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Students Invited Inside World of Stem Cell Research

Ioana Patringenaru | April 6, 2009

Visiting Stem Cell Labs (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
A student at Sweetwater High School holds up a stem cell sample during a visit to UCSD's stem cell research facilities.

How do you become a scientist? Is it difficult? Is it like being on “ER” or “CSI”? These were some of the questions asked by scores of high school students who visited UC San Diego’s stem cell research facilities Wednesday. The visit was part of the monthlong San Diego Science Festival, which aims to get youngsters excited about science.

Festival events included visits by UCSD professors and other scientists to local schools; visits by high school students to campuses and high-tech and biotech companies; and a science expo Saturday in Balboa Park.

“We’re interested in training the next generation of science leaders and explorers, something America has always led the way in doing,” said Assistant Vice Chancellor Loren Thompson.

Thompson oversees BioBridge, a UCSD educational outreach program, which is one of the festival’s organizers. The university is working with many under-represented students and their families, in the hope of tapping a whole new group of potential scientists, Thompson said. The festival is providing these students with an unprecedented level of direct access to scientists and science, he added.

Larry Goldstein's Office (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Larry Goldstein, director of UCSD's stem cell research program, answers questions from students and their teachers Wednesday.

Getting students to visit college campuses is crucial, said Carmen Villegas, who teaches biology and chemistry at Sweetwater High School in National City. She had brought a group of her students to visit UCSD’s core stem cell research facility as well as the lab of Larry Goldstein, director of the campus’ stem cell research program. “It’s very enriching for my kids to get out of their community,” Villegas said.

Many of her students are not interested in science, but she said she hopes the visit to UCSD will encourage them to go on to college. One of her students, Leo Andres, 18, said he plans to transfer to UCSD after attending community college. He would like to major in chemistry and become a dentist, he added. Andres said he has followed the controversy about stem cell research for a while and wanted to learn more. Wednesday, he said he got the answers to his questions.

“It’s amazing,” he said.

Looking through microscopes (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Sarah Kellogg, a student at San Dieguito Academy, looks at pancreas and liver cells through a microscope.

Nearby, his teacher and six of his classmates listened to Daniel Goff, a graduate student. He explained how adult stem cells can be found in bone marrow and blood. Goff passed around plastic bags filled with animal bone marrow. A couple of female students let out an audible “eeew,” followed by some giggling.

Students asked Goff how he got started as a scientist. He told them he worked in a lab in high school and just knew he wanted to work in the field. Did he get grossed out at first when doing experiments, the students enquired. Goff explained his research entails working with microscopes more than with actual bone marrow. “You get to work with some cool machines,” he said. Finally, students asked Goff, who is studying to become a doctor and to earn a doctorate, if “ER” is pretty authentic. The graduate student confessed he is too busy studying to watch the popular TV show.

Meanwhile, at the Leichtag Family Foundation Biomedical Research Building, Dr. Paulina Ordonez, a UCSD pediatrician, helped high school students look at liver and pancreas cells through a microscope. The group had just visited the lab of UCSD stem cell research program director Goldstein. Sarah Kellogg, a student at San Dieguito Academy, leaned into the microscope to take a good look.

“I thought it was really interesting,” the 15-year-old said. “The lab was really cool.”

Students at the laboratory (Photo / Victor W. Chen)
Students from Sweetwater High School listen to a UCSD graduate student talk about stem cell research.

Finally, students and their teachers got to ask questions of Goldstein himself. San Dieguito Academy student Paula Godoy asked what she needed to do to come to UCSD as an undergraduate. She added she wants to study stem cells and needs to know what steps to take to better understand the field.

To be admitted to UCSD, good grades and good test scores are a must, Goldstein said. He added students also should take advantage of any opportunities to work as interns in a lab. Competition is fierce for undergraduate students who want to work in stem cell research labs, he pointed out. “You show up with experience, it’s really a leg up,” Goldstein said.

When students talk to real scientists, they get a much better sense of how they can become researchers themselves, said Jocelyn Broemmelsiek, a San Dieguito Academy teacher said after the Q&A with Goldstein.

“I think it’s essential in high school to try to help these kids see how science is applied,” she said.

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