NCARD, along with a number of other medical research groups, is located in the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, which boasts the Lotterywest BioDiscovery Centre. A teaching laboratory, the BioDiscovery Centre utilises the expertise of medical researchers, including PhD students, to welcome students of all ages and share their knowledge and enthusiasm for science. As many of us know, a great way to learn is to teach!
Three of our PhD students, Caitlin Tilsed, Lizeth Orozco Morales and Nicola Principe, answered some questions about what they teach (and what they learn). Pictured with their colleague Jess Boulter, who has also recently started at the BioDiscovery Centre.
What age groups do you work with, and what do you work on with the students?
I normally teach a range of [school] age groups, with the youngest Year 6, and the oldest Year 12. I end up teaching a lot of the all boy schools because they are the most rowdy and fun: my favourite type of class! I have also run a couple sessions with the Red Hat Ladies who are 60+ and always such a laugh and a fun group in their purple and red outfits!
There are quite a variety of classes that I teach that tie in with the human biology and chemistry work [the students] do at school: DNA photocopying using a PCR*; staining and growing cancer stem cells; extracting proteins from bacteria and doing protein gel electrophoresis; and learning how to pipette – always the most exciting part of the day for the students.
Generally Year 11 or 12 students. I’m a lab demonstrator for the PCR and Stem Cell classes mostly. I explain the rules of a PC2 lab** and then we move on to learn how to pipette. Afterwards there’s a bit of an introduction to a specific PCR or Stem cell application, and then the fun starts when they do the experiments.
I teach year 9 – 12 high school students. There are a whole range of classes that have been produced at the BioDiscovery Centre. These classes include learning how to use the “hammer” of the science world: the pipette; growing and staining cancer cells to look at the abnormal shapes, sizes and amount of nuclei that cancer cells have compared to normal cells; DNA photocopying using a PCR; nanoparticles; stimulating a virus outbreak (this class was created before COVID); restriction enzymes and the CRISPR/Cas9 technique which cuts DNA from a cell and inserts a gene of interest: lots of different things.
How does working with school students help your science?
I definitely have become better at science communication, particularly being able to explain my research and other human biology concepts in a way that is easy to understand but engaging. High school students have a limited base knowledge of research work, so you really have to go back to basics when talking about what cancer is, what DNA is made out of and what proteins do. Spending time teaching also is a nice break from sitting at my desk writing or spending all day in the lab; I love engaging with and chatting with students about science (which often leads to us going way off topic). Doing that once a week reminds me how much I enjoy science and sharing with others, just how cool medical research is, and all the amazing things we have discovered because of research.
It’s a way to communicate what we do in the lab. During the introduction I always talk about my background, my current project and all the people that are involved with mesothelioma in my lab!
I have definitely improved my science communication, particularly explaining my PhD project in lay terms. Being around scientific researchers every day, you can get really caught up in the science jargon. We strip back the complex terms to explain the work and techniques we do every day in a simple and engaging way, to show our audience why research is so important. Every time I teach I realise how much I love science and why I chose to do a PhD in cancer research.
What questions do they ask that surprise you?
Most common questions:
Can I eat/drink this? (No).
If I eat cancer cells, can I get cancer? (No).
Is the ‘magical blue science liquid’ that they use for pipetting practice just water with blue food colouring? (Yes, but calling it blue coloured water is not as mystical as ‘magical blue science liquid’).
But there have actually been some really good questions students have asked!
Do you get cancer if you eat cancer cells?
I had cancer already, could I get it again? (This one was from a boy who had had melanoma. I wasn’t ready for that question).
Can I eat/drink this?
What happens if I drink cancer cell media? ***
If I spill cancer cells on me, will I get cancer? (No).
How long does it take for a researcher to make a discovery?
Do you work in teams or just by yourself?
What have you discovered students don’t know, that you need to explain?
How long medical research takes. Some experiments take months or need to be repeated so many times, it is a very slow process. So they are always surprised when I tell them that it takes years for a discovery to make it to patients, and also lots of money too to get it through clinical trials.
Cancer is not one disease, there are hundreds of different types that makes it so difficult to find ‘ a cure for cancer’.
Similarly, chemotherapy is not one drug, but there are many different types that kill cancer cells in different ways.
The students don’t know how to use most of the things in the lab. To start with, some of them are not familiar with wearing gloves to do experiments, so we need to explain why they should not touch their faces and hair. I’ve also had some students that do not know what mesothelioma is.
But to be honest, most of the time I’m surprised by the amount of information that they do remember or already know.
Students (and even teachers) do not realise that there are different types of lung cancers.
Explaining how mesothelioma occurs in the lining of the lungs and and is caused by exposure to asbestos truly amazes students. Explaining that some wives or family members of asbestos mine workers developed mesothelioma from washing their husband’s or their Dad’s clothes is gobsmacking to them.
Students do not know how cancer actually occurs, the different types of treatment options that are available and how they work, or how much pre-clinical work and clinical trials are being undertaken to improve patient outcomes.
And students are amazed that we have mesothelioma cancer cell lines from patients that we grow infinitely to test drugs and do all our experiments.
*PCR or Polymerase Chain Reaction, a test to detect genetic material.
** A PC2 lab is a laboratory used for work with Risk Group 2 (RG2) microorganisms or materials “unlikely to be a significant risk to laboratory workers or the environment, but exposure may cause infection”. The NCARD laboratories are PC2 labs.
***Media consists of proteins, glucose, water and antibiotics that are put on cancer cells to let them grow.