NIA Launches High School Partnership Program

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students in a classroomIn a science classroom at Wheaton High School, a few miles from NIH, students grabbed pizza slices, found a writing desk or lab stool, and settled down to spend their lunch hour with a researcher who has devoted his career to basic science.

Felipe Sierra, Ph.D., director of NIA’s Division of Aging Biology, was at the Maryland school to talk about the rewards and pleasures of a career in laboratory research and why aging research matters. He also focused on the choices that lay ahead for the 9th through 12th graders who had come to listen.

“You don’t know where your career is going to take you” he told them, explaining how science led him to many places—from his native Santiago, Chile, to Florida, Switzerland, Pennsylvania, and now, Bethesda, Maryland; from academia to industry to government; from laboratory researcher to science administrator. “There are many choices along the way,” he said. While you can’t know exactly where each one will lead, the journey is likely to be rewarding. And fun, he added.

Lunchtime with Dr. Sierra was one of the first events in NIA’s new High School Partnership Program; that same week, Lori Beason-Held, Ph.D., from NIA’s Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience, talked to science students at Patterson High School in Baltimore. The aim of the partnerships is to encourage students to choose careers in science and, ultimately, to expand the proportion of minority aging researchers.

Each school has a highly diverse student body and an emphasis on the biosciences. The students listening to Dr. Sierra at Wheaton, whose population is about 57% Hispanic and 22% African American, are members of the school’s Bioscience Academy. They take a specialized bioscience course each year, beginning with Principles of Biomedical Sciences and ending with Biomedical Innovation in their senior year. In 2011, the Academy’s first graduates won scholarships worth $1.3 million, said Heather Carias, who coordinates the Academy at Wheaton.

Dr. Felipe Sierra, director of NIA's Division of Aging Biology,
speaks with students at Wheaton High School.

In Baltimore, the Patterson student body is also diverse—about 72% African American and 10% Hispanic. The curriculum includes anatomy, physiology, and genetics in addition to standard high school biology courses. Patterson also offers career pathway classes allowing students to become certified emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians, or nursing technicians, said Daniel Callahan, who chairs the school’s science department.

At Patterson, Dr. Beason-Held talked about how scientists use neuroimaging to study brain function and explained how brains change over a lifetime. She gave examples of changes that can occur in younger people’s brains when they practice a skill, such as a sport or musical instrument, and when they use their imaginations—to come up with a science experiment, perhaps. Dr. Beason-Held also talked about the basic aspects of a scientists’ job and how everyone uses science in everyday life.

Both scientists expressed enthusiasm for the new program. It will include more presentations at the two schools, field trips to NIH laboratories, participation in school career days, and sponsorship of summer internships at NIH, said Ivori Lipscomb-Warren, who coordinates the program at NIA’s Workforce and Strategic and Planning Branch.

Why Aging Research?

At Wheaton, Dr. Sierra listed some to the reasons to make science a career—its impact on everyday life, for example, and its universality (“everywhere you go, it is the same language”).

And, again, near the top of the list: “It is fun! The day your experiment works—there is no other feeling like that.” He hastened to add that experiments may work only once in a 100 times, but he conveyed the excitement—and camaraderie—of the persistent search for answers.

And why should a science student choose basic research in aging? To get at fundamental causes and have the biggest potential impact on human health was his answer. Look for example at the basic research on cell senescence, he said, tracing it from Leonard Hayflick’s theory in the 1960s through telomere research to the recent studies showing that removing senescent cells improves the health of mice. Basic science leads to potential clinical benefits, he emphasized.

Wheaton students interact with Dr. Sierra.

The researchers who made these discoveries chose to do basic science. But that wasn’t the first or last choice they had to make.

“You make career choices all your life,” Dr. Sierra said. After high school, you choose between study and work. If you study science, you choose between basic and applied. After your degree, you decide between academia, industry, or government.

In the end, it’s the potential impact of the field you choose and the personal satisfaction that you get out of the work that matters and determines your choices. So consider basic research in aging, he urged the students. “Did I mention that it’s fun?”

For questions regarding the NIA High School Partnership Program, please contact the Program Coordinator, Ivori Lipscomb-Warren via email at WarrenIvori@mail.nih.gov.