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Formulating a love for science

March 27, 2024

Kensington Health Sciences Academy students get hands-on experience and exposure to Wistar Science

Standing in The Wistar Institute’s state-of-the-art training lab, a small group of 12 students gathered quietly around a large digital display projecting two stacked lines of text, each made up of the letters T, G, C, and A. The sequences showed the base components of two different DNA strands: one a reference sequence representing the most commonly found sequence in humans; the other, a sequence from a cancer cell’s DNA. Pointing to the lines, Jason Diaz, Ph.D., Director of Education and Inclusive Excellence in the Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Education and Training Center, asked the students how to tell whether the cancer cell’s DNA was mutated by comparing the two sequences.

Slowly, a hand went up. “Because of the gaps, where the letters don’t match?” said one of the students hesitantly. “Yes!” responded Dr. Diaz enthusiastically. “There’s a mismatch in the two sequences. The cancer cell’s DNA is different at this position compared to the reference. What do you think are the implications of having a mutation in this gene?”

These Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA) students were in the last phase of a 6-week program designed to boost their exposure to science, and in particular, engage in biomedical research.  Over the course of two half-day visits to Wistar, more than 50 students had a chance to hear from research trainees, tour working research labs, and perform a final lab activity in the training lab.

Every week for the extent of the 6-week program, Dr. Diaz visits students in the classrooms at KHSA to provide educational sessions that highlight the value of – and the need for – biomedical research skills. The experiential program, delivered in partnership with Heights Philadelphia, a non-profit devoted to bolstering educational opportunities in underserved communities, is designed to strengthen students’ exposure to science curriculum and position them for future education and careers in the sciences.

While Philadelphia’s burgeoning Life Sciences industry has been a boon for the city’s growth, ensuring that students, particularly those in underserved communities, have access to and preparation for life science careers has historically been a challenge. The program is aimed at closing the gap and ensuring that students have early exposure to the skills needed to pursue in-demand careers in the region.

Jeremy Heyman, Ph.D., Director of STEM Pathways at Heights, explained that the program has been evolving for quite some time. “This came out of conversations with the Wistar team shortly after we met in 2021.  We envisioned adapting the promising course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) model to the high school level,” explained Dr. Heyman. “This approach, meeting 9th grade students where they are in their science classes, seems like a very promising way to expand access and exposure to Life Science career opportunities for the students we serve from local underinvested communities.”

In fact, the program’s success has led to additional support from Philadelphia-based Spark Therapeutics, a developer of gene therapies. “We appreciate Spark’s support for this academic year and are looking forward to the next phase which includes an even more extensive course-based research experience that is also scalable to reach more schools and students,” explained Heyman.

In the classroom, Dr. Diaz has been working with science teacher Barbara Sharpe to integrate a curriculum that focuses on the TP53 gene, and a genetic variation that can increase the risk of certain types of cancer. Students have a chance to learn about polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which copies pieces of DNA for study, and gel electrophoresis to visualize and analyze the DNA. DNA samples prepared by students are ultimately sequenced at Wistar’s Genomics Core Facility. They also learn about bioethics and biomedical research in general.

“We’re exposing them to real-world techniques that our scientists use in the lab every day,” explained Dr. Diaz of the curriculum. “We’re not only hoping to spark an interest in science, but we’re also giving them foundational knowledge that can give them a leg-up if they plan to pursue science-based studies in the future.”

In 2024, as part of the expansion efforts, Wistar and Heights plan to offer the program at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science. The team is also evaluating student feedback from prior years to make the class as relevant as possible and to ensure it aligns with current standards in biology education.

“We want to develop a complete pathway for learning science, with multiple entry points,” explains Dr. Diaz. “Students will leave richer for it, wherever they may go.”