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Meet The Next Generation of Scientists

The Immersion Science program introduces high school students to cancer research with hands-on learning


A Supplement to Forward Spring/Summer 2015
by Liz Pacheco

Danielle Talbot’s life changed one day in chemistry class. “My teacher hands me this form for the Fox Chase Immersion Science program and tells me to apply,” she says. “I look at the form, confused, and ask, ‘Research?’ But all my teacher says is, ‘Just do it. Just apply.’”

Danielle Talbot [photo: Paul Reitano]Danielle Talbot [photo: Paul Reitano]Talbot, who graduates from Saint Hubert High School in Northeast Philadelphia in June 2015, has always loved science, but her plan was college, then medical school. Beyond her basic high school lab classes, she didn’t really know anything about scientific research.

It’s for students like Talbot that Alana O’Reilly, an associate professor and biologist at Fox Chase, started Immersion Science in spring 2013. By bringing high school students into the lab for hands-on training, the Immersion Science program prepares and inspires the students to take on careers in science.

“We’re not looking for students who can find the right answer, we’re looking for students who use their creativity and figure out how to work together to solve a problem,” says O’Reilly. “We’ve been absolutely amazed with the students. They want to do research, and they’re good at it. With this different kind of training, they’re going to be leaders in the medical world.”

“BENCHES TO BEDSIDES”

"We've been absolutely amazed with the students.
They want to do research, and they're good at it. With this different kind of training, they're going to be leaders in the medical world.

-- ALANA O'REILLY

IMMERSION SCIENCE BUILDS ON A FOX CHASE program for high school students that evolved over the last 30years, inwhichteachers from area schools recommended students to be placed inFoxChase labs for summer research. “It’s good tohave 12 students coming to work in labs each summer,” saysO’Reilly, “but they had no training.”

O’Reilly had first seen the pitfalls of that program design in her own experience as a graduate student. A high school student came to work in her lab, but was uninterested in meeting the level of work and commitment required.After some tough love, followed by guidance and encouragement from O’Reilly and her colleagues, the student excelled.That summer was followed by a third place prize in the state science fair, then acceptance to Brown University and an elite full-ride fellowship to Case Western’s medical school. Today she is a neonatal intensive care unit pediatrician.

With those two experiences in mind—as well as funding from Fox Chase’s Cancer Center Support Grant, which provides funding to National Cancer Institute-designated research and treatment centers, and the Center’s Office of Academic Affairs—O’Reilly revised the high school program. She began in March 2013 with an all-day health careers symposium. “The idea was to introduce high school students to all the careers at a comprehensive cancer center,” explains Dara Ruiz-Whalen, program coordinator and lead instructor for the Immersion Science teaching lab. Students visited surgery suites and conducted 45-minute mini-experiments in labs. They heard from everyone at Fox Chase—business administrators, the IT department, nurses, surgeons, and researchers. “We called it ‘benches to bedsides,’” says Ruiz-Whalen. 

More than 150 students attended the symposium and nearly half came back as volunteers the following summer. Students wrote O’Reilly and Ruiz-Whalen to say the symposium had transformed their ideas about future careers. “We were blown away at the impact,” says O’Reilly.

A RIGOROUS PROCESS

Janusz Franco-Barraza (standing), Raj Maghani [photo: Paul Reitano]Janusz Franco-Barraza (standing), Raj Maghani [photo: Paul Reitano]AFTER THE SYMPOSIUM, STUDENTS COULD APPLY FOR THE ten-week ImmersionScience lab course, designed to provide in-depth laboratory training. The rigorous application process foreshadows what students will need to do when they apply for college, or in the case of scientists, a grant. Multiple pages long, the written application calls on students’ writing and problem-solving abilities. In-person interviews follow.

The process benefits the postdoctoral researchers tasked with reading the applications as much as it does the high school students. “What researchers find most surprising in their first faculty job is how  hard it is to get grant funding,” says O’Reilly. “So we set up the application process just like a grant review session.” Sixteen to 20 postdocs read through each written application and choose students for interviews.

A few postdocs also teach the course with guidance from Ruiz-Whalen, who has a background in teaching and science education programs as well as experience running a lab.

FROM LAB LESSONS TO INDEPENDENT WORK

Devon Riggs [photo: Paul Reitano]Devon Riggs [photo: Paul Reitano]ENERGETIC, ENTHUSIASTIC, AND INCREDIBLY ORGANIZED, Ruiz-Whalen is exactly the kind of person you’d want in charge of a lab for high school students. She has an easy rapport with  the students,who have come to rely on her as a mentor. The teaching lab she setup is both a colorful, student-friendly space and a place for serious cancer research,with tools and equipment  you’d find inany other FoxChase lab.

