Stem cell research at UW-Madison typically aims to create skin and organs; this summer, its goal is to create scientists.
Twenty small-town Wisconsin high school students and teachers, alongside UW-Madison students and researchers, donned lab coats and blue plastic gloves at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery to experiment with cryopreservation and live human stem cells.
The experience was a part of a free, four-day camp hosted by the Morgridge Institute for Research, which encourages careers in science and aims to give small-town students chances they wouldn’t ordinarily get at home.
As rural populations shrink, high schools struggle to staff science departments, according to Marcy Heim, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Opportunities foundation, which helps fund the program.
Linda Dworschack teaches high school and middle school science in Soldiers Grove, which has a population just shy of 600. She said she jumped at an opportunity to bring five of her brightest students.
“My favorite part is seeing how excited they are,” she said.
Dworschack said the first night of camp, her high school students overheard a late-night conversation in a university dorm room — about stem cell research.
“We’re not used to that level of interest in North Crawford,” Dworschack said.
The camp exposes young students to groundbreaking stem cell research and regenerative medicine, but its main goal, said event coordinator Dan Murphy, is to paint a realistic picture of a career in science.
“If they get that, they’ll be really curious and inspired,” Murphy said, “then it will all flow from there.”
A secondary goal is to encourage students to attend college — ideally a University of Wisconsin System school.
In a lecture Tuesday, Bill Murphy, a co-director of the campus Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center and professor of biomedical engineering, outlined recent advances in stem cell research, many of which had UW-Madison origins.
He explained how researchers turn stem cells into brain cells in order to model diseases, and how doctors will soon be able to replace missing or cancerous jaw bones with bone marrow grown from stem cells.
Students also heard from national names, such as bioethics expert Pilar Ossorio — who has advised the FDA and the Secretary of Health and Human Services — and chemistry professor Randy Goldsmith, whose former adviser won the most recent Nobel prize in chemistry.
Casual interactions with graduate and college students may have been an equally valuable learning experience.
Tomah High School teacher Sarah Hughes said young researchers lent insights about majors, dorms and college life.
“[The students] are wearing lab coats. The scientists are wearing lab coats,” Murphy said. “They start to think of themselves as a scientist.”
Prentice High School senior Jesse Isaacson experimented with liquid nitrogen Tuesday morning, under the guidance of college-aged interns, freezing whole bananas and turning soft, fresh flowers hard and crunchable.
When he saw some of the researchers dipping more bananas into the substance during a break, he joked, “You’re just having fun now. You guys like this too much.”
“You caught us,” replied Federico Barrionuevo, a UW-Madison undergraduate student and an outreach intern at the Discovery Building.
“It takes away some of the scariness of great big Madison,” Heim said. “We have to keep reminding rural Wisconsin that UW-Madison, yes, is a world-renowned university, but it’s also their university.”
But the camp doesn’t just aim to pluck youths off farms and move them to college labs in the city, Heim said.
It also seeks to support rural schools.
“If you lose your high school in rural Wisconsin, you’ve really lost it,” she said. “The high school is really the hub of vitality … Part of what keeps those high schools strong is having a strong curriculum.”
That’s why teachers accompany their students to the camp. Dworschack said her high school students will present what they learned to younger students in Soldiers Grove this fall.
Dan Murphy said the camp was conceived under the Wisconsin Idea: “UW can reach out to every home. The borders of UW are the state borders.”