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For immediate release: August 11, 2003
Contact: Steven Schultz, (609) 258-5729, sschultz@princeton.edu

Science novices hunt for cancer

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Trenton Central High School student Yamilette Boone released a tiny drop of liquid onto a microscope plate and dozens of bone cancer cells drifted into view on a little television monitor.

"That's perfect!" said Princeton graduate student Chris Milburn as three other high school students watched closely.

A few cells stuck to a sliver of titanium-coated silicon that, under the microscope, looked like a diving board, but was really thinner than a human hair. It was a mini triumph. Coaxing cancer cells to stick to the little springboards has been a major challenge in the lab of Professor of Mechanical Engineering Wole Soboyejo.

Soboyejo and his students believe that their cell-attracting levers may lead to a powerful new approach for detecting cancer. For the Trenton-area students, the microscope experiment was part of three weeks of intensive science education with the Princeton University Materials Academy and the Mercer County Community College Upward Bound program.

The program brings 16 high school students to the Princeton campus, where they learn primary concepts in math and science and simultaneously apply that knowledge in ongoing research projects.

"This is the real thing," said Daniel Steinberg, the education outreach director for the Princeton Center for Complex Materials. "This technique that Professor Soboyejo and his students are working on hasn’t been perfected yet. It's as cutting edge as it gets."

"A lot of the things they are witnessing are techniques we just figured out in the last couple months, or are just figuring out now," said Steven Mwenifumbo, another graduate student in Soboyejo's lab.

For the students, the immediacy is very appealing. "I like the hands-on experience," said Anthony Harris of Trenton Central High School. "I think we learn better visually. And we've never done any of this before, so it's really cool to see it. Our teachers don't even do this."

It also is a chance to spend time with scientists and get a feel for life in a laboratory. "I like going into a real lab and meeting people from different backgrounds and seeing what the researchers do," said Shanah Orie of Trenton Central High School. Boone said the program is helping her focus on her goal of pursuing a career in forensic science.

In addition to spending time in the lab, students devote part of their day to hands-on lessons designed to bring them up to speed on core concepts they need in order to understand the research. Steinberg developed these activities in partnership with Pete Gange, a Middlesex High School science teacher who helps manage the program and assists the Princeton faculty members in presenting their research on a high school level.

In Soboyejo's cancer research project, for example, the goal is to detect the presence of a single cancer cell. The researchers expose the tiny silicon lever to cells from a tissue sample and then gently vibrate the lever. If a cancer cell has stuck, the lever will resonate with a different frequency than it would if no cells were attached. So one morning the students learned about resonance by wiggling thin plastic rulers and attaching clips to see how the motion changed. Another morning they learned about graphing by shooting marbles from a catapult and plotting the distance versus the tension on the rubber band.

"It's really working out," said Gange. "I am very impressed by what they know now compared to two weeks ago."

This is the first year that the Princeton Center for Complex Materials has worked with the Upward Bound program. "It's been a great relationship," said Don Davis, who directs Upward Bound at Mercer County Community College. "The students come back excited every day."

In addition to working with the Upward Bound students, the Princeton University Materials Academy outreach program also hosted 15 students from Middlesex High School who spent a week working on similar projects. The program ends Aug. 14 when the Upward Bound students deliver PowerPoint presentations to report on their research.


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