ISCRM Trainees Team Up to Lead Bioengineering Workshop

Samantha Bremner was in fourth-grade when she first learned about bioengineering. For the future scientist, the field was an exciting mix of math science, and human biology, the building blocks, in her eyes, to engineer solutions to real-world problems. “It checked all the boxes,” says Samantha, who is now a graduate student splitting time on research projects in the labs of ISCRM faculty members David Mack and Nate Sniadecki.

While Bremner had no shortage of ambition, she lacked someone in science to look up to. “Growing up, I didn’t really have a female role model,” she says today. “That’s why I’m doing outreach now focused on bringing more women into STEM.”

Scientists and high school students perform an experiment in a classroom
Samantha Bremner (far right, standing) looks on as ISCRM colleagues lead a demonstration in July 2019 Bioengineering workshop for local high school students.

On a recent summer Tuesday morning, that desire to be a role model for young women brought her to UW’s Foege Hall. The occasion was an interactive bioengineering workshop for approximately twenty high school students – most of them female – who were taking part in Making Connections, a college-readiness program operated by the UW Women’s Center that helps underserved youth develop interest in STEM careers.

Bremner’s experience with Making Connections began two years ago when she signed on to mentor a high school senior who needed help with her college applications. (That student is now at Washington State University.) In fact, Bremner is just one of many ISCRM trainees who have volunteered for Making Connections.

Elisa Clark, a graduate student in the Ruohola-Baker lab has also been a Making Connections mentor and helped lead the workshop. Like her ISCRM colleague, Clark sees definite value in the program. “Because Making Connections targets people who will be first generation college students, I think it’s really good for them to be paired with mentors who have gone through college and are in higher education. A lot of them don’t know what bioengineering is or much about how grad school works.”

Sharing a Love of Science

At the July workshop, seven graduate students representing eight ISCRM labs teamed up to share their love of science through interactive demonstrations, tours, and a discussion panel. According to Bremner, the objective was to introduce the participants to the basics of bioengineering. “Our goal was to help them understand what bioengineering is, how broad it is as a field, where the opportunities are, and what it’s like to be a graduate student.”

A scientist and two students in a classroom
ISCRM Graduate Student Elisa Clark helps two participants explore principles of biology and engineering in a hands-on activity during a bioengineering workshop offered in partnership with the Making Connections program.

In one hands-on activity, the high school students worked together to design prosthetic limbs using popsicle sticks and syringes, a task that mimics the combination of technology and  engineering that a scientist might apply to solve real world medical problems. Similarly, a second challenge called on the participants to create coatings that would allow pills to withstand stomach acid and deliver medication to the intended parts of the body.

During the activities, the room was filled with hushed, focused determination followed by open joy, as the experiments were revealed – and judged. Michaela Morrow, an AmeriCorps STEM Enrichment Coordinator and Making Connections volunteer, was there to see it.

It means so much for our students to participate in STEM career explorations because, as is often said, if you can see it, you can be it,” says Morrow. “Visiting the Bioengineering department at UW was the first time that many of our students were introduced to the field. It’s not a fair question to ask students what they want to be when they grow up if they have not yet had the opportunity to explore the possibilities available to them. By participating in hands-on activities and touring the labs, the students learned what a career in bioengineering could look like and were able to envision themselves as graduate students and researchers in an innovative field.”

For Clark, the benefits of the learning experience are mutual.  “Allowing the students to do these demos is always fun because you see them thinking of ways to put things together that I would not have thought of. For me, that’s the most gratifying part of it, because I can take that back to what I do every day. When we bring people back to the lab, they always ask me questions I’d never considered. That’s the exciting part.”

Other ISCRM graduates taking part in the workshop include: Colleen O’Connor (Stevens), Caitlin Howard (Zheng), Emily Olszewski (Stevens/Davis), Molly Mollica (Sniadecki/Wendy Thomas), and Audrey Olshefsky (Pun).