Scarborough lab engages next generation of scientists

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SCARBOROUGH — Maine Medical Center Research Institute hopes to inspire a new generation to consider careers in biomedicine by introducing high school students to scientists engaged in lifesaving research. 

And, by all accounts, the effort is working.

This academic year, 30 students from Casco Bay and Deering high schools in Portland, and Scarborough and South Portland high schools, are giving up one evening a month to attend hands-on, experiential learning sessions offered at the research institute.

The sessions are in addition to their regular coursework and all the students involved must also provide their own transportation. Several of them said the extra effort is well worth it.

Joseph Inabanza, a sophomore at Casco Bay High School, said the two sessions he has attended have been “even more meaningful than I hoped for.”

Scarborough sophomore Alison Kueck said it’s been great to see the opportunities that are available to her. “It’s been what I hoped,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the actual labs and procedures in person.”

Lucy Hartley, a sophomore from South Portland High, said she has always been interested in biology, particularly in genetics and DNA. “It’s been interesting to get into the labs and see how things really work,” Hartley said.

The high school outreach program was the brainchild of Dr. Lucy Liaw, a senior scientist and the director of education and training at MMCRI.

She started the program about six years ago because there was “such limited opportunity,” she said, for high school students to experience the research and meet the scientists who work behind the scenes.

“While everyone sees a doctor or nurse, most people don’t get to interact with biomedical research scientists very often,” Liaw said. “Every time the students come they meet different professionals” and engage in various hands-on activities.

The goal is to provide “a rich and well-rounded educational experience,’ Liaw said. “Careers in science and technology are high growth areas in Maine, and programs like these expose and engage students early.”

The outreach program to area high schools recently received a grant from the Maine Community Foundation to provide a classroom version of the clinical trials session.

With the grant, Liaw said, “we hope to reach more high schools around Maine. This is a wonderful opportunity to expand our current high school program to rural communities and districts that might not have the resources to travel to our laboratories.”

Choice of study

Each student involved in the research center’s outreach program chooses a disease to study.

Inabanza selected sickle cell anemia. He is a carrier, and his younger sister has the blood disorder, which causes an increased risk of infection and stroke, as well as chronic pain.

With advances in gene editing, Inabanza said, there should be a way to cure the disease, and he’s hoping to be the one to do it. Sickle cell anemia can now only be treated effectively with high-risk and expensive bone marrow or stem cell transplants.

“When I talk to the scientists (here), I get my questions answered and it gives me a chance to really learn,” Inabanza said. “This program makes me think harder.”

Hartley also chose to study sickle cell anemia. What fascinates her the most, she said, is the genetics; her hope is to one day “understand how it all works.”

Kueck chose to study diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas, a type of cancer of the brain stem that affects children. It has a less than 1 percent survival rate, “so there’s little hope right now, but that’s why it needs the most study,” she said.

Hal Kingsbury, co-chairman of the science department at South Portland High School, said it’s a “big commitment” for the students, but “they are gaining an unbelievably valuable experience. For the students who are the most passionate about science, this is a way to see how it’s done.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

While Jess Davis-Knowlton, a graduate student from Tufts University watches, left, South Portland High School sophomore Lucy Hartley uses a pipette during a lab activity at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough. At right is Max Gailey, also from South Portland.

Rebecca Frank, left, and Bilan Mohamed, students at Deering High School in Portland, study a clay melanoma specimen at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough. They are among 30 high school students attending a special outreach program offered by the institute.

Joseph Inabanza, a sophomore at Casco Bay High School in Portland, dissects a clay version of a melanoma specimen while participating in an outreach program offered by the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough. He hopes to attend Harvard and someday find a cure for sickle cell anemia.

Alison Kueck, a sophomore at Scarborough High School, said she is learning about all “the amazing opportunities” open to her in the field of biomedicine through outreach program offered by the Maine Medical Center Research Institute.