2 teachers earn chance to work with top researchers

Tami Caraballo*, a science teacher at Snohomish’s Glacier Peak High School, is spending her summer immersed at a Seattle research firm, studying a tumor-suppressing protein called P53.

“Everybody has it,” she said. “If it’s not mutated, it works to repair or destroy damaged cells.”

Caraballo is working with scientists at Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology, part of the biotech hub south of Lake Union. “We’re looking at mutations and the impact on genes and human health,” she said.

This is the first of two summers Caraballo will spend at the firm as part of the Partners in Science program. She is one of two science teachers from Snohomish County, and 11 in Washington, selected to participate.

The program is sponsored by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, based in Vancouver, Wash. It allows Northwest teachers to work in research labs to promote science education. Teachers from Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Oregon also were selected for the program.

“This is leading edge research,” Caraballo said of the work under way at Institute for Systems Biology. “They really don’t know what they’ll find.”

Her assignments include finding, tracking and organizing research on the P53 protein. When the protein is damaged, it can lead to a number of cancers, including those of the colon, brain, breast and lungs.

It’s a steep learning curve, she said, and far different from her day-to-day classroom work of overseeing 165 students.

Sometimes, she said, she feels a little in overwhelmed by the sophistication and complexity of the daily discussions. “I sit in on some things and think, ‘Wow, I think I know five words of what they said,’ ” Caraballo said.

It’s a good lesson in empathy, she said. “It helps me understand how my students feel.”

True scientific research often involves a lot of hit-and-miss work, she said. “With research, real research, there’s a lot of failure.”

One of the lessons she hopes to take back to her classroom is for student to overcome their fears of failure if they get a different answer than they expected while working on scientific problems.

Less than a mile away, fellow science teacher Carole Tanner, from Everett’s Jackson High School, is assigned to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where she’s working with evolutionary biologist Katie Peichel.

Her work began in May with a trip to Vancouver Island, collecting small stickleback fish from lakes and streams.

“All these lakes and streams are isolated,” she said. “The question is how different are all these groups of fish and how are their genes expressed differently?”

It’s part of a project to research the stickleback’s reaction to viruses and specifically if scientists can detect if the fish are finding way to combat viruses.

“I’ve identified 10 genes than might be anti-viral genes,” she said. “If they look interesting, we’ll carry on. If not, we’ll look for other genes.”

Teachers selected for the program receive a $10,000 grant. Tanner said she plans to use the money to buy scientific equipment for her classroom. Caraballo plans to use some of her grant money for classroom equipment, too, as well as travel to a science convention and a trip to San Diego to make a presentation on her research.

Tanner’s eight-week stint at “the Hutch,” as the center often is called in verbal shorthand, allows her to both experience the work of a scientific research team and become something of a student herself, she said.

Tanner said she feels her work in Seattle will have direct applications in the classroom, where new biotechnology classes will be launched in the fall.

The classes will have a mix of 11th and 12th graders. Her goal is for them to learn that there are a number of ways students can pursue careers in science, from a two-year biotechnology lab specialist program offered at Shoreline Community College to those who earn bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D degrees in broad-ranging scientific specialties.

“A lot of times kids have a preconceived idea that they can’t do science unless they’re the most brilliant kids,” she said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com

Correction, July 30, 2013: Tami Caraballo’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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