilling science early

"I think there are people who are really motivated at a young age and are very bright and mature. If you can find them, it seems really sad not to give them an opportunity," Parkhurst said. "The high-school students I've had have been as good as undergraduate students."

Parkhurst particularly appreciates the value of early learning opportunities. When she was in high school, she spent two summers working in a microbiology lab at Denver's Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

During her second summer, she processed samples for an epidemiological-based study looking at infections picked up in hospitals. Her contributions made her a co-author on a published scientific paper by the time she was 18.

"It made me sure this was what I really wanted for my career," she said. "I did things that I don't like to do now, but at the time, doing anything in the lab was cool. The people I worked with were particularly good, and they were willing to answer lots of questions."

Flowers and Watanabe discussed the expansion of duties with Han Nachtrieb, Human Resources vice president, and Environmental Health and Safety's Debbie Shiozaki before asking state officials to reconsider the permit. They explained that many high-school students are already safely performing research techniques in their science and biotechnology classes. Labor and Industries representatives readily agreed.

"This is something I've been hoping we could accomplish for more than a decade, and I am so happy that folks here were able to push this through and make it happen," Nachtrieb said. "I'm not just excited. I'm ecstatic."

"I think being exposed to science, being around science, learning from science — as long as you're in a safe environment — is really attractive and what interests people from a young age," he said. "For me, the ability to spark people's minds and get them interested in science and in laboratory-oriented work, particularly at an earlier age, is really important for developing the next generation of scientists. This will contribute to our long-term competitiveness in the scientific world."

Seeing potential is part of the Center's culture, Flowers said. "Many organizations think minors in the workplace are just too much liability, but we believe some of these students might enter science and someday discover a cure for who knows what. We're building for our future through these young people, and by exposing them to these opportunities, that's just one more brick on their wall," he said. "Even if they decide not to go into science, they're still being exposed to the everyday work experience, and they might be in a position to advocate for science one day."

How to get hired

The Center generally hires about 15 high-schoolers for summer jobs each year. Six to eight internships are available through the Center's formal high-school internship program. Though other positions may be available, the official high-school internship program is only open to King County high-school juniors and seniors. For the summer of 2007, each high school can nominate one student to apply. Interested parties should contact Watanabe.

Kirk's mother, Public Health Sciences Division investigator Dr. Janet Stanford, is grateful for the exposure her son was given. "When people complimented his work here, that was more meaningful to him than any school grade he had ever received," she said. "He took a lot of pride in being able to contribute to the work of the lab. It was wonderful for him to have the experience of interacting with a professional like Susan. I hope more kids get to have this kind of opportunity."

College-bound Kirk doesn't yet know what major or career he'll choose, but he knows one thing for sure: "Science classes in school are great, but nothing in a textbook compares to work in a real lab, eight hours a day, five days a week. That was fantastic!"

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.