Cancer center open house gives high school kids a foot in the door

| Written by Helen I. Hwang
Torrey Pines High School students, Karishma Shah and Rachel J. Lian

Teenager  Rachel J. Lian got a chance to see the beating heart of a live fruit fly under a microscope for the first time at the open house held by the NCI-designated Cancer Center held at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) in October 2016. As a high school junior in San Diego, Lian knew that fruit flies are used as model systems in cancer research from her Advanced Placement biology class but she had never seen one up close like she did in the laboratory of Karen Ocorr, Ph.D.

“It was really cool,” said Lian, who came with a group of parents and students from Torrey Pines High School. For the kids, it was also the first time they stepped foot into a professional scientific laboratory, an environment they aspired to work in the future.

Ocorr’s laboratory was one of five open to visitors at the open house, which was themed around how the environment and lifestyle affect cancer development. Twice a year, the Institute opens its doors to their laboratories for the community so they can get to know SBP.

Lian was at the open house with fellow junior Karishma Shah, who are both members of the school’s iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team. Regular club meetings at Torrey Pines High School prepare about 20 students for an annual competition in Boston. Teams of students work on solving global challenges in medicine or agriculture with synthetic biology.

“Seeing the applications in the lab really brought science to life,” said Shah. Shah also got a chance to see a mass spectrometer in action for the first time. Both young women aspire to be medical doctors with Ph.D.s, combining clinical work with biomedical research.

Ocorr’s tour was centered on what flies can tell us about exercise and cancer. Visitors from the community also got to hear talks about inflammation and cancer from the laboratory of Carl Ware, Ph.D., the role of the microbiome in cancer from the laboratory of Scott Peterson, Ph.D., how obesity increases cancer risk from the laboratory of Maria Diaz-Meco, Ph.D., and how natural products inform drug discovery from Ian Pass, Ph.D., and Chris Larson, Ph.D., both scientists in the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics.

One dad came on behalf of his 14-year-old son who wasn’t yet old enough to see for himself. Visitors have to be a minimum age of 16 to enter SBP’s laboratories.  “He’s interested in genetics,” said Ben Holtzman. “It’s good to expose him to what's going on these days.”

The next open house will be held in June 2017. Check back on www.sbpdiscovery.org for more details.

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