From student to scientist to mentor in Science Education Partnership

A science education program helped launch Louisa Pendergast’s research career. Now she’s helping mentor more science teachers at Fred Hutch.
Research technician Louisa Pendergast (right) is mentoring Northwest School biology teacher Kathryn Wallace in a research project at Fred Hutch through the Science Education Partnership program. Photo courtesy of Caren Brinkema / SEP

You’ve probably heard that adage about giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish. But how many more people could you feed if you taught a teacher to fish?

That’s the educational paradigm Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Science Education Partnership has been leading for the past 26 years. With the goal of bringing modern, real-life science and technologies to more students in Washington state, the educators at SEP are looking not to the students — but to their teachers.

Every summer, two dozen or so middle school and high school science teachers convene at the Hutch and plunge into an intensive, two-week science boot camp. Each teacher participating in the program learns new techniques in a teaching lab, and then is paired with a scientist to participate in an ongoing research project in that researcher’s laboratory.

“We’re uniquely positioned because working with teachers, there’s such a great multiplier effect. We can reach so many students through providing professional development and support to teachers,” said SEP’s director, Jeanne Chowning.

The program also loans out molecular biology kits and lesson plans for classroom use. Once a teacher has been through SEP, they’re members for life — and many of them borrow kits or benefit from other Hutch resources year after year.

The program aims to improve overall science literacy in the state, as well as to attract more people into science careers, Chowning said. And sometimes those students-turned-scientists decide to give back.

Science Education Partnership Director Jeanne Chowning herself is an SEP alum. Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

‘She made science accessible’

It’s difficult to quantitatively track how the students taught by SEP participants fare and whether the program directly spurs an interest in science, Chowning said. There are so many factors that feed into students’ interests and career choices. But the SEP team hears inspiring anecdotes from teachers and students all the time.

This year, Chowning and her team were reviewing applications from scientists who wanted to mentor an SEP teacher. A line jumped out in Fred Hutch technician and HIV researcher Louisa Pendergast’s application: Pendergast’s high school biology teacher, Tami Caraballo at Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish, Washington, participated in SEP in the summer of 2006 and brought back what she learned to her biotechnology classroom.

“Her class … was the biggest inspiration to my choice of major and career path, inevitably leading me back to wanting to work at the Hutch,” Pendergast wrote in her application.

In high school, Pendergast got the opportunity to tour Fred Hutch and Institute for Systems Biology labs with Caraballo’s class. After going through the SEP program, Caraballo has spent many of her summers in different science-intensive programs or workshops to keep her science knowledge up to date and to bring new ideas and techniques back to her classroom. She’s integrated several Hutch projects into her classes and takes her students to visit as many Fred Hutch and other Seattle-area labs as she can.

“What SEP did was launch me into the biotech world,” Caraballo said. “SEP is foundational to everything I do ... It has totally changed my teaching.”

Those changes came partly in the form of adding more hands-on experiments to her classes, Caraballo said, but more broadly, she now changes her curriculum every year to match current science news and techniques. Recently, her infectious disease segments focused on the emerging Ebola and Zika outbreaks.

“She basically sparked my interest in science,” Pendergast said about Caraballo’s class. “She made science really accessible for kids.”

High school biology teacher Tami Caraballo participated in SEP more than 10 years ago — and she has been bringing new, cutting-edge science to her classroom ever since. Photo courtesy of Tami Caraballo

There were a lot of inspiring projects in the class, Pendergast said. One that particularly stood out for her was how Caraballo framed lessons around cholera to explain diverse scientific concepts such as epidemiology, infectious diseases and protein modeling.

Motivated by Caraballo’s class, Pendergast dove into science as a biology major in college, pursuing research opportunities through her program at Carnegie Mellon University and as a summer intern at ISB in Seattle — an opportunity she found through Caraballo, who continued to advise Pendergast on her career aspirations throughout college.

When she graduated college in 2016, Pendergast said she "scoured the Fred Hutch job openings for any research technician position possible, because I knew that if I ended up here I would be working with really wonderful people.”

She landed a job as a technician working with Fred Hutch virologist Dr. Michael Emerman, researching the human proteins that stand in HIV’s way — or at least try to — in the hope that some of these proteins could be exploited to prevent HIV infection. Pendergast soon aims to pursue a doctorate in biology — but although her passion is research, she also holds science education near to her heart.

So when an email landed in her inbox calling for volunteer mentors for the 2017 crop of SEP teachers, Pendergast flashed back on all of her high school hands-on experiences that had started her on the path to research.

“I wouldn’t have had any of that experience had Tami not shown us that,” she said. “Mentoring a teacher [who] could go on to do the same thing for their students seemed like a no-brainer.”

Geeking out on science education

This week, Pendergast and her teacher mentee, Kathryn Wallace, are wrapping up a project in the Emerman Lab. Sitting in the lab on a break from their experiments, Pendergast prompted Wallace, a high school biology teacher at Seattle’s Northwest School, to describe what she’d learned so far about the research project.

Pendergast is using CRISPR, a recently developed gene-editing technique, to disrupt certain proteins in human cells that they think could be involved in how the cells react to HIV. She and Wallace were in the process of growing some of the cells and testing their DNA to see if they were successful in breaking the genes they’d hoped to disable.

Wallace was ecstatic about all of it: the questions Pendergast and her colleagues are trying to answer, the nitty-gritty of how they grow cells in the lab, the machines they use to probe the cells’ DNA, the “real scientist” chit-chat she got to overhear at the laboratory bench — and the camaraderie with the other biology teachers visiting the Hutch campus.

“It’s really fun to geek out with other biology and teaching geeks,” she said. “You’re often one of two or three science teachers, so to get a room of 20 of us together, it’s fun.”

Wallace majored in marine biology in college and has a master’s degree in fisheries science, but she wanted an update on her skills and knowledge. She’s taught 10th grade biology, a general biology course, for several years, but is now gearing up to teach an advanced molecular biology course in the coming year.

This past weekend, she started thinking about how to use what she’s learning this summer in her classroom this fall.

“I was out of town over the weekend and I was trying to really be gone, but I kept thinking of all these ideas while I’m driving the car,” she said. “What if I did a whole semester on HIV?”

“You totally could!” Pendergast interjected.

“Yeah, and then taught all the things I want to teach using one central virus to unify the course,” Wallace said.

For Pendergast, even though she had so many hands-on experiences in school, one of the best parts of becoming a full-time scientist is seeing that many concepts she learned in the abstract have real-life applications in the lab.

“In classes, students are like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And then once you see it in practice it’s like, ‘Oh. I need it,’” she said.

Earlier that day, Wallace overheard some of Pendergast’s lab mates in discussion about the different chemical and physical properties of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) as one of the scientists was trying to decide how to build a particular mutated protein that would do what he wanted it to in the cell. She couldn’t wait to describe that conversation to her students, she said, to explain why what might seem like rote memorization of the different categories of amino acids could actually be useful to practicing scientists.

“What are the main things you think you’re going to bring back to your students to make science graspable?” Pendergast asked.

In addition to the details of how scientists talk about science, Wallace said, “honestly, I hope to bring back this excitement for how cool the science is.”

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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