TabulaSynthase, the blog of Whitehead Institute, brings together ideas and perspectives from the Whitehead community and beyond.
Imagine you’re 17 again. It’s mid-April and summer is still a hazy, sunshine-filled mirage just out of reach. The next two months will be packed with quizzes, papers, tests, and presentations…and one blissful week of spring break. The potential for that week off is vast: traveling, hanging out with friends, catching up on sleep and homework, or simply doing nothing at all.
Despite these seemingly tantalizing alternatives, each year motivated high school students choose to spend those precious hours not at a beach, but at a lab bench at Whitehead Institute, amid scientists and safety glasses during Whitehead’s annual Spring Lecture Series for High School Students.
Since 1990, more than 3500 students have participated in the program. Over the years the program’s goal has remained steadfast: to inspire a passion for science in high school students who otherwise may not be exposed to a lab setting.
The brainchild of then-Whitehead Director Gerald Fink, the program runs over the course of three days. Subjects are topical to current issues and have in the past included bioengineering, the microbiome, human disease, and precision medicine. This year’s topic, Game Changers: Emerging Technologies Transforming Tomorrow’s Biology, delved into the interplay between research and technological innovation, and how that intersection influences our understanding of health and disease.
This year, one of the students joining the ranks of the program’s participants was Nicole Quispe. A junior at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, MA, she first heard of Whitehead’s program at a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fair that her uncle had taken her to the previous month. A counselor at the fair encouraged Quispe to apply. Luckily for her, Quispe submitted her application shortly after online registration opened—the program’s 50 slots for this year filled in a record two hours.
For Quispe, attending Whitehead’s program was transformative. Before, she thought of physicians as being the main force behind research and had never spoken with a scientist. Over the course of the program, she enjoyed interacting with numerous scientists from a variety of fields, learned what they are working on, and heard how they approach and solve problems. The result: “I’m more open about a career path in research,” Quispe says. “I liked the experiences I had here, and being a scientist looks kind of cool.” That’s high praise from a high school junior.
During the program, Quispe and the other students listened to scientists discuss their fascinating work that is changing the future of biomedical research: Shawn Liu, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Whitehead Founding Member Rudolf Jaenisch presented how scientists are enhancing the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool; Canan Dagdeviren, the director of Conformable Decoders and an assistant professor of media arts and sciences at MIT Media Lab described how her lab is rethinking miniaturized drug delivery systems; and Joanna Buchthal and Jianghong “John” Min of Kevin Esvelt’s Sculpting Evolution group at the MIT Media Lab presented how they are genetically altering mice to control the spread of tick-borne disease. The program’s participants also toured local biotech and research labs around Kendall Square (Quispe ventured down Main St. to the Synthetic Biology Center (SBC) at MIT) and participated in laboratory sessions at Whitehead on topics ranging from chromatography to mini brain organoids.
For Quispe, the people she knows deeply affect her outlook and potential career choices. She lost an aunt to ovarian cancer, and a close friend’s mother is currently battling the same disease. When Karen Weisinger, a postdoctoral researcher at the SBC, talked about using immunotherapy to fight cancer, Quispe interest was piqued. Perhaps she, too, could study immunology and apply it to help treat cancer. Inspired by family, friends, and today’s cutting-edge scientists, Quispe may be starting down the path to becoming one of tomorrow’s scientific leaders.