Summer, Science and Drosophila: New Program Shapes Future Scientists | Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC)

The start of summer for a group of high school students from the Bronx involved lots of pesky bugs and a microscope.

Eliani Ramirez, a rising sophomore at University Heights High School, is participating in a new summer program at the cancer center to study diet, nutrition and tumor growth. (Photo: Timothy Lee Photography)

Eighteen sophomores and juniors at University Heights High School in the South Bronx spent a week in June studying the effects of diet and nutrition on tumor growth using Drosophila, better known as the common fruit fly, as a model organism. The new summer program, hosted by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and its Office of Communication and Engagement, provides middle and high school students in the neighborhoods of Columbia University Irving Medical Center hands-on laboratory experiments for cancer research. The program gives young students direct contact with advanced level research, science and medicine.

The in-person classroom experiments were conducted via virtual lectures with an educational organization called the eCLOSE Institute, along with Columbia University faculty, students, and staff. The new program is part of an initiative by HICCC to encourage and support local, diverse middle and high school students who are interested in science and medicine, but who may not have the opportunity or resources to gain hands-on research or laboratory experience. HICCC partners with eCLOSE, which brings together teacher-scientist teams to deliver cutting-edge research in the classroom, and with University Heights High School, whose multicultural student body is made up of a majority of black, Hispanic, and first-generation students.

The next generation of doctors and scientists

“I really love science and math and chemistry,” says participant Eliani Ramirez, a fourteen-year-old freshman at University Heights who is also on the school’s robotics team. “This program was a good chance for me to see what it’s really like to listen to biology lectures and actually do laboratory research. All the experiments were really fun.” Eliani is headed to medical school to specialize in cardiothoracic surgery.

For Ebube-Chisom Okwuka, 15, another rising sophomore at University Heights, getting to know the science tools and lab equipment, including the burette measuring instrument and the USB microscope, was a highlight.

“Having been exposed to many scientific laboratory tools, I am curious about how modern technology is used to find better cures for cancer and how modern technology can be improved to help scientists find better treatments for others diseases,” says Ebube, who also codes games and is on the robotics team. “After the program ended, I became interested in the use of technology in medicine and see myself working in the technical side of the medical field.”

Building diversity in science and medicine

Each student worked with a fruit fly science kit provided to them at the beginning of the week, which included microscopes, pipettes, minibalances, and other equipment needed for experiments. Students learned critical laboratory skills, hypothesis generation, data collection and analysis. They also learned about dilutions, sample weighing and pipetting, and how to sex-sort and phenotype their fruit flies. In the fall, students will gather at HICCC for a poster session where each student will present their project findings to HICCC leadership, faculty, and students.

Sandra Rayom, Ph.D., associate director of DEI at HICCC, was instrumental in bringing the eCLOSE partnership to Columbia and aims to increase Columbia’s pool of diverse interns by beginning this outreach with the middle school.

“The excitement and commitment of University Heights High School students this week was inspiring,” said Dr. Ryeom, associate professor of surgical sciences at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “Many of these students contacted me because they want to continue doing research at HICCC and are interested in applying to Columbia for an undergraduate degree. We will continue to expand this program to other middle and high schools in our local neighborhoods, which will further diversify the biomedical workforce.”

“Going into this, what we hope to accomplish each time is to get students really engaged in research, science and medicine,” says Dara Ruiz-Whalen, who co-founded eCLOSE and served as a co-teacher, along with Alphonse Bowman, on the new HICCC Program.

That was the takeaway for fifteen-year-old sophomore Carlos Jose Sedano Llano, who is inspired to learn even more about science and medicine.

“I’ve always been interested in a career in science and thought about being an engineer or a computer science engineer,” says Carlos. “This program opened my eyes to medicine and showed me how impactful it can be. It made me even more interested in how medicine works and the impact it can have on people and cancer.”

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