Where do viruses come from?
How can proteins assume so many different shapes?
How do stem cells know how to become brain cells instead of blood cells?
These questions were posed not by doctoral candidates but by Duarte High School students on a field trip at City of Hope research labs on Feb. 16. Members of more than 10 research labs, as well as Graff Library staff, opened their doors to 48 Advanced Placement biology and physics students to show them firsthand what it is really like to work in a lab.
The trip was part of a growing Goverment and Community Relations initiative to link faculty members, postdoctoral fellows and other staff to local high school students.
Duarte High School teachers and principal Bill Martinez accompanied the students.
Sporting freshly starched City of Hope lab coats, the students broke into small groups and rotated from lab to lab, hearing informal presentations by City of Hope faculty members and postdoctoral fellows and manipulating microscopes, software and lab gadgets they would not normally find in the classroom. Judging from their response, most went home appreciating that biomedical research in 2007 is not your father’s biology.
In the lab of Nagarajan Vaidehi, Ph.D., professor of immunology, students sat in pairs at computer modules while Spencer Hall, Ph.D., and Allen Mao guided them in designing their own brightly colored, three-dimensional DNA and protein molecules on a computer screen.
“I was surprised how computers are becoming so integrated into the sciences,” said sophomore Jenni Nakamura. The conclusion was echoed by sophomore Victor Muñoz, who remarked, “Now I know how involved this new technology is — and how pricey the equipment is!”
Students also heard from experts how basic research impacts patient care. Michael Kalos, Ph.D., director of the Clinical Immunobiology Correlative Studies Laboratory, told students that cancer therapy aims to target cancer cells without harming normal ones. He then showed them plastic flasks of a patient’s living T-cells that had been genetically engineered to home to that patient’s own brain cancer cells.
Microscopes of every kind attracted attention. Students donned 3-D glasses to view through a scanning electron microscope the thousands of bristles protruding from a bee eye in the lab of molecular biologist Marcia Miller, Ph.D.; later, they examined fluorescent red, green and blue patches of cells in a fruit-fly brain in the lab of Paul Salvaterra, PhD., professor of neurosciences.
They also observed all the basic analytical tools used by molecular biologists in the labs of John Rossi, Ph.D., and Susan Kane, Ph.D.
And at lunch, students got a special bonus. Steve Novak, Ph.D., director of professional education, introduced Duarte High School alumnus Justin de la Cruz, who is graduating from UC San Diego and who happened to be at City of Hope to interview for a spot in the Graduate School of Biological Sciences.
De la Cruz encouraged students to get their lab coats dirty by participating in hands-on programs such as the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy at City of Hope.
“You’ll get to do a lot of fun stuff,” he said, “and you’ll feel so proud. Even though you are so young, you’ll feel just like a scientist.”
By tour’s end, students such as Alberto Herrera had realized that it would probably take longer than a day to fully understand how viruses, fruit flies and cancer cells work.
Said Herrera, “I now realize how many people it takes to answer a scientific question. But at City of Hope you have the whole system — the labs, the patients — and it’s so self-contained.”