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Not Just Busy Work

Not Just Busy Work
Dunbar High students meet the challenges of Hopkins’ cancer labs.

If you’ve ever been a student intern—or shepherded one—you know the pitfalls. As the student, you can end up dusting and filing. As the supervisor, you can feel like a babysitter.

But in Elizabeth Jaffee’s fourth-floor lab in Hopkins’ Bunting Blaustein Cancer Research Building, there’s too much at stake for time-wasting. Jaffee and her crew of a dozen or so post-docs, graduate students, fellows and techs are hot on the trail of vaccines that show real promise for treating pancreatic, breast and kidney cancers. Sign on for a stint in this lab and, even if you’re still in high school, be prepared to grow a few cancer cell lines and isolate a genetic code or two.

Which are exactly the kinds of real-world tasks Simona Nelson took on when she became a student member of the Jaffee team in February. For Nelson, a senior at neighboring Paul Laurence Dunbar Community High School, her 12-week assignment in Hopkins’ newest research building was more than just the last hurdle before graduation. It was a chance to tap all the knowledge and practical lab skills she’d been acquiring since her sophomore year, when she chose biotechnology as her academic track.

“I like the hands-on things, like extracting DNA,” says Nelson, a serious student who spends weekday

This spring, Jaffee lab research coordinator Amy Thomas, right, worked hand-in-glove with Simona Nelson, helping the Dunbar senior look for tumor antigens in breast cancer cells.

evenings at Madison Recreation Center tutoring pre-Kindergartners through second-graders. “When they introduced the academic majors to us our sophomore year at Dunbar, almost everyone went for health care or business. I joined the biotech program because I like the labs—we take two science courses every semester. Science is like a puzzle. I heard before I came to Hopkins that you may have to do things a number of times, but I really learned that here. Some people say I ask too many questions, but I want to make sure I have it; I want to understand.”

Dunbar is one of just two Baltimore City high schools (the other is Southern) that offer a three-year program in biotech instruction, equipping graduates to move either directly into the workforce as laboratory assistants or go on to two- or four-year colleges. As part of their training, first-semester 12th graders take a rigorous course in life science lab management that pulls together their previous math and science classes, teaches them to juggle several experiments simultaneously, and introduces lab procedures like chromatography and gel electropheresis. In their final high-school semester, they spend 20 hours a week doing a graded, off-campus internship. For the last four years, Hopkins researchers like Jaffee, Drew Pardoll, Sara Sukumar and others have participated in the program, offering lab experiences to about five Dunbar seniors each year (others intern at Morgan State University or the Columbus Center for Marine Biotechnology).

“I’m amazed at how much Simona already knew when she arrived here,” says Amy Thomas, Jaffee’s research coordinator and supervisor of the Dunbar student’s work at Hopkins. “She can do a lot of things I didn’t learn until college, like polymerase chain reaction”—a way to study gene expression at the molecular level that won its developer the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry. “And with techniques she didn’t know, I’d show them to her once or twice and then she’d do them on her own. She just dove right in.”

Still, adds Jaffee, the point of bringing students like Nelson into the lab isn’t merely to hone technical skills. “It would be wrong to make up something merely to keep her busy,” says the associate professor of oncology, whose research focuses on boosting the body’s immune response to cancer cells. “Instead, we showed Simona how to apply her knowledge, just like we do with students who come in at higher levels. What we had her doing—establishing breast cancer cell lines in culture to see if they have certain proteins—is critical to our work. If she wasn’t doing that, someone else in my lab would be.”

That Nelson could contribute to moving such a high-stakes project forward doesn’t surprise Demetria Newsome, the head of Dunbar’s science department and coordinator of its biotech program. This year, one of her students won first place in the national high school poster contest of the Association of Minority Health Professions Schools. “We really try to impress on mentors that our students are prepared to become part of the research team,” she says. “Ours is the smallest program in the school—this year we have about 40 students—so it’s a very nurturing environment. A lot of our graduates go on to study biology, chemistry, electrical engineering, and many want to get their M.D. or Ph.D.”

Though Dunbar’s seven-year-old biotech program is too young to have yet spawned any doctors, one thought in particular has crossed Newsome’s mind. “Wouldn’t it be great,” she asks, “if some of our students end up as researchers at Hopkins?”

 —Mary Ann Ayd
Dome, June 2001