VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Goodwin Research Laboratory recently served as a real-world classroom for local high school students learning about cancer research. Two dozen freshman biology students from Henrico High School’s International Baccalaureate program were given a rare first-hand look at cancer cells and research labs and the unique opportunity to interact with some of the country’s top research scientists.
Back at school, the students had been deep into the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, learning about HeLa cells, an immortal ovarian cancer cell line used in cancer research that was taken, without consent, from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. On their visit to Massey, Clinical Research Nurse Mary Beth Tombes asked the students, “What should have happened, but did not, with Ms. Lacks?” A bright student responded, “They should have asked for her permission!” Agreeing, Mary Beth went on to explain the process of informed consent, and how, since the time of Ms. Lacks, clinical research has evolved to include procedures that ensure the safety and consent of participants. The students were then introduced to Massey researchers David Williams, assistant professor of pathology and co-director of Massey’s Tissue Data Acquisition and Analysis Shared Resource Core, and Shirley Taylor, associate professor of microbiology and immunology and director of Massey’s Biological Macromolecule Shared Resource Core.
Dr. Williams led the students to the Clinical Services Support Center, where they discussed the DNA of cancer and saw researchers working with actual tissue samples in cutting-edge negative pressure labs. The class also visited Dr. Taylor’s lab, where they took turns looking at E. coli cells under a microscope. Dr. Taylor explained that if she were to show them actual HeLa cells, the cells would likely contaminate her lab because they spread exceedingly fast and are very difficult to kill. In addition, the students toured Massey’s Healing Garden and learned about the importance of a peaceful, outdoor space for cancer patients and about several of the plants’ chemotherapeutic uses, and how much of the research that takes place at Massey would not be possible without the generosity of donors.
“I am fortunate to have a class full of inquisitive ninth graders who seek to truly understand the concepts that they are taught,” said the class’s teacher, Mrs. Vonita Giddings. “VCU Massey Cancer Center gave my students the awesome opportunity to bring those concepts to life. This experience showed them that the knowledge they are gaining in our classroom is being used to save lives and to make a positive impact in the world.”