Students Experience Real-World Science

Veronica Garcia, PhD, (from left) and Virginia Mattis, PhD, introduce student Lorena Alvarado to the intricacies of working in the sterile environment of a laboratory hood during Research Week at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute. Garcia is replacing Mattis as the program's coordinator.

Student Luis Gasca from the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies practices his pipetting skills.

Southern California high school students participating in Research Week and their schools: (front row, from left) Lorena Alvarado, Venice in Los Angeles; Isabella Hardy, Santa Monica; Urmi Queen and Michelle Zvansky, both Fairfax Senior in Los Angeles; Sebastian Ko, Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles; (second row, from left) Luis Gasca and Danielle Goldwirth, both Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies; Valerie Builoff, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Tarzana; Katherine Johnson, El Segundo; Abrianna Canyon, New West Charter in Los Angeles; Aelita Arshakyan, Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian in Los Angeles; Gagan Mannur, Beverly Hills; (back row, from left) Nicole Joh, Palisades Charter in Pacific Palisades; Katherine Romero, St. Monica Catholic in Santa Monica; Nicole Ortiz, La Salle in Pasadena; Leonardo Padilla, Beverly Hills; Luca Tagliati, Palisades Charter; Khuslen Otgonbayar, Pacifica Christian in Santa Monica; Max Buydakov, Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet in Los Angeles. Not pictured: Brianna Harnack, Pacifica Christian.

Brianna Harnack, 17, a student at Pacifica Christian High School in Santa Monica, watched intently as Research Associate Amanda Woodbury demonstrated the tricky technique of pipetting liquid into small chips lined with human cells.

Then came Harnack's turn.

"You did an awesome job! That was so smooth," said Woodbury, raising a gloved hand and exchanging high-fives with Harnack.

Day One of Research Week was off to a stellar start.

Launched in 2011 as part of the High School Outreach Program of the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute, the annual session gives area high school students a hands-on introduction to stem cell research. This year, a record 50 students applied for the coveted spots.

"We had so many great applicants that we had to turn down many accomplished students," said Virginia Mattis, PhD, assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences and coordinator of Research Week.

Twenty teens—13 girls and seven boys from public and private schools throughout the Los Angeles area—were selected for the July 23–27 session. They were drawn from the Youth Employment and Development, and Teen Volunteer programs at Cedars-Sinai. Admission was based on various criteria, including grade-point average and the quality of the applicant's essay.

"Our goal is to give students a real-world immersive experience in a professional lab setting. We want them to walk away with a good sense of what it's really like to be a scientist," Mattis explained.

Research Week's agenda was jam-packed. Students learned about lab safety and sterile techniques, toured research facilities and attended lectures by several Cedars-Sinai investigators. Student teams conducted experiments under supervision of their mentors, with an aim of testing hypotheses involving breast cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), brain tumors and other disorders. On the last day, they presented their findings to a group of Cedars-Sinai scientists.

Lorena Alvarado, 17, from Venice High School, was among the enthusiastic participants. The daughter of immigrants from Mexico who had received little formal education, Alvarado said, "My mother taught me that education is the foundation on which to build your future, and what I'm learning here is fascinating."

Urmi Queen, who spent the first nine years of her life in Dhaka, Bangladesh, also pointed to her mother's impact.

"When I was a little girl, my mom told me she lost her dad at a young age because the closest hospital was 70 miles away. That story really hit me hard," said Queen, 17, a junior at Fairfax Senior High School. Queen said her dream is "to bring free medical care to all underserved areas of Bangladesh."

For 17-year-old Luis Gasca, who attends the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, Research Week inspired new career ideas. "I now can see myself being directly involved or in some way contributing to regenerative medicine research," he said.

Last month's session marked a transition in the Research Week leadership. Mattis, who has coordinated the program since its inception, handed off her role to Veronica Garcia, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Clive Svendsen, PhD, director of the Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute and professor of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

"After eight years at Cedars-Sinai, it's a bittersweet decision to return to Wisconsin and be closer to my family. The program definitely is in good hands and will continue to thrive under Dr. Garcia's leadership," Mattis said. On her part, Garcia said, "I couldn't be more thrilled to assume the role as coordinator."

Svendsen added: "Dr. Mattis has been an outstanding champion of this program. We thank her from the bottom of our hearts and wish her great success in her future scientific career."

Students who would like to participate in next year's Research Week must first apply to the Youth Employment and Development program, through a partnership with Fairfax Senior High School, or to the Teen Volunteer Program. Applications for the Teen Volunteer Program will be available March 1, 2019, on the program's website.