HackBio Brings Together High-Schoolers And Duke Scientists

April 5, 2019
By: Julie Poucher Harbin, Writer, DCI

On March 19 and 20, members of Duke Cancer Institute and The Nicholas School for the Environment held their first-ever HackBio event; a two-day program to engage high school students in experiential learning and broaden their exposure to STEM careers. 

Twenty-four students from the City of Medicine Academy health services career magnet high school in Durham, North Carolina, climbed all 239 steps of Duke Chapel, toured a Duke Cancer Institute research laboratory, mingled with Duke undergraduates, research technicians, and experienced faculty, and participated in mentored team-based research activities. 

“We hope the students will have a deeper appreciation for how human-led influences on the environment can affect health,” said molecular biologist Jason Somarelli, PhD, who co-developed HackBio with marine conservationist Meagan Dunphy-Daly, PhD (director of the Rachel Carson Scholars Program in the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Duke Marine Lab). “We’re also trying to give students a sense of what their career path could look like.”

Duke University Scholars in Marine Medicine, an undergraduate research program directed by Somarelli, advised the high-schoolers on the importance of finding schoolwork/life balance in college and building strong relationships with mentors, and even offered tips on preparing for medical school. 

The high-schoolers, who might have felt a bit overwhelmed by the path that lay ahead, were encouraged by So Young Kim, PhD (director of the DCI Functional Genomics Shared Resource) and Tom Schultz, PhD (director of the Marine Conservation Molecular Facility at the Nicholas School of the Environment) who both explained that their career paths were “meandering” and brought them to unexpected places.

“I intended to be an artist and only ended up in science after college,” said Kim relaying, in an interview, what she’d told the students. “Sometimes it takes a little time to find what you love and what you want to spend the rest of your life doing.”

Itzel Pineda Castillo was relieved to learn that discovering your passion is “a process.”  

“When I came to City of Medicine, I thought I wanted to be a nurse, but here I see all these other options I could try,” said Castillo. 

On the second day, the students had the opportunity to really hunker down and conduct research with two team-based activities designed to engage students in creative and critical thinking about important global health challenges.  

They broke into six groups of four students; each group with an undergraduate team mentor to guide them. 

Tom Schultz, PhD, gave career advice to high school students. This was “Lesson 2" of four: “You’re walking through the countryside in Europe and come across two guys in a field beating on rocks with sledge hammers. You walk up to the 1st guy and ask “what are you doing?”  He looks at you like you’re crazy and says “what does it look like I’m doing…..I’m beating on a rock with hammer!” You walk up to the 2nd guy and ask him the same question. He looks at you with a gleam in his eye and says “I’m building a cathedral!”  The message: You’re going to spend a lot of time “beating on rocks” but it’s worthwhile when you can see the big picture. When I was an undergrad, I got a part-time job doing data entry for one of the first clinical trials on AZT (AIDS drug). I was basically just entering data, but really I was helping to cure AIDS!” (Schultz’s other three lessons were “It’s Scary,” “Be Curious”, and “Pick a hard problem…and get to work”) Their first challenge was to explore the National Institutes of Health/Environmental Protection Agency TOXMAP app and pinpoint toxic exposures and potential carcinogens in the local area. 

Later the same teams reconvened with their mentors to pick a known environmental exposure and propose creative strategies or technologies to detect these potential carcinogens, protect against them, reduce their production and lessen their health impact. 

Then, after an hour-and-a-half, they presented their ideas to their peers and a panel of expert faculty “judges:” covering coke oven emissions cadmium and arsenic (Team 1); benzo [a] pyrene found in coal tar, tobacco smoke and grilled meats (Team 2); sun exposure (Team 3); PVC used in plastic products, pipes and wires (Team 4); cadmium found in rechargeable batteries and chocolate (Team 5); and respirable crystalline silica inhaled by workers who work with brick and concrete. (Team 6).

“The presentations were really well done,” Somarelli told the students, after he and the "judges" gave some constructive feedback. “You only had an hour-and-a-half to prepare, but you guys crushed it.”

Lori Rose, whose fourth period Biomedical Technology I students were selected for participation, lauded the “mentors’ enthusiasm for our students.” 

“Most high school students never have this opportunity,” she said. “This was outside of all the things you have to do on a daily basis and you did it just because you enjoy seeing the next generation succeed and we’re so appreciative.”

Somarelli said organizers hope to expand the program beyond the City of Medicine Academy to other public schools in Durham and the Triangle area in the future. 

Schultz, from the Nicholas School, said he was game to participate again.

“I always enjoy interacting with students, especially when I’m able to get them to loosen up and ask questions, from the Duke/UNC rivalry to questions about science,” he said.