Micropipette in hand, Dr. Matthias Stephan of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Clinical Research Division explained the day’s task to his lab coat-clad assistants: Figure out the right concentration of solution to add to a freeze-dried algae disc to make a sponge-like material porous enough to load with tumor-fighting immune cells yet stiff enough for a surgeon to pick up with forceps. The goal: a biodegradable scaffold roughly the size and shape of a nickel that surgeons can use to deliver cancer therapy directly to tumor sites.
Around Stephan, four heads—three pony-tailed, one in a green knit cap—nodded, then bent over test tubes and trays. Moments later, a pipette tip flew across the room, leading to gales of laughter. Then the teenagers from Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School went back to work.
Immunobioengineering is an emerging field that blends immunology and engineering to make materials and treatments for cancer and other diseases—not exactly your everyday high school fare. But juniors Amanda Sayasane and Leah Flores and seniors Puja Niroula and Alex Nguyen showed no sign of being daunted by the challenge. And that is exactly the point of the Hutch Training Lab.
The student-friendly lab on the Fred Hutch campus, one of the first of its kind in the country, is the brainchild of Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, a stem cell researcher in the Clinical Research Division. Torok-Storb wanted to find a way to help cultivate high school students with an interest in science who might consider a career as a researcher. Growing young scientists is especially important as the field grows and more researchers are needed.
So three years ago, with grants from the National Institutes of Health, private donations and help from other Hutch labs, she opened the student lab that’s fully equipped with a centrifuge, freezer, incubators, fume hoods, microscopes, shelves of glass flasks and crisp white lab coats. Washington state laws bar students under 18 from being in labs with toxic chemicals, flammable liquids, human blood, infectious agents, radiation or, as Torok-Storb put it, “all the stuff we work with” so the student lab is stocked with non-toxic substitutes for hazardous materials. She has since converted unused space to add a second training lab.
“We’ve now built up a reputation for doing quality programs for high school students,” said Torok-Storb. “Our faculty are really willing to do this. And this is what you want to expose these kids to—you want to expose them to experts.”
Training the next generation of scientists
National leaders, including President Barack Obama, frequently warn that the United States risks losing its global competitiveness in science and technology and call for increasing the number of students and teachers in these fields. Employers complain that they can’t find qualified workers to fill vacancies.
Take immunobioengineering. Between 2010 and 2012, according to Stephan, 11 new U.S. biotechnology companies launched innovative biomaterial products that mobilize the body's immune system to combat various diseases.
To keep up with that pace, more scientists will need to be trained – and that training can start early.
“We believe students can be introduced as early as 10th grade to the concept that creative blending of engineering and immunology holds promise for the discovery and development of future treatments for cancer, infectious disease and autoimmunity,” Stephan said.
But, he pointed out, most high school teachers find it hard to keep up with this new and rapidly developing field, lack access to state-of-the-art research equipment and lack adequate laboratory training to design experiments that address immune-engineering questions.
Rainier Beach biology teacher Louise Wong couldn’t agree more, which is why she sought out Fred Hutch.
“I’m trying to open up my classroom to the resources of Seattle,” she said. “There are opportunities out there that you just can’t do in a classroom.”
Wong has been especially intrepid at seeking out these opportunities. In 2012, she won a grant to take her biology students to the Olympic Peninsula to study the changing ecosystem of the Elwha River, site of the largest dam removal ever in the United States. She recently won a competition from Teachers United to fund a dream project—equipping her science classroom with microscope cameras and iPads.
Last summer, Wong herself took part in the Science Education Partnership, a program that pairs Washington science teachers with scientists at the Hutch and at other Seattle research institutions and biotechnology firms.
“Science just keeps advancing and advancing,” she said. “Relationships with places like Fred Hutch help us keep up.”
Long known for its championship boys basketball team, Rainier Beach High School has been working hard to improve its academics. Recently, it started an International Baccalaureate Program, which offers demanding, college-level classes, with 95 percent of 11th graders participating. In August 2013, the Seattle Times called the school “one of the bright spots” in test scores.
The school is in a neighborhood in south Seattle that is often described as one of the most diverse zip codes in the United States. Minorities—African Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, Native Americans and Alaska Natives—make up 95 percent of enrollment. Almost 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches and almost half learned English as a second language.
Torok-Storb set up the training lab in 2010 after partnering with the TAF Academy, an alternative school in the Federal Way (Wash.) School District that prepares students from similarly diverse, low-income families for careers in math, science and technology. Starting their sophomore year, a half dozen TAF students come to the Hutch Training Lab twice a month throughout the academic year; another 20 or so students from any high school can apply to join them for an eight-week summer internship. (The deadline for summer 2014 applications has been extended to March 31.)
Inviting Rainier Beach and other groups is a way to expand the lab’s reach. Over lunch with Wong in one of the Hutch cafeterias, the students talked of pursuing more science studies. Alex expressed an interest in forensics, Amanda, the brain. “Lately I’ve been interested in the brain-computer interface,” she said. For Dr. Bev, as Torok-Storb is known to the many students she’s mentored, encouraging kids from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds to go into science is not just an in issue of fairness. Research itself benefits because people from different backgrounds bring in a diversity of ideas, she said. Underrepresented populations also experience healthcare disparities and could benefit from researchers who are attuned to that experience.
Plus, it’s personal.
The veteran researcher grew up on a housing project in Erie, Penn., where she was assigned to a remedial kindergarten. She had to take a test before she could move on to the regular public school, and passed with flying colors—only to be made to retake the test because no one believed a kid from the projects could score so high.
“At the time, I thought, ‘Cool. I did so well, they’re here to see me do it again,’” Torok-Storb recalled. “I didn’t know there was a negative stigma attached to it for many years.”
Now, she remembers it vividly, just as she recalls in middle school becoming the first girl in the Erie School District to insist on—and enroll in—a drafting class rather than the typing, sewing or cooking classes then open to girls.
“I appreciated very much the people who took extra effort do guide me and enrich my educational experience that allowed me to get where I am,” said Torok-Storb. “I’m just returning that.”
Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.