Masonic Cancer Center scientists make the most of federal funds to engage teachers and students in hands-on research
Last summer, efforts by University of Minnesota researchers Christopher Pennell, Ph.D., and Kola Okuyemi, M.D., M.P.H., to engage the public in cancer biology merged seamlessly with the goals of St. Louis Park High School teacher Julie Schilz, who hoped to find a new way to captivate the minds of her biology students.
“All students have been affected by cancer in some way — they always want to know more,” says Schilz. “I’ve often thought if I had a somewhat real-life model or lab activity to supplement teachings, I could bring it into the classroom as a hands-on look at how and why cancer cells arise and develop.”
Back at the University, word spread quickly among the faculty last spring when the National Institutes of Health announced the availability of $8.2 billion in funding for extramural research to stimulate medical research across the country. Pennell and Okuyemi, both members of the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, jointly applied for — and received — a $240,000 Supplement for Students and Science Educators grant.
The funding, to be distributed over two summers, provides students and local teachers the chance to work directly with faculty experts in the Masonic Cancer Center. When Schilz heard about this opportunity, she immediately signed on.
During their four weeks on campus, Schilz and two other teachers, Hud Hobday and Laura Bursch, worked with Pennell, associate professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, to develop threedimensional, interactive computer models that supplement lesson plans on cancer biology.
The teachers spent their first week attending crash courses in cancer biology. Next, each chose a particular area of interest and began researching ways to design their models. Schilz focused hers on cell signaling, specifically on how miscommunication among cells can spur cancer cell growth.
Once they had envisioned their models, the teachers and Pennell shared their ideas with scientists and engineers at Endogenics. The Idaho-based company developed a novel computer platform that models cell biology and permits experiments on a computer, rather than in a test tube. The collaboration yielded three different computer models that convey key concepts in cancer biology.
“Each of us brought something unique to the table,” says Pennell. “I had an appreciation of the basic biology and had worked with high school teachers, the team at Endogenics developed a truly innovative computer technology based on known biological principles, and the teachers knew what would work in their classrooms and crafted the lesson plans.” The crash courses his colleagues taught in leading-edge cancer biology really paid off, too, he says.
This fall, the teachers returned to their classrooms armed and ready with a new tool — a hands-on learning experience in cancer biology. They plan to post their lesson plans and computersimulation models online, making them readily accessible to other high school and community college teachers.
“If students have this experience when they are younger, they’ll have more confidence when they move on to higher education,” Schilz says. Last summer Pennell worked with three teachers; next year that number will double. He hopes their work will launch an online community where teachers can interact with one another to further develop and modify the models and lesson plans.
“Going out to high schools over the years, I’m always asked by teachers if there is anything they can do to enable students to experience an ‘aha’ moment,” he says. “This will do that and in an affordable, realistic manner.”
Investing in youth
Okuyemi, director of the Medical School’s Program in Health Disparities Research, took a different approach: He focused his outreach on undergraduate students. After receiving the stimulus funding, Okuyemi had only a couple of weeks to fill spots in the summer program. Fortunately, he knew exactly the type of students he wanted to recruit: those with an interest in the sciences and who show promise as future health professionals. Additionally, he wanted each student to come from a minority or underserved Minnesota community — and for good reason.
“There’s a shortage of cancer researchers and health professionals from minority and underserved populations,” explains Okuyemi, who also is an associate professor of Family Medicine and Community Health.
“To address existing health disparities, we need to increase the number of next-generation scientists and professionals from these communities.”
More than 50 students applied — despite a one-week application deadline — and 10 were accepted. “These are the cream of the crop,” Okuyemi says.
All are sophomores or juniors at a Minnesota college or university or are originally from Minnesota. They all boast a 3.5 grade point average or higher and are majoring in biology, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, or another health-science field.
Each student was immediately paired with a faculty mentor, and together the two-person teams dove into either clinical or community-based cancer research. Christopher Martinez, a student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, gained hands-on lab experience by investigating the mechanism of tumor growth.
Working alongside faculty mentor Kalpna Gupta, Ph.D., Martinez searched for the underlying reason why morphine, which decreases pain when administered to patients receiving chemotherapy, causes tumors to grow faster. Learning the science behind drugs, Martinez says, will allow him to better understand the medicine he will one day administer to his patients.
He and his fellow students also kept busy reviewing medical literature, attending seminars, and exploring graduate school options. They even served as test subjects for Pennell’s teachers, who presented their new models and lesson plans. The students offered feedback on the lessons’ relevance, usability, and complexity.
Medical School faculty members are investing their time and resources in students like Martinez because they see it as an opportunity to engage and excite the next generation of physicians and researchers.
And they appear to have succeeded. Although the paid summer internships were only eight weeks long, many students have expressed interest in voluntarily continuing their research during the school year. The faculty, in turn, has found the students’ passion and dedication to their research inspiring.
“Their motivation to learn and their stories — stories about how this is something they’ve dreamt of doing and never thought an opportunity like this would exist — is what’s most exciting,” Okuyemi says.
The stimulus package funding has allowed Okuyemi and Pennell to interest more students in cancer biology, and they view last summer as just the beginning. “Provided we receive funding through grants and philanthropy, we look forward to continuing and expanding the program in the future,” says Okuyemi.
With plans to involve another group of teachers next summer, Pennell anticipates a ripple effect across the educational community. Further, he is thrilled that this program is reinforcing the Masonic Cancer Center’s reputation as a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center. To earn this elite status, a cancer center must provide exemplary treatment for patients, participate in leading-edge research, and also pioneer educational outreach initiatives. “The Masonic Cancer Center really stepped up to the plate on this,” says Pennell. “It was a collaborative effort that I hope will highlight to the community how we function as a comprehensive cancer center.”
Meanwhile, Schilz is eager to introduce new concepts to her biology students. “I’m really excited to have something now,” she says. “These models will keep students engaged and make them ask more questions. Anytime you can do that, it’s a good thing.”
By Emily Jensen