Giving High School Students a Day in the Lab



By Chris Casey 

(May 2016) Eyes widened among the high school students when Neil Box, PhD, an assistant professor of dermatology in the University of Colorado School of Medicine, held up ultraviolet (UV) images of faces – their faces – that showed sunburn damage lurking under the surface of their skin.

A lot of dark splotches indicated a history of intense sun exposure to the skin. Faces with few splotches indicated that the student has practiced good sun safety – i.e. faithfully applying sunscreen.

Twenty-two high schoolers from the Career Education Center (CEC), a high school in Denver Public Schools, visited the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in February for a shadow day that offered close-up insight into research and healthcare-related fields. A group of 20 other CEC students enjoyed a CU Anschutz field trip earlier in the month.

Box and Tamara Terzian, PhD, who are investigators in the Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and the CU Cancer Center, along with support from Christian Valtierra, assistant director in the Office of Inclusion and Outreach, led the tours on both occasions.

‘Genuine sense’ of lab work

Before the students broke into two groups – touring separately, each group visited the Box and Terzian melanoma research labs in Research 1 North as well as the Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine– Box explained that they would see actual cutting-edge research being performed. “We want to give you a genuine sense of what it’s like to work in a research lab,” he said. “A lot of the things you are going to see today have provided the evidence basis for the current standard of practice in much of the health care field.”

400-ShadowDay3One of the students, Jose, said he had no idea that this level of research took place at CU Anschutz. “I just thought it was a normal school on this campus,” he said. “I like how they look at your DNA and try to figure out if you have any diseases.”

He was in the group that made its first stop in the DNA extraction and UV activity laboratory. The students donned lab coats then learned how to perform their own cheek swab. They each produced a research-ready DNA sample and had their facial picture taken by the UV imager.

Subjects for a current Box-led study into molecular signatures of lifetime UV exposure went through a similar process. The research has determined which genes are involved in predisposing a person to skin disease, such as melanoma. “Your history of sun exposure and your DNA determines your damage score (or predisposition level),” Box said. “What the students are seeing here for their career experience is within the context of our real, ongoing research. This study isn’t even published yet. We’re working on the analysis and getting it finalized for publication right now.”

‘This experience is relevant’

The CEC students are in a biomedical class and recently completed a unit on DNA, including extraction of DNA from a strawberry. But the CU Anschutz tour took their understanding of genetic coding to another level – a very visual level.

“Health care careers hinge on what goes on in the research lab, so we think having this experience is relevant to them in a lot of ways,” said Box, who also gave a speech at CEC. “Hopefully, today’s shadow day will inform them when it comes to making their own career decisions.

“Also, by coupling the research with our sun safety message, we hope to inform them about good, healthy behaviors,” he said.

Jose said the tour was “cool” as well as eye-opening. “I’m interested in doing autopsies and forensic research,” he said.

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