Who doesn’t love a field trip? Twenty high school students from two Long Island districts had a unique opportunity to experience a cancer lab in action as they interacted with top cancer researchers and explored their laboratories on May 25.
Stony Brook Cancer Center’s researchers and staff welcomed the students from the research programs at Babylon Junior-Senior High School and Valley Stream South High School. Three full levels of the Cancer Center, located in the Medical Research and Translation (MART) building on Stony Brook’s east campus, are devoted to research with additional research facilities on other floors.
During their visit, the two groups rotated through separate areas of the MART building. On the ninth floor, they visited some of the research lab space with Chiara Luberto, PhD, who is Co-Leader of one of the Cancer Center’s three research programs, Lipid Signaling and Metabolism in Cancer. Dr. Luberto and her colleagues showed the students the facilities for advanced cancer research, including the Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization Imaging and confocal microscopy. They also toured The Lipid Cancer Lab, a modern, state-of-the-art cancer research laboratory and viewed a presentation about the cyclotron.
Career Paths on Display
“Our hope was that the students would better appreciate the importance and applicability of what they are currently learning at school by discussing their ongoing projects with scientists, and learning first-hand what types of research questions are addressed in the lab,” said Dr. Luberto. The tour was also an opportunity to motivate and inspire the students to pursue their scientific and/or medical interests, whatever they may be, beyond the classroom. “To see the diversity of our scientists and scientific paths may have helped to see themselves in a future research career.”
On the seventh floor, they heard a brief talk by Chris Clarke, PhD, who is also a Co-Leader of the Lipid Signaling and Metabolism in Cancer program. Dr. Clarke gave a presentation of what it is that defines a cancer cell and how normal cells become cancerous. He also discussed some of his own lab’s research on how changes in sphingolipid metabolism can impact cancer development. His colleague, David Montrose, PhD, a member of the Lipid Signaling and Metabolism in Cancer program, talked about approaches to prevent cancer, and particularly, how diet can have important effects in influencing cancer development but could also represent an opportunity to enhance cancer treatment.
Students seemed fascinated by the discussions and in both groups asked such detailed questions that Dr. Montrose suggested they consider joining his team. Among them was Jonathan Herrera, a Valley Stream sophomore. After the presentation, he said that he was interested in the discussion about the nutritional aspects of cancer biology.
“I love all sorts of science. Cancer research is definitely something I've thought of in the past as my research profession,” he said. “What was so interesting about today is that I didn’t know that there were so many different types of cancers, and especially about the nutritional research. I definitely want to learn more about it.”
Babylon junior Brooke Kenedy said, “I didn’t know how much nutrition can play a role in chemotherapy. I plan to go to college for nutrition and this experience influenced how I plan to implement my degree.”
Following the lab tour, Maeve Graham, a junior from Babylon, said, “I was in awe with the positive attitude in the lab environment. I could see myself working in a lab that helps people.”
A Bench-to-Bedside Mission
Other Cancer Center research staff who gave presentations included Bo Chen, PhD, a Research Instructor in the Department of Pathology, and the Scientific Director of the MALDI-Imaging Mass Spectrometry (MALDI-IMS) Facility; Gino Giacoio, Cyclotron Operator in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Department; and Janet Allopena, manager of Cancer Center research operations.
“We were thrilled with all the questions that the students posed, and their active participation during both the presentations and lab tour,” said Dr. Luberto. “Helping others and community outreach is part of our `bench-to-bedside’ mission and we were as excited as the students to share our goals with them.”
The students were joined on the tour by two members of the Babylon Breast Cancer Coalition (BBCC) board. The students’ visit was, in part, facilitated by Karen Kunkel, the president of the BBCC, which has had a longstanding relationship with the Cancer Center. At that time, Karen Kunkel’s daughter was a student at Babylon Jr. Sr. HS when its Research Program was created. High school science teacher Claire Birone-Donaldson was responsible for this unique addition to the curriculum for her tenth-grade students. Her husband, Patrick Donaldson, is now the science teacher who leads the program. He commended the meticulous planning and care that went into creating a remarkable and memorable day for his 11 juniors and seniors.
“The knowledge and experience shared by the researchers was truly enlightening for the students and myself,” he said, adding that they’re currently working on environmental projects with similar equipment they saw in the MART lab. “The students gained a deeper understanding of what real-life research looks like. Being able to see equipment that we use at school in the professional field—like micropipettes, thermal cyclers, gel electrophoresis tanks, centrifuges and chemical storage styles—really hit home along with a better understanding of what is being done to combat cancer. I was excited to show them the things we do in school do translate, especially because a lot of them are going to be science majors.”
A similar experience was reflected by another BBCC Board member and Valley Stream HS science teacher, Lori Tintella, who attended with nine of her science research and biomedical Valley Stream South sophomores. She said it was the first school trip they’ve had since the pandemic.
“I wanted them to have an opportunity to see a lab and understand the process of research in real life, as opposed to what they've experienced just in the classroom,” Ms. Tintella said. “I also teach biomedical techniques and they were able to see so much of what I teach them in the short time that they were there and they really found it fascinating. One student turned to me and said, `It's real. You're not making stuff up.’ The students got to see some of the research that was being conducted and the way that it was explained by the researchers was very much on par with their level of understanding.”
A Pledge to Support Research
These high school field trips to Stony Brook Cancer Center were originally initiated by the BBCC, a grassroots organization that is providing direct patient services and support to help ease the burdens that breast and all gynecological cancers put on patients and their families. In 2019, the BBCC made a $100,000 commitment to Stony Brook Cancer Center to support research for breast and gynecological cancers, according to Deborah Colgan, the Cancer Center’s Senior Director of Advancement. Among the recipients of a BBCC grant to support his research program was Dr. Clarke, who spoke with the students.
“Part of the stewardship of the BBCC is to educate students,” Deborah Colgan said. “These tenth graders might go into STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. These four fields share an emphasis on innovation, problem-solving and critical thinking. It’s good for donors to see where their funding goes. It’s something we’ve been doing for a few years to inspire the next generation of researchers.”
Dr. Luberto added, “We firmly believe that the culture of science embodies sharing and collegiality and I hope that, after learning about research in the MART, the students came to recognize even more the value of teamwork and collaborations and the scope of opportunity that exists at Stony Brook Cancer Center.”
Stony Brook Cancer Center plans to host more of these enriching educational experiences in 2024.
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