Kate Ayers vividly remembers a moment when she saw her teaching completely change someone’s life.
“One of my middle school students had lived her whole life thinking she would definitely have cancer one day, just because her mom had it when she was pregnant with her,” Ayers recalls.
“When we went through the science and she realized that wasn’t true, she was so relieved—you could see it immediately on her face. She let out a huge sigh. And the thing is, she hadn’t even known to ask the question.”
Today, as Ayers coordinates educational activities for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she continues to give students—and their teachers— “a-ha” moments about the science of cancer.
“St. Jude is not just helping children with catastrophic diseases,” Ayers says. “We are also impacting the lives of children in our local community. And we are helping them learn about science careers they might never have considered.”
One of several major outreach initiatives, the St. Jude Cancer Education for Children Program brings Ayers and a volunteer cohort of researchers, called St. Jude Science Ambassadors, to local classrooms and libraries. There, they teach elementary, middle and high school students about the science of cancer and how a healthy lifestyle can help prevent disease. The volunteers also bring science alive by sharing personal stories about their lives as researchers.
2,000 balls in motion
Volunteering is a way for scientists to pay it forward, says Science Ambassador Laura Hamel, PhD, of St. Jude Developmental Neurobiology.
“I think back to what set my career in motion. I didn’t know which direction to go, because in high school I was just absorbing everything,” she says. “I was really good in math. I liked art. I loved playing field hockey. But what could I make a career out of? It was my teachers who said, ‘Have you thought about going into the sciences?’”
Hamel now volunteers her personal time—outside of a heavy research workload—to feel the joy of sparking interest in science and scientific careers among a new generation of students.
“My high school experiences set that ball in motion,” she says. “So for me, it’s really exciting to be a part of something that could do that for someone else.”
In 2016 alone, more than 2,000 Memphis-area students and teachers worked with Ayers and the Science Ambassadors. Thousands more explored freely available lesson plans and interactive case studies via the Cure4Kids for Teachers website and the Cancer Education for Children e-newsletter.
Double helix, double fun
Science Ambassadors also host other local and online educational activities. On National DNA Day, an annual event celebrating the discovery of the famous double helix, researchers bring fun, interactive science “camps” to local schools.
Last year, one of those camps was held steps away from researchers’ labs at St. Jude. Patients in the hospital’s school program were offered new ways to learn about science.
“It was terrific,” says researcher Peter Mercredi, PhD. “We organized a lesson plan about sports drinks, and the kids were so interested.”
Thanks to the event’s success, more schools and libraries will be included this year, Mercredi says. “We’ll be doing a ‘monster DNA’ project this year,” he says. “It’s really cool.”
But no worries—no Dr. Frankenstein here. The monsters will be spooky, but strictly theoretical. By deciphering DNA code, students will spell out instructions for drawing a unique monster. “Their monster can have one eye, two heads, horns and features like that,” Mercredi says. “And they’ll get a big piece of paper to draw it on so they can keep the monster they build with their DNA code.”
Scholars in training
Bringing science to the classroom helps students imagine life as a researcher. But what if they could spend time in real laboratories?
Last year, St. Jude President and Chief Executive Officer James R. Downing, MD, encouraged the hospital’s staff to provide such opportunities.
“Dr. Downing wanted to support the development of the next generation of scientists from our local community who could one day have careers at St. Jude,” says Melissa Jones, of the hospital’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “He said, ‘I want to bring high school students on campus and show them what we do.’”
Jones partnered to build the program with neurobiologist Suzanne Baker, PhD, who took the helm as faculty lead. They worked countless hours with a team that included Ayers; Comprehensive Cancer Center Director Charles Roberts, MD, PhD; other St. Jude faculty and staff; and a group of on-campus volunteers.
The team also had a secret weapon to help ensure the program would be engaging and exciting for students: “We found a core group of teachers who wanted to be involved and expressed a passionate interest in helping us develop the program,” Jones says. “We held a focus group, and they asked Dr. Downing questions and had a nice exchange of ideas and concepts.”
Since its launch, the annual Science Scholars of Tomorrow Symposium has welcomed hundreds of area high school students and their teachers to St. Jude for an event-filled day. While learning about the latest discoveries from renowned scientists, students experience slices of life at St. Jude. Students and teachers take lab tours, peer into state-of-the-art microscopes and scrub up for visits to the surgery suite.
“Our goal is to show kids first hand what it means to be a scientist, what it means to do cancer research, and how they can become part of that pioneering effort to make discoveries,” Jones says. “We’re teaching them to feel like this is a future that is available to them.”
The model seems to be working. Jones recalls one student’s response to a talk by St. Jude neuropsychologist Heather Conklin, PhD.
“This student became so excited about becoming a pediatric neuropsychologist, and until that day he hadn’t even known the profession existed. For him, it was like, ‘Boom!’” Jones says.
Teaching the teachers
Students aren’t the only ones who have found their time at St. Jude transformative. Their teachers love it, too, according to feedback received after the symposium.
“This was an amazing experience for our students and for me,” wrote one teacher.
“My students are still talking about it,” wrote another. “They were completely enthralled.”
Expanding the program’s impact is exactly what organizers sought when they included teachers, Jones says.
“The more teachers we can reach, the more students we can reach,” she says. “Those teachers are getting inspired, and they’re making connections with professionals that help them enhance their own classrooms, their lessons and their curriculums.”
The inspiration goes both ways.
“You never know what’s going to light someone’s fire,” Ayers says. “When you see that light bulb turn on over their head, and see that they’re truly engaged. That’s what you look for—those moments.”
From Promise, Spring 2017