Science Education Partnership teacher Melissa Baker’s interest in mentor Matthias Stephan’s work is both professional and personal

Stephan studies ovarian cancer; Baker’s mother and great grandmother died of the disease
Melissa Baker
Melissa Baker with mentor Dr. Matthias Stephan Photo by Bo Jungmayer

When Bellevue-based high school science teacher Melissa Baker applied to participate in this year’s Science Education Partnership at the Hutchinson Center, she had no idea that the research scientist who reviewed her application and chose to mentor her in his lab studied a cancer that has significantly touched her life.

Baker’s application was selected by Dr. Matthias Stephan, a Fred Hutch scientist in whose Clinical Research Division lab Baker is working for a week this summer.

Baker’s interest in Stephan’s work is both professional and personal.

“I’m excited to work with Dr. Stephan in his lab. What really piqued my interest is that he told me one of the cancers he is working on is ovarian cancer. My mom passed away from ovarian cancer just two years ago and before that my great-grandmother did as well, so I have a personal vendetta against the disease — who wouldn’t? I’m looking forward to every second of the program,” Baker said.

Baker teaches high school chemistry and nanotechnology/advanced placement classes at Newport High School in Bellevue and is among more than 20 science teachers from communities around Washington state participating in this year’s SEP summer workshop from July 15-31.

During this portion of the program, Baker and her fellow teachers will learn lab techniques, working hands on alongside research scientists at Fred Hutch and other partner sites throughout Seattle, and then use what they learn to create a curriculum specifically tailored to their classes.

Using ‘smart’ synthetics to activate immune response and prevent cancer recurrence

By working side by side with Stephan in his lab, Baker will learn how he’s designing “smart” synthetic materials that can precisely activate immune responses against cancer cells left behind after surgery. Most recently, his laboratory developed a process by which cancer-fighting immune cells can be embedded in a resorbable polymeric device and surgically implanted where a tumor was just removed. “Immune cells can begin eliminating residual cancer cells that the surgeons couldn’t remove,” Stephan said. “And meanwhile, stimulatory drugs released from the implant activate the patient’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells to generate long-lasting immune protection against any future recurrence of cancer.”

Melissa Baker
Photo by Bo Jungmayer

Big breakthroughs require understanding the small end of the scale

Baker’s interest in nanotechnology began six years ago after attending a teachers science camp in microscopy. “Since then I’ve noticed the big breakthroughs in science and technology have required an understanding of the small end of the scale,” she said.

However, she indicated that teaching bioengineering and nanotechnology has challenges such as budget issues, access to equipment and supplies and keeping current on the science. “I especially love teaching nanotechnology because the curriculum has to change to keep up, so I get to learn too, but budgets are limited. For two sections of nanotechnology last year we only had $600,” she said. Through a colleague’s recommendation, she contacted the Seattle’s Hub for Industry-Driven Nanotechnology Education program through North Seattle Community College, which allowed her to borrow some equipment and much-needed supplies, but she still found it hard to stretch her budget.  

Weaving cutting-edge content into the standard high school curriculum

The SEP helps teachers like Baker overcome such obstacles with training, curriculum assistance and subsidized loaner kits. “We hope to fill Melissa’s knowledge gaps, immerse her in real-world research, and provide support material and workshops to increase her ability to integrate nanotechnology topics into the curriculum,” Stephan said. Our lab will expose Melissa to real-world applications of immunobioengineering and help her weave cutting-edge content in to her standard high school curriculum.”  

Among the resources provided by the SEP program to help teachers with budget issues are science kits that are loaned out by Fred Hutch an ongoing basis to all teachers who participate in the yearlong program. The kits, assembled and maintained at Fred Hutch, contain all the equipment necessary for experiments such as DNA gel electrophoresis, bacterial transformation and detection of avian flu. This year, Baker and Stephan, in coordination with SEP Director Dr. Nancy Hutchison, will work to help develop a new immunobioengineering kit to add to the selection.

Teacher feedback is crucial to the success of the program

“We anticipate Melissa’s experiments will become part of the loan kits, and we anticipate her immediate feedback will give us an idea of how well they blend with high school curricula, what impact the experiments could have on students, and what experiments high school teachers will find most and least useful,” Stephan said.

The benefits of the SEP program extend beyond the teachers and students. By helping create an environment of scientific excellence in the schools, the program encourages youth to become interested and involved in science, which creates a more science-savvy population to rise to future challenges.

“To ensure the continued rapid development of next-generation immunotherapies, it will be necessary to have in place a scientific workforce that is trained for interfacing materials science and immunology,” Stephan said. “The SEP program at Fred Hutch allows our laboratory to directly integrate the latest advances in biomedical research into high school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curricula to inspire future scientists and to convey the excitement, challenge and results of our cutting-edge research with teachers, students and the public. It is important and extremely rewarding for our laboratory to help build a pipeline of innovative immunobioengineers, thus catalyzing the development of next-generation therapies for cancer and other diseases.”

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