"I thought that I just wanted to study math and engineering, but this biomedical stuff is really starting to interest me!"
Visiting cool science facilities and learning from scientists about their business, and how their work makes a difference in the lives of people can have that effect on students. In our December lab visit, we traveled to Cambridge, the heart of the Massachusetts Biotech industry to meet with some of the wonderful folks at Novartis.
Dr. Russ Lyons, the coordinator of the CELL (Community Exploration & Learning Lab), Meghan Spencer, and Dr. Lesley Griner taught our group an enormous amount in the time we spent with them. As a former project manager, Russ engaged our group right away in the nature of Novartis' research, which to be succinct, is nearly all-encompassing. As one of the world leaders in biomedical research, Novartis is engaged in developing novel cancer therapies, as well as investigating cures for rare diseases, for which we had an on-campus awareness campaign a year ago. We also learned about research Novartis is doing to combat the normal effects of hearing loss due to aging, which is based on genetically reprogramming cells in the inner ear to regrow the cilia that we have at birth, but lose throughout our lives.
The CELL lab was a fantastic place to learn about research, because it's set up exactly like the lab bench areas used by the scientists at the company. As Russ explained, "we wanted our scientists to collaborate more easily, so we took down all the casework and opened up the whole space. Now we don't have to shout across the lab at each other so much." In our visit, there was zero shouting, but there was a lot of talking, questioning and head-scratching throughout our time. Russ and her colleagues set up a multi-part activity for us, which was really educational - we started by learning how to use the professional pipettes, and worked through a serial dilution of colored samples. Students then used those skills to calculate the concentration of protein in an unknown sample using a number of neat techniques. First, we added a colored marker that binds with proteins. Next, students mixed and heated the sample to ensure that the chemistry between the marker and protein went to completion. Finally, students use a colorometer to gauge the amount of light absorbed by their sample. According to Beer's Law, more light absorption means higher sample concentration.
Even though the biology pros joked about not being great at math, there was a lot of math involved - our students had to calculate things at many points along the way. Over at the right, you can see Sparrow, Arthur, James, Jack, Michael, Sketor (not part of our group), Hugh, Mattheus, Trent and Adam measuring carefully, thinking hard and enjoying the thrill of figuring stuff out!
We are super-appreciative of all three of our scientist-mentors, who took the time to show us some of the basic skills in their toolkit. Hopefully we will find a chance to return for more!