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Indiana middle school students experience day as IU cancer scientists

May 2, 2013

For Jacob Michael, it was the chance to see high-tech lab equipment in action that he won’t soon forget.

An eighth-grader at Hamilton Heights Middle School in Arcadia, Michael was one of the 32 Hamilton County students who met April 29 with IU School of Medicine faculty who study and treat blood cancers. The trip was the students' reward for raising money for the Indiana Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Jianyun Liu and students

Jianyun Liu, Ph.D., a research associate in microbiology and immunology, leads a demonstration for the students from Hamilton Heights Middle School in Arcadia.

“It’s so cool to learn about all the equipment they’re using in the lab and to see how they use it to accomplish things and help people in need,” said Michael, who visited “every house he could” to raise funds in his hometown of Cicero, one of several communities in the Hamilton Heights school district.

The students visited the lab of Randy Brutkiewicz, Ph.D., assistant dean for research and professor of microbiology and immunology at the IU School of Medicine, who previously received research support from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

They also got the chance to visit a cancer clinic and meet a patient undergoing treatment with Attaya Suvannasankha, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the IU School of Medicine, who talked about cancer treatment options and shared how her education led to a career as an oncologist. Other activities included a lesson in mixing chemotherapy drugs from an oncology pharmacist.

“We’re pleased to host these students as a ‘thank you’ for all their hard work,” Dr. Brutkiewicz said. “We thought it would be nice to give them a chance to see both the basic science at the lab bench and the clinical side. We want to give them a sense of what’s involved for a person to be a scientist or a physician who sees cancer patients."

Richard Gallo and students

Students listen to Richard Gallo, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Randy Brutkiewicz, Ph.D.

This is the first time the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has offered a special, hands-on field trip at the IU School of Medicine, said Elissa Evernham, school and youth director at the society's Indiana Chapter. The trip was open to any middle or high school whose students raised more than $2,013 during the society's Pennies for Patients fund drive in February; this year's winner was selected at random from a pool of qualified participants. Over the past 15 years, more than 600 Indiana schools have participated in the drive.

“Some of these students may never have thought about science off of the page so we’re hoping they can learn a little more about what it means to be a researcher or an oncologist, or what it means for someone to have cancer and what they’re doing to fight it,” Evernham said. “This really gives the students a chance to see where their money goes when they fundraise for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.”

Students from Hamilton Heights Middle School in Arcadia raised nearly $4,800 this year for the fund drive, which supports patient services, education programs and advocacy related to leukemia and lymphoma, and nearly $20,000 over the past six years. Overall in 2013, the drive raised about $650,000 in Indiana, and $30 million across the country.

Jianyun Liu

Dr. Liu talks to students about blood cancer research.

Emily Beechler, a media specialist and junior national honor society advisor at Hamilton Heights Middle School, which led the collection effort, was quick to point out that the students on the tour were among the top earners in Indiana.

“This was our rock star classroom,” she said. “These students went door to door collecting change in the rain and in the cold and in the snow. They collected donations from businesses, parents, friends, peers, grandparents, everyone.”

Among those student “rock stars” was eighth-grader Aleah Southworth, who devoted countless hours after school and on the weekend to the cause.

"It’s great to see what goes on here behind the scenes; I’ve always been interested in science, especially tiny things like molecules and cells,” said Southworth, whose many pennies contributed to the millions garnered this year alone by the national campaign.

“It’s great to see how something so small can make such a big impact,” she said.

Mary Hardin also contributed reporting to this story.

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