Weekly Features


Annual program exposes high school students to hands-on lab experiences, career options

Mar. 13, 2014

A senior at Brebeuf Jesuit Prepatory School in Indianapolis, Courtney Battest has always been interested in science and medicine. But many high school junior and seniors are unaware of the vast array of career options in the field.


Angelo Cardoso, M.D., Ph.D., leads a lab session on angiogenesis, the physiological process through which new blood vessels form from pre-existing blood vessels.

One of 50 high school students from across Indiana selected to participate in the 15th Annual Molecular Medicine in Action, Battest got the chance to experience science hands-on March 9 and 10 during the annual on-campus event presented by the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research at the IU School of Medicine. The program, which receives almost 300 applications each year, exposes participants to advanced biomedical topics and technologies through lectures and lab sessions led by IUSM faculty.

"This program really gave me a perspective as to what you might be doing in the future during an internship or an undergraduate research program," said Battest, who will attend DePauw University in the fall. "It was fascinating seeing the various types of research labs throughout the School of Medicine, and I loved the very hands-on aspect of the program."

Most students participating in the program are encouraged to apply by their high school science teachers.

“This is a great opportunity for these kids,” said Marva Moore, a biology teacher at Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Ind., and chair of the Molecular Medicine in Action teacher committee. “Many students have never seen fully functional labs such as the ones here at the School of Medicine. MMIA really exposes students to various types of career paths in science and shows them firsthand the commitment it takes to become a scientist, physician or even a physician-scientist.”


Melissa Fischel, Ph.D., addresses students during a lesson on RNA interference.

The program is particularly valuable to students from small or rural school districts that lack the resources to expose them to advanced biomedical technologies, she added.

Such students include Kendall Spiller, a junior at Madison Consolidated High School in Madison, Ind., learned about stem cell transplantation during the day's event.

"Most students my age just hear and see physicians, surgeons and nurses, but there is really so much more to science and medicine than just seeing the patient," said Spiller, who plans to apply to Washington University or Butler University. "The program has really exposed me to so many more careers in the science and medical fields; it’s pretty amazing to have this type of opportunity."

The stem cell transplantation session was led by Jamie Case, Ph.D., an assistant research professor of pediatrics and a member of the Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research. He showed students how to separate red blood cells and plasma from newly collected samples, and he explained the significance of stem cell research in medicine.

"Without programs like MMIA, students are left with only their high school curriculums," said Case, who also directs the Angio BioCore at the IU Simon Cancer Center. "While often great, it is hard to really branch out from the state standards and norms. The beauty of MMIA is that it informs not only the students but also the teachers of things they might never realize are going on in the scientific field, given advancements are happening so quickly these days. Exposure and education help inspire both teachers and students to expand their scientific knowledge and education."


Jamie Case, Ph.D., leads a lab session on stem cell transplantation.

Other lab modules presented at the morning session were cytogenetics, angiogenesis and RNA interference, during which students used advanced microscopes, worked under a tissue culture hood and performed various other research lab-related tasks.

“The Wells Center feels a real obligation to enthuse, train and present a good perspective on careers in science to young students,” said Karen Pollok, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the IU School of Medicine and the primary organizer for Molecular Medicine in Action. “We’ve been doing this for 15 years now, and we feel it helps raise awareness not only in the community but statewide as to what the IU School of Medicine is doing and what it is all about.”

The afternoon sessions delved deeper into more specific topics that constitute major areas of investigation at the Wells Center, including diabetes and neurofibromatosis type 1, a class of potentially life-threatening and previously untreatable tumors in children whose first effective therapy was discovered based upon research at the Wells Center.

On March 9, Molecular Medicine in Action offered a series of lectures presented by Wells Center physician scientists at the Omni Severin Hotel in Indianapolis, where students stayed free of charge before their on-campus experience. The March 10 event also include a lunchtime career panel, which provided the high school students the chance to speak to physicians, researchers, lab techs and project coordinators, a new career category growing in popularity in the sciences.


A student looks through a microscope during a lab module at Molecular Medicine in Action.

"We’ve been doing this long enough now that some students have gone on to careers in research and returned to speak to new participants in the program, including one of my own students who’s currently a biomedical engineering major at IU,” said Moore, who was among the teachers who worked with the Wells Center to create the program in 1999.

Perhaps Battest or Spiller -- or one of the many others from the days' sessions -- will one day join their ranks.

“I have always wanted to have my own (medical) practice; I never really thought about the research aspect of medicine," Battest said. "Now, because of program, I'm starting to think about how I could one day collaborate with other scientists to contribute to medical research."

Molecular Medicine in Action is supported by the Riley Children’s Foundation, the Wells Center and the IU School of Medicine.

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