Students, Researchers Face-to-Face
NIH Scientists Spread Science Excitement During Lab Week
Imagine spending the day hobnobbing with White House staff, astronauts, engineers and neuroscientists. Then imagine that they all gathered together for you with the sole purpose of getting you interested in and excited about science. If you can imagine all of that, then you know what it feels like to be one of the students who attended “White House Day at the Lab,” the kickoff to National Week at the Labs.
Elementary and middle school children from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., assembled at the White House Feb. 29 for a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) event coordinated by the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) task force and the White House Council on Women and Girls (CWG).
At the opening session, students listened to presentations by federal scientists, engineers and lab professionals from different STEM fields. Presenters shared not only their science but also their career journeys—explaining how they developed and explored their interest in science.
Students and scientists enjoyed informal chats during a lunch-time mentoring/networking session. “The student engagement was amazing,” said Dr. Michelle Jones-London, director of Diversity Training and Workforce Development at NINDS. “We know how important role modeling is to encourage student recruitment and sharing our own personal stories as scientists of color is always a powerful image for students to see early and view viable paths for their own journeys.”
After lunch, the students engaged in demonstrations and hands-on experiments at various science stations. Jones-London and NINDS neurosurgeon Dr. Edjah Nduom helped the students create edible neurons, view an actual brain surgery and learn how the brain sends signals to groups of muscles using electricity by measuring the activity with electromyograms.
“The edible neuron was a big hit with a lot of the kids,” said Nduom. “However, my favorite part was seeing the reactions of the kids to the brain tumor resection video. The reactions varied—some turned away (but peeked through their partially covered eyes), others just stood there with their mouths open, and yet others asked question after question about what was going on and the condition and well-being of the patient.”
Smiles flashed across the faces of elementary and middle school students as other-worldly colors reflected their appearance on a computer monitor connected to an infrared camera. The youngsters could readily appreciate from the demonstration that different degrees of warmth emanated from their skin and translated to different colors on the monitor.
Dr. Alexander Gorbach, chief of the infrared imaging and thermometry unit at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, operated the infrared camera and Dr. Henry Eden, NIBIB deputy scientific director, explained some of the principles of heat radiation, absorption and conduction.
Students drew invisible patterns on their forearms with ice cubes that the infrared camera revealed in bold colors. The camera outlined heat emanating from the students’ hands, even from inside an opaque plastic bag. Their warm breath resembled fiery swirls of dragon’s breath on the monitor. The demonstration gave the students an up-close and intriguing encounter with science.
“We’ve shared this demo for several years at the NIH Take Your Child to Work Day, and it has been fun for all,” Eden said. “We were pleased to be able to present it for children attending this event in its first year at the White House.”
Nationwide, 50-plus labs across nearly 20 states participated in National Week at the Labs, encouraging students to experience science and to pursue the possibilities of science and research careers.
On Mar. 4, NIH held its own Week at the Labs/STEM experience at the Porter Neuroscience Research Center. Girl Scouts from area troops participated in the half-day program, which was organized by Dr. Rita Devine, NINDS assistant director for science administration, in coordination with MBK and CWG.
Scouts arrived clad in badge-loaded uniforms and were greeted by both NIH extramural and intramural staff, including Dr. Roland Owens, associate director of NIH’s Office of Intramural Research, and Nduom.
Nduom, who recently joined NINDS as a staff clinician in the Surgical Neurology Branch, was instrumental in getting NIH to participate in Week at the Labs at both sites. He first experienced NIH during his residency, when he completed a clinical and research fellowship with the Surgical Neurology Branch, 2007-2012.
“The collaborative environment and unsurpassed resources made a real impression on me,” said Nduom. “I want to do everything I can to make sure that children and the general public know what a fantastic resource they have at NIH. Our mission of enhancing health for all people is a vital one, and it is always great to show people the amazing things that we get to do here.”
After donning their own lab coats, the Girl Scouts were ready to explore the labs. Devine led the scouts on a tour to meet three diverse scientists: Dr. Zayd Khaliq, principal investigator in NINDS’s cellular neurophysiology unit; LaTesa Hughes, clinical veterinarian in the NINDS animal care and health section; and Dr. Mario Penzo, principal investigator in the neurobiology of affective memory unit, NIMH.
Khaliq’s presentation, “Feed Me Sugar,” focused on the part of the brain that gets activated when you see or eat cake. He discussed how electrophysiology techniques are used to answer his research questions and taught the scouts how to create brain slices, prepare slides and view them under a microscope.
Hughes spoke about how lab animals are cared for at NIH and helped the students identify different animals and determine why they may be necessary for research.
In Penzo’s lab, the girls learned how neurons interact with each other to form memories and viewed mouse optogenetics videos.
“Events like this are important and necessary for students to see the opportunities within STEM and for our specific interests in neuroscience,” said Jones-London. “To make progress in curing neurological disease and disorders, we need the brightest minds and creative hands from all groups—that means you must plant the seeds of possibility now so that this next generation of talent can see itself in this biomedical enterprise and know that there are opportunities available.”
National Week in the Labs coincided with the culmination of Black History Month and the start of Women’s History Month. The NIH demonstrations presented at the White House will again be offered when NIBIB and NINDS participate in NIH Take Your Child to Work Day on Apr. 28.