What they did on their summer vacation: Stem cell exploration

August 23, 2013 | by

For some teens, their idea of summer fun isn't heading to the beach or hanging out at the poolside, but studying stem cell differentiation in blood cancer, investigating how a tumor’s stem cells develop or even designing viral vectors that could be used to observe mutations in a stem cell line.

Those are some of the projects tackled by eight students enrolled in the California Regenerative Medicine Institute’s Creativity Awards program at City of Hope this summer. The projects differed, but all the students ended the program not only with a better understanding of laboratory research but also a better understanding of the potential of stem cells in treating many diseases.

Eight students worked in City of Hope laboratories this summer studying stem cells through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine Creativity Awards program.

Eight students worked in City of Hope laboratories this summer studying stem cells through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine Creativity Awards program.

“I have an addiction to science,” writes Ted Zhu, a 16-year-old Walnut High School junior who spent eight weeks in the laboratory of Ren-Jang Lin, Ph.D., a professor of molecular and cellular biology at City of Hope. Zhu was studying stem cell applications for a form of blood cancer. “It’s that feel-good, bubbly rush of euphoria that shoots across my body, giving me tingling sensations across my arm and a light-headed feeling that makes me feel like I’m floating among clouds … Man, I love science.”

The CIRM Creativity Awards program introduces high school students to stem cell science and developmental biology research, fostering creativity and promoting stem cell education. The program gave students a chance to work in laboratories at UC-Santa Barbara, Stanford University and other institutions as well.

The students recorded their own experiences, sharing them in blog posts, Instagram photos and videos on the CIRM website.

The eight students at City of Hope participated in the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy, taking in additional lectures and lessons focused on therapeutic applications of stem cells. They also took part in discussions about ethical concerns in stem cell research.

Margaret Shen, an 18-year-old from Fremont, Calif., also worked in Lin’s lab, studying myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder that is often a precursor to acute myeloid leukemia. She also worked on a project aiming to design a viral vector that could be use to observe specific mutations in a stem cell line.  (She discusses her work in this video.)

“This research experience has been more to me than just hardcore science or picking up benchwork skills,” she writes. “I think many people turn away from research because they fear that it’s a quiet, lonely career involving little contact with the outside world. My experience this summer has shown me that it’s quite the opposite. Without other people to consult about interesting gel results or failed transfections, research just isn’t the same.”

Zhu, who discusses his stem cell work in this video, writes that high school students are constantly being urged to rack up awards and activities to help them get into a good college and hopefully land a career that will bring them “the big bucks.” Now, Zhu says he hopes research is a path to cures for patients and personal happiness.

“What’s given me an immense satisfaction is that I’ve enjoyed working here because I love it,” he writes. “Not because Harvard will love it.”

(In the video above, Steven Wang, a Harker High School student, explains what he's learned about how cancer stem cells develop, and how this knowledge might lead to better drug targets.)