STEM Partnership Connects ISCRM to Toppenish, WA

students gathered with a school bus in the background
Toppenish High School students arrive at UW Medicine’s South Lake Union campus for a tour of ISCRM.

One Thursday afternoon in June, a bus full of chattering high school students left Seattle for Toppenish, a community in the heart of the Yakima Valley. They were headed home after a full-day field trip to the University of Washington, a visit that began with a stop at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM).

Amanda Matthiessen, a Science Teacher at Toppenish High School, helped to organize and chaperone the experience with her colleagues Danny Delgado and Monica Villegas in collaboration with the UW FEEDBACK program. FEEDBACK (Fostering Educational Excitement Designed for Bold and Academically Curious Kids) is a student-founded and led STEM outreach initiative that aims to encourage educational achievement in young people from underrepresented backgrounds. “The kids had an absolute blast,” says Matthiessen of the visit to ISCRM. To be able to go to the biggest college in the state and tour labs and speak to scientists was eye-opening.”

On the tour of ISCRM’s South Lake Union campus, the students examined high-resolution photos of stained organoids in the Garvey Imaging Core, peered at beating heart cells in the Ellison Stem Cell Core, and learned about 3D bioprinting technology in the Stevens Lab. It added up to a multi-dimensional look at the tools biologists and engineers are using to advance biomedical research at ISCRM.

Research Scientist Chris Cavanaugh with high school students in the Ellison Stem Cell Core

While it was the first time many of the students had been to Seattle, it was not their first interaction with UW scientists. On two occasions earlier this spring, multiple carloads of ISCRM researchers travelled to Toppenish to offer classroom-based STEM experiences.

In February, researchers representing three ISCRM labs journeyed over snow-capped mountains to lead a lesson focused on the pancreas and diabetes. Through a series of hands-on activities, the students and their teachers learned about the physiology of the pancreas and the role of insulin, the differences between simple and complex sugars, and the latest in diabetes research.

ISCRM returned to Toppenish in March for a day centered on organoid technology. After learning the basics of stem cell biology, kidney physiology, and the uses of organoids, the Toppenish students participated in a game that mimics the process of differentiating stem cells into specialized kidney cells and, ultimately, 3D kidney organoids.

students seated around a table in a classroom
Sophie Blackburn (bottom right) sits with students from Toppenish High School

At the end of the activity, the ISCRM scientists and students gathered in Ms. Matthiessen’s classroom for pizza-fueled conversations about science careers. One of those scientists was Sophie Blackburn, a graduate student in the Freedman Lab. “That was my favorite part of the day,” recalls Blackburn. “Having lunch with the students was a chance to share my own path, but it was also a moment for me to learn from them about their experiences and perspectives, which are vital for making the research community accessible and welcoming to the next generation of scientists.”

UW Students Found a Mentorship Program

The partnership between ISCRM and Toppenish was initiated by Mickey Ruiz, a co-director of FEEDBACK, which she helped to found as a sophomore at UW. Ruiz, who grew up in Eastern Washington, and graduated from Toppenish High School, knows firsthand how an absence of representation, and a lack of resources, like AP classes, can be barriers to higher education.

According to Ruiz, the idea for FEEDBACK originated during a night of what she calls productive procrastination with a group of peers from underrepresented backgrounds. “Instead of doing what we were supposed to be doing, which was cramming for a biology exam, we started talking about inequities in STEM and we agreed there was a need for an outreach program that sparked an interest in the field and just as importantly, prepared middle and high school students to succeed at college and in research labs.”

With support from her mentor, Kendan Jones-Isaac; her faculty advisor, ISCRM faculty member Ed Kelly, PhD; and the School of Pharmacy, Ruiz and her co-founders, Kaycie Opiyo, Kim Ha, and Nana-king Karikari, secured a $2,000 seed grant from the Office of Minority and Diversity Affairs. Additional funding from ISCRM UNITE followed, allowing the fledgling program to begin engaging Toppenish students through a mix of virtual and in-person experiences. Now in its second year, FEEDBACK is growing under the leadership of Ruiz and current board members Favian Mares, Angelo Sarchi, Anahi Villanueva.

teachers and students gathered around computers
Andre Berndt, PhD (standing top right) with students and teachers at Toppenish High School

ISCRM faculty member Andre Berndt, PhD, took part in the first excursion to Toppenish. Berndt followed up that in-person by meeting virtually with middle school and high school students in the FEEDBACK program. The online presentations focused on how and why ISCRM scientists conduct brain and heart research, and how these efforts could lead to potential strategies for treating depression and heart disease. The students also shared their own ideas about making a positive impact through science and medicine.

A True Win-Win-Win

“The relationship with FEEDBACK is true a win-win-win,” says ISCRM faculty Alec Smith, who leads ISCRM UNITE, and helped host the June field trip. “The funding from ISCRM allows FEEDBACK to do their critically important outreach, the students and teachers benefit from the programming they provide, and ISCRM has a bridge to a community that we are excited to work with and learn from.”

“These programs give our students a chance to see what’s out there,” says Amanda Matthiessen. “We can do labs and book work in school so they understand the basics of biology, like DNA. But to be able to go to a research lab and really see a cell, or see actual DNA, their faces all lit up. It’s what they’re learning about – this is what it looks like in real life. Now they’re asking if they can do it again.”

Learn more about ISCRM’s STEM outreach and community engagement here.