Model behavior

May 5, 2004

Tags: Awards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A group of high school students gather around a microscope to peek at fruit flies clustered on a glass slide. Whitehead research assistant Julie Wallace helps the students tell the females from the males. “The female is striped,” Wallace notes, “the male is more of a solid black.” The demonstration soon becomes increasingly advanced as the students eagerly look at flies that have been genetically modified to grow additional sets of eyes. One student blinks before taking a second look. Meanwhile, another group watches as research assistant Barney Tam lifts a horseshoe crab from a salt-water tank. Students take turns handling these “living fossils.” According to Tam, “These creatures haven’t changed in 100 million years.” The students, however, are more concerned with not letting the spider-like claws pinch their latex gloves.

Even more amazing still is that this is not a group of students out on a required field trip. Rather, these teenagers are on spring recess.

Last week, 152 high school students ceded much of their cherished week-long school vacation, putting their X-Boxes and PlayStations, trips to the mall, and skateboard activities on hold, in order to spend some quality time with Whitehead scientists.

The three-day conference, “Of Mice and Microbes: The Amazing Evolution of Scientific Supermodels,” certainly lived up to its title. From yeast to Drosophila (the technical term for fruit fly) to horseshoe crabs to mice, students learned how scientists use some unlikely creatures as biological models to study human disease.

Whitehead’s Spring Lecture Series for High School Students is one of the Institute’s core programs. It began in 1990 as a major component of the Partnership for Science Education, a larger Whitehead educational initiative that also includes a program for teachers. Over the last 14 years, topics have included artificial intelligence, AIDS, and genomics. Approximately 2,000 teenagers have passed through the program and received a rare inside view of life in the world of biomedical research.

Hailing from Massachusetts and New Hampshire-area schools, the students attend lectures, tour labs, visit local biotech companies and research centers, and, in a more casual setting, eat lunch with Whitehead postdocs and graduate students. In addition to attending lectures by Whitehead Members Harvey Lodish and Hazel Sive and Whitehead/Pfizer Computational Biology Fellow Mark Daly, students visited companies such as Biogen, Elixer Pharmaceuticals, Transkaryotic Therapies and Microbia, a company founded on the research of Whitehead Member Gerald Fink. Students also visited the Broad Institute and the new Whitehead/MIT Bioimaging Center, a collaborative effort led by Whitehead Member Paul Matsudaira. The event concluded with a panel discussion in which scientists from four local companies described their different approaches to “modeling” disease. Biogen scientist Herman Van Vlijmen, for example, described how his company uses computer modeling techniques to research asthma, and Steven Haney of Wyeth Research discussed using human cells to create cancer models.

Such a lineup may at first glance seem to be little more than background noise against which teenagers whisper to each other and pass notes. But not only did the students listen attentively, they participated actively, challenging many of the scientists with tough questions. For example, at one presentation at the Broad Institute, when scientist Shane Yeager described to the group the various genomes Broad scientists have sequenced, one student raised his hand and asked, “How do you know that your data is accurate?” The researcher, caught off guard, was nevertheless impressed. While it’s a simple enough question, it also revealed a sophisticated understanding of the scientific process.

For the Whitehead scientists who participated, this day was hardly a distraction from “more important” matters. “One of the goals of being a research scientist is to encourage talented young people to enter the profession,” says Hazel Sive.

And encouragement was by no means in short supply. A tenth grader from Boston Latin Academy commented, “This was a great experience for me, and my interests are mostly business and law.” Another student, a ninth grader from Tyngsboro High School, requested that next year the program be extended by a day or two so that students can visit more Whitehead labs and local biotech companies.

To some, this attitude might be surprising. But Harvey Lodish understands it perfectly. In fact, Lodish credits his very first research paper to work he began during his high school years over the course of three summers at what is now Western Reserve Medical Center. Says Lodish, “That experience hooked me into a lifetime of research.”

Written by David Cameron.

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