SEATTLE — Young scientists in knee-length white lab coats stood in pairs near their work stations.
They were tasked with copying and amplifying segments of DNA, specifically the BRCA1 gene. Inherited mutations in that gene have been linked to breast cancer.
The student scientists used colored liquid to practice getting tiny drops in and out of pipettes before working with actual DNA and mixes. The amounts, measured in microliters, were no more than specks of color.
This work needs care and precision.
It also needs passion and fresh voices from groups that have been underrepresented, said Jeanne Ting Chowning, senior director of science education and training at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
This month, 32 high school sophomores and juniors are learning from professional scientists and spending time in labs at Fred Hutch. It’s part of the Pathway Research Explorers Program, designed to help teens interested in science, medicine and research learn about their options.
There’s a focus on students who may not otherwise have access to that information. That includes young people from low-income families, immigrants, those who will be the first in their family to attend college, and minority and women students.
This is the first of five years funded by the National Cancer Institute. There are two sessions per summer, each two weeks long.
About 130 people applied for the 32 spots. Those were hard decisions, Chowning said. Essays and teacher recommendations carried a lot of weight.
Portia Forson, 15, worked on her application over the course of a week and asked teachers for editing help. The Mariner High School junior still wasn’t sure if she’d get in. She’s smart, she said, but so are others who sought a spot.
“I have a big passion for helping people,” she said.
She’s particularly interested in sickle cell disease. She knows people who live with the condition, which affects red blood cells. There are treatments, including bone marrow transplants or blood transfusions, but she believes that better, less risky options can be found.
Forson loves math and biology. She is the oldest of three sisters and wants to set an example.
“As I’m growing up, I see they’re following me and starting to want to do things that I do,” she said.
She’ll be splitting her time between Mariner and Edmonds Community College next year, and hopes to attend the University of Washington.
“I’m getting more knowledgeable,” she said. “I think I can contribute a lot.”
Amber Carbajal, 16, also is going into her junior year at Mariner. She wants to be an obstetrician or pediatrician. She comes from a large family: four older siblings and 16 nieces and nephews, from newborn to 11 years old.
Ever since she was small, Carbajal has been interested in medicine. She’d pretend to be a doctor.
At Fred Hutch, she’s met people with similar interests.
“We all have different amounts of knowledge,” she said. “It pushes me to learn more.”
She wants to go to the UW. She’ll be the first in her family to pursue a career in medicine.
“If you’re a minority or a girl, don’t let that discourage you,” she said. “We need more minorities and women in this field.”
On Thursday, Carbajal partnered with Sonia Yuan, of Ingraham High School, and Forson worked with Manasvini Calmidi, of Tesla STEM. After filling test tubes with DNA and mix, they made gel boxes to be used in analyzing the genetic material.
“It’s going to cool fast so you’ll want to move quickly,” warned Regina Wu, who guided the students.
The fast pace of the biomedical field is part of what fascinates students. Along with learning to copy and amplify DNA, they talked about the implications of genetic testing and DNA editing.
“Medicine of the future is going to look a lot different than how we’ve experienced it,” said Chowning, the education director.
It’s an exciting time, and new voices are important, she said.
Forson and Carbajal are glad to add theirs.
“Since science is always evolving, I can’t wait to see what’s next,” Carbajal said. “What will we find a cure for?”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local students accepted into the Pathway Research Explorers Program this summer include: Colter Mason and Cameron Davis, juniors, Everett High School; Karsten Schmidt, sophomore, Glacier Peak High School; Alberta Gbla, Amber Carbajal, Marlene Barajas Salas, Nina Huynh and Portia Forson, juniors, Mariner High School; and Ethan Wood, junior, Mountlake Terrace High School.