“When you think of bioengineering, what comes to mind?” asks Daniel Corbett, a Ph.D. student in bioengineering at the University of Washington. He’s standing in front of a group of high-school students. They’re game, if a little tentative.
“Pacemakers,” says one.
“Gene editing,” offers another.
“Things that get put into people’s bodies?” asks a third.
Corbett, whose research focuses on how to better engineer and control artificial human tissues, continues his questioning: What do you know about tissue engineering? Are organs tissues? Why do we need to bioengineer organs?
You can almost hear the students thinking.
Nearly 50 high school students from Lewis County, Washington, are visiting four different labs at the Institute for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) at UW Medicine’s South Lake Union campus. Their tour concludes a two-week summer program called the Chehalis STEM Academy, the brainchild of Sen. John Braun and the late philanthropist Orin Smith, both from Chehalis. The academy is designed to spark the interest of high-school students in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.
More than 40 researchers, representing 19 labs from UW Medicine, are volunteering in the program. Many traveled to Chehalis for hands-on, in-classroom demonstrations and talks with the kids during the two-week program. But today, students are getting an inside look at the labs.
Senior Belen Salguero marvels at the miniature kidney structures, grown from stem cells, passed around in petri dishes in ISCRM’s Ellison Stem Cell Core. “It’s hard to imagine that those things are actually living,” she says.
Other stops on the tour include the Quellos High-throughput Screening Core, where students learn how robots help speed the drug-testing process, and the ISCRM Aquatics Core, where they learn that zebrafish can regenerate their own hearts.
A sophomore, who’s been participating in science fairs since second grade, approached his teacher about being part of the Chehalis STEM Academy. “These researchers are working at a very high level. It’s really good exposure for us,” he says.
Back in the lab, Corbett passes around examples of 3D printed objects — miniature dayglow yellow gels— for the students to touch. They’re meant to be handled. A peal of nervous laughter erupts.
“I broke it!” says a student.
Corbett doesn’t miss a beat. It’s par for the course when students start getting hands-on with science.
“That’s okay,” he says. “I was expecting that to happen.”