Growing Cells and Future Scientists: MSK Hosts High School Students for Day of Exploration

High school students in an MSK laboratory

Students from NYC’s Urban Academy Laboratory School doing science in Marcel van den Brink’s lab at MSK.

On Thursday, 16 students from the Urban Academy Laboratory School in Manhattan got a taste of what it’s like to do science in a modern cancer laboratory. Memorial Sloan Kettering immunologist Marcel van den Brink invited the class to visit his lab in the Zuckerman Research Center at MSK. The students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, were all part of teacher Daniel Frimpong’s “Scientific Biography” class.

“You’ve come to the oldest cancer hospital in the country,” Dr. van den Brink told the group. “But the building you’re in right now is one of the newest on campus.”

Over the next three hours, the students toured the high-tech facilities, attended a brief lecture, and did some hands-on lab work isolating DNA from strawberries. Kristina Caban, senior administrative assistant for the van den Brink lab, orchestrated the interactive tour.

At one lab bench, Weill Cornell Medicine graduate student Melissa Docampo showed the students how to mash a strawberry in a plastic baggy then add a detergent to break apart the cells. “Technically, we’re not supposed to have food in the lab,” she said, squishing the red fruit between her fingers.

Next came a bit of salt. Since DNA has a negative charge, adding the positively charged salt neutralizes the solution, she explained. A final dash of ethanol caused a sticky white glob to precipitate out of the mixture. “That’s DNA,” she said.

As each student prepared their own glob, she quizzed them: “Does anyone know what DNA stands for? Where is it located?”

One student ventured a guess at both. He was half right.

Down the hallway, postdoctoral student Christoph Stein-Thoeringer showed another group of students how cells are grown in lab dishes. The cells swim in a pink liquid called media.

“What temperature do you think we keep the cells at?” Dr. Stein-Thoeringer asked.

“Body temperature?” percolated up from the group.

Exactly right.

After the laboratory portion of the day, it was time to learn a bit more about what the scientists in Dr. van den Brink’s lab are studying. The team is focused on improving the safety and efficacy of bone marrow transplantation for people with blood cancers. Physician-scientists Kate Markey and Melody Smith tag teamed on a presentation devoted to the research questions being pursued in the lab.

“Who knows what the microbiome is?” Dr. Markey asked.

“The bacteria in your gut?” offered one student.

Right again.

“One of the things we’re interested in is how the microbiome influences the success of a bone marrow transplant,” Dr. Markey explained, using poop emojis to make her point. “We think that having a more diverse set of microbes in the gut may be beneficial.”

The lecture ended on a more personal note. Dr. Smith encouraged the students to find mentors who are doing work they find interesting, whether in science, medicine, law, or the arts. “When you see someone else doing it, you know that you can do it too,” she said.

By the end of the day, the students looked a bit tuckered out. Science is hard work.

The best part of the day?

“I liked the strawberry experiment,” Jeremy, 17, said. “It was hands-on.”

Jeremy hasn’t yet chosen whom he will write a scientific biography about, but he has some great new examples to choose from.