IU Indiana University

IUSM researcher leads east side students in advanced breast cancer lab

By Kevin Fryling

IUSM student Jacob Adler works with a student at Warrren Central High School.

High school students on the east side of Indianapolis got the chance to contribute to cancer research on Nov. 8 through a program that brings university scientists into the classroom to share their research and passion for science.

Jacob Adler, a doctoral candidate in the laboratory of Clark Wells, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, led an advanced workshop on breast cancer research at Warren Central High School. The event was the capstone to a larger unit within a year-long course led by Adler through the Urban Educators GK-12 Program at IUPUI, which places research students from IU School of Medicine and IUPUI into local high school, middle and grade school classrooms throughout the city.

“This program is hugely beneficial for the high school students,” Adler said. “They got the chance to conduct a truly novel experiment in breast cancer research, examining a specific research question that no one else in the world has ever done.”

Over the past five years, the IU School of Medicine has contributed several teaching fellows to the Urban Educators GK-12 Program at IUPUI. Last year, Adler helped teach biology at Pike High School. This year, he got the opportunity to delve more deeply into the subject due to the Warren Central’s participation in Project Lead the Way, a not-for-profit organization that provides resources to support rigorous and innovative science, technology, engineering and math education in schools across the country. Warren Central was one of the first schools in the United States to pilot the program, which now has its headquarters in Indianapolis.

“These students are likely to be the next generation of researchers, physicians and nurses – I challenge them at a very high level,” said Adler, whose research on the growth mechanics of breast cancer cells informs his classroom instruction as its happening.

The experiment on Nov. 8 closed out a unit on breast cancer research that also included lectures, exams and other interactive research units. Adler led the students in examining a novel mechanistic pathway through which tumor suppressor proteins influence cell cytokinesis using high-tech equipment made available through Dr. Wells’ lab and Project Lead the Way. The goal was to discover answers to why cancer cells are able to change modify cell signaling and grow uncontrollably.

“I’m helping them take their work from a basic high school level to something closer to the college level – to understand what’s going to be expected of them as they enter the world of higher education,” Adler said. “What’s great about this program is it provides graduate students an opportunity to teach, but not like a traditional teaching assistant. I wanted something more challenging, and, at the same time, something that would help the community.”

The challenge will continue until the end of the academic year as Adler continues to design advanced science curriculum in collaboration with A.J. McAdams, the teacher responsible for three of the four advanced biomedical sciences courses at Warren Central.

“Our students can really relate to this material because we actually talk about cancer biology in class -- we do whole modules on cancer,” McAdams said. “Project Lead the Way attracts some pretty high-level kids who are interested in careers in medicine.”

Each participant in the Urban Educators GK-12 Program at IUPUI devotes about 15 hours a week to the project, including 10 hours of classroom instruction. Adler had already taught units on breast cancer research, cancer biology and pathology prior to the lab project.

“Being able to do this in a classroom environment really brings home the impact of science in a powerful way,” Adler said. “Yes, we’re bringing these classes into their classroom, but the students are also doing outreach in the community. What they’re doing is transforming the culture in places where science is not a priority into a culture where science is real -- it’s real and it’s happening in their own school.”

Kathleen Marrs, Ph.D., associate dean of academic affairs for the School of Science at IUPUI, is the primary investigator on the Urban Educators GK-12 Program at IUPUI. In addition to Adler, GK12 fellows from the IU School of Medicine include Julia Hum, Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology, and Manuel Martinez, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. Hum’s research advisor is Fredrick Pavalko, Ph.D., professor of cellular and integrative physiology. Martinez’s research advisor is Feng C. Zhou, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and cell biology. Adler’s research advisor is Dr. Wells. Last year, Adler’s teaching mentor was Gary Cooper, a science teacher at Pike High School.

IUSM student Jacob Adler works with a student at Warrren Central High School. Credit: Madilyne Lawver, Warren Central High School Fine Arts Department