Based onO’Reilly’s curriculum, the Immersion Science program starts with three mini-lectures and then sets students loose in the lab. Everything students learn in those lectures leads to their  independent experiments in the last few weeks.

Most Immersion Science students arrive with little knowledge about labwork or cancer research. “I came in and theywere handing us micro pipettes, teaching us lessons on howto use the tools,” says Talbot. But she insists it wasn’t intimidating. “That was the really great part.”

“We always ended up staying later because we were trying to nail down the topic of the day or finishing up our experiments,” saysRajMadhani, a former Immersion Science student. During the last session, students present their independent projects to their families and peers.

At the program’s close, Fox Chase invites some students to return and work with individual researchers. Talbot spent last summer in O’Reilly’s lab, continuing the research she had started during the Immersion Science course. Madhani worked with molecular biologist Edna Cukierman, under the mentorship of postdoc Janusz Franco-Barraza. “I did the most annoying experiment,” says Madhani, who found himself on the same problem for five or six weeks. “But then Dr. Franco-Barraza asked if the lab could use my work for a paper. It was a humbling and amazing experience.”

The paper was submitted in February to a major peer-reviewed scientific journal. Other students, including those who worked in O’Reilly’s lab last summer, have been listed as authors on published papers and have also presented at scientific conferences.

Madhani, who became a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh in fall 2014, is planning to work in Cukierman’s lab again this summer. “There is only so much you can do in school labs. Here you have the world at your fingertips,” says Madhani. “I didn’t think conducting experiments of this level was possible at my age. It can be stressful, but I’m having fun.”

CANCER RESEARCH IN THE CLASSROOM

[photo: Clint Blowers][photo: Clint Blowers]SOON AFTER THE FIRST IMMERSION SCIENCE CLASS GRADUATED, Ruiz-Whalen realized they could adapt the course for high school classrooms. “In Immersion Science, we reach 16 students a year,” says Ruiz-Whalen. “If we can teach high school teachers, that number multiplies.”

Ruiz-Whalen adapted Immersion Science for teacher training, making the program only eight weeks long and capping enrollment at four, which she thought was ambitious. They ended up with a waitlist and have since taught two teacher sessions. Chris Aichele, an AP Biology teacher at the Academy at Palumbo in South Philadelphia, attended that first session and adapted his classroom lectures to fit the modified Immersion Science curriculum. But one more barrier stood in his way.

Along with training and curriculum, teachers need microscopes, pipettes, and other equipment to bring the lessons to life. With support from generous contributors, Ruiz-Whalen worked with Fox Chase volunteer Bob Neubert to create a footlocker—a giant box stocked with equipment that can travel from school to school. A resource like this has become especially valuable for Philadelphia schools like Palumbo’s, which struggle with funding cuts.

Through Schoology, an online educational collaborative interface, Aichele shared his students’ final projects with Ruiz-Whalen. “I’m at Fox Chase watching the impact happen a few miles away in South Philadelphia, and I could see that the students, and Aichele, were so excited,” Ruiz-Whalen says.

A YOUNG RESEARCHER COMMUNITY

IN WINTER 2015, THE IMMERSION SCIENCE PROGRAM entered its third year, and for the first time is being held at both Fox Chase and Ursinus College. O’Reilly and Ruiz-Whalen are
also organizing a second symposium for students to be held in May 2015.

Philanthropic supporters, including Fox Chase staff members and families of Immersion Science students, and fundraisers such as a bike ride held in fall 2014, have allowed the program to expand. However, it’s the passion and excitement around the work being done that has fueled its success.

“Everyone who comes in—whether an instructor, a student, or a teacher—has walked away with that glow of wanting to share the experience,” says Ruiz-Whalen. O’Reilly agrees. "It’s so much bigger than we ever expected. We’re creating an entire community of people who are now close friends and are going to be peers throughout their clinical and research training. It’s really amazing.”

Left to right: Alana O'Reilly; J. Robert Beck, MD, Senior Vice-President and Chief Academic Officer; Dara Ruiz-Whalen. [photo: Joe Hurley]Left to right: Alana O'Reilly; J. Robert Beck, MD, Senior Vice-President and Chief Academic Officer; Dara Ruiz-Whalen. [photo: Joe Hurley]

Read more about Immersion Science

Read more in Fox Chase's Forward magazine.