Sixth grade scientists tackle cancer at Fred Hutch
By Colleen Steelquist, Hutchinson Center Science Editor
Alex Snyder spends most of his workdays teaching 32 sixth graders in a portable classroom on the grounds of Dutch Hill Elementary School in Snohomish, Wash. That’s a whole lot of “tween” energy in a small space.
Snyder believes the best way to wrangle all that youthful vigor is to give the kids big problems to tackle. Big problems like cancer.
Last September, he challenged his 11- and 12-year-olds to brainstorm and identify cancer cures. And to keep it real-world relevant, six Hutchinson Center researchers volunteered to each advise these groups of kids on their quest. Since the fall, the students have been emailing their “doctor partners,” asking questions, getting feedback, and coming up with more ideas. Some of their suggested cures:
Use coffee, ‘cause when kids drink coffee, it stops their growth. I thought if you put it in the cancer, it might stop it from growing.
I was thinking about bleach. Since bleach is poisonous, if you inject that into the cancer cells, it might kill them.
What if you somehow made tiny, tiny little robots that could just go and kill off the cancer cells?
Wait, that kid might be on to something. Ever heard of nanotechnology?
The idea was not only to get the students thinking but also to inspire our researchers to keep thinking creatively about the vexing problem of cancer.
Six of the students had email discussions with the Hutchinson Center’s Dr. Tina Albershardt, a postdoctoral fellow in the Kemp Lab who studies the spread of tumor cells and how the immune system mediates their expansion.
Albershardt said bleach, which the kids know kills everything, was by far the most popular suggestion. Without stifling the students’ creativity or squelching the courage it takes to share, she patiently explained why an approach like bleach wouldn’t work. She told them ingesting bleach would kill patients before it even touched their tumors, leading to a chat about toxicity versus therapeutic effect. Toxicity is an issue real researchers grapple with, too—how do you make a treatment strong enough to defeat cancer but not harm the patient?
Through the months of mentoring, Albershardt and the other research advisors encouraged the kids to think longer and harder about solutions, just like scientists must do.
Recently, the yearlong project concluded with a field trip to our campus. The students got up close and personal with real scientific laboratories, chatted with their mentors, learned about lab safety, looked at different kinds of cells under a microscope, practiced pipetting, and extracted DNA from some juicy strawberries. Here’s a peek at their day:
Albershardt was happy to see the kids excited about being in the training lab. “It’s inspirational that there are kids out there who like to think about the world’s problems and how they can help,” she said, and then added, chuckling: “We walked away hopeful that our jobs can’t be replaced by 12-year-olds!”
Snyder said his kids loved the experience from start to finish. “If you give kids an opportunity to learn this stuff, it’s truly amazing what comes out of them. It pushed them really hard, knowing that they had a direct line to making a difference,” he said. “There were some very involved discussions and roadblocks. Some of the students even stayed over at their friends’ houses so they could work on the project together.”
Unfettered thinking. Collaborative learning. Persistence. What took place in Mr. Snyder’s classroom is a lot like the culture here at the Hutchinson Center, where our scientists have room to create and curiously explore. That freedom leads to life-saving discoveries because when great minds have free rein to do the unexpected, amazing breakthroughs happen.
Let’s hope the budding scientists continue to use their energy to tackle big problems. The world could use more audacious thinkers.