Story by Sabrina Richards
Photos by Robert Hood
"WHAT IS IT? IS IT A POTATO?" The middle-school girl warily unplugs her nose and opens her eyes. Her lab partner has just dabbed a bit of mystery food on her tongue — but she cringes at the truth. “An onion?! Oh, ugh!”
They mark down which food items were guessed correctly (the apple) and which were not (potato and onion). It’s part of an activity put on by Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science, or GEMS, sponsored by Seattle’s branch of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). GEMS is designed to capture — and keep — girls’ attention through handson science activities, field trips and mentoring. This GEMS group, comprised of seventh- and eighth-grade girls, convenes every month in a training room at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; another group of girls meets monthly at South Seattle College.
Today's topic is neurons. The science for this February gathering covers four areas: smell and its relationship to taste; touch; memory and attention; and, not least, building a neuron model out of candy. After a rundown of basic and not-so-basic facts about neurons, the girls break into groups.
In one corner of the room, they learn how distraction impedes learning while attemptingto memorize lists of words — with or without ice packs on their shoulders. In another corner, trios of girls compare the sensitivity of different body parts by measuring when two toothpicks, tapped closer and closer, feel like one on the skin. One team discovers that forearms, on which a quarter-centimeter spread of sharp, wooden points feels like a single toothpick, are more discriminating than foreheads, where the toothpicks seem to converge while still a full half-centimeter apart.
The room hums with the enthusiasm of exploration. It's an opportunity for girls to interrogate not merely neuroscience but themselves.
"I wish I'd had something similar when I was this age," said Dr. Naomi Bogenschutz,who coordinates GEMS activities for AWIS. Bogenschutz earned her Ph.D. while working in Dr. Toshio Tsukiyama's lab at Fred Hutch, studying how modifications to the proteins that keep DNA organized regulate its replication. She first encountered GEMS after spotting middle schoolers roaming some Hutch hallways. "In middle school, kids' focus is social, and GEMS gives a support group to those girls interested in science if they don't have it in their immediate friend group."
Some girls who already are concentrating on grades and colleges need to learn, "it's OK if you don't know what you want right now. Relax! Explore!" she said.
Others, who may not have a family background steeped in science, learn "This exists!" Bogenschutz added. "And here are jobs that are possible! Science is a whole world, not necessarily one-word jobs, like doctor or teacher."
Ainsley Mayo, a Seattle middle-school student who is attending the 2015–2016 GEMS events, welcomes this introduction to future possibilities. Mayo has been encouraged in science by her parents but still values the sheer breadth of experience she finds in GEMS. "It's great to see all the different kinds of careers you can have," she said.
Specialized programs like GEMS and internship opportunities can provide this sort of knowledge and exposure to science, which can be hard to come by even at school. AdreeSongco-Aguas, who in 2013 participated in the Hutch Summer High School Internship Program directed by Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, said that her experience offered a way to learn more about her own interests within science.
"My family didn't know much about how science and research are done," said Songco-Aguas, now a sophomore at the University of Washington. The only science club at her high school was a robotics club, and it was dominated by boys.
"Doing [the Hutch] internship really allowed me to find what I like, what I can do," she said. The practical experience and encouragement gave her the confidence to go after the questions that interest her most. Songco-Aguas, who interned in Torok-Storb's lab studying the development of blood stem cells, has maintained strong ties with Torok-Storbeven as she found a second mentor and began research in neuroscience.
Favour Orji is a high school student at the Seattle-based Technology Access Foundation Academy, which partners with the Hutch to facilitate three-year-long specialized instruction and summer internships through the Technology Access Foundation Training and Internship Program. She's currently studying the growth of neurons in adults with Dr. Tracy Larson, a member of the Peichel Lab at the Hutch. Though her family did encourage Orji to pursue a scientific career, they focused on just one: medicine. The Hutch internship gave her the opportunity, she said, to explore other paths within science, and now she's set a new goal: a medical degree, a doctorate and a career combining medicine and research.
"The internship exposed me to different challenges now," Orji said. "When I get further, I won't get discouraged [by future challenges]."
The Hutch Summer High School Internship Programis funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and generous supportfrom AT&T. The partnership with Technology Access Foundation is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Inspirus Credit Union provides essential research supplies to both programs.