Over fifty NYC public high school students made the trek to The Rockefeller University for the Fourth Annual STEM Matters NYC Career Day on Tuesday, November 3.

The NYC Department of Education (DOE) sponsors this unique opportunity to give high schoolers an inside peek into careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Students could register for both a morning and an afternoon session, choosing from a diverse list of 23 companies including the American Museum of Natural History, CVS Health, and Murray’s Cheese.

The Rockefeller University Collaborative Research Center (CRC)

Along with a representative from the NYC DOE, I greeted students as they arrived at Rockefeller’s 66th Street gates. We spoke with students about their interests and goals related to STEM. The students’ eyes danced with wonder as they walked up towards the glass facade of the Collaborative Research Center (CRC).

“All my friends are watching Netflix, and I get to be here!” one student beamed. Wasting no time, students signed in, took off their backpacks, and separated into lab tour groups. Scientists from labs all across Rockefeller opened their lab doors and shared their research stories with the students. Most of the students had never seen a lab before, and I doubt any had ever received such a hands-on opportunity to learn about what happens at the bench.

For this event, we worked with eight labs to provide ample exposure to a variety of biomedical research topics. These laboratories included:

Rockefeller Laboratory Head of Lab
Laboratory for Investigative Dermatology James G. Krueger
Laboratory for Sensory Neuroscience A. James Hudspeth
Program for the Human Environment Jesse Ausubel
Laboratory of Molecular Biology Nathaniel Heintz
Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior Leslie Vosshall
Laboratory of Genome Maintenance Agata Smogorzewska
Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior Vanessa Ruta
Laboratory of Molecular Neuro-oncology Robert B. Darnell

Students gathered into small groups of 6-10, and signed up for their preferred tour. I was able to join them for 2 different labs.

In the morning, I joined in on a tour of the Vosshall Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, which focuses on the intersection of behavior, sensory cues, and body chemistry. Our tour guide was Rockefeller graduate fellow, Veronica Jove, who charmed us with her excitement and passion for her research. Veronica’s work centers on how different sensory cues can modulate behavior, using mosquitoes as a model organism.

She gave us an inside peek into the
mosquito insectary, explaining how mosquitoes respond to stimuli depending on their age and sex. The students eagerly huddled around to examine the differences between male and female mosquitoes, gently blowing on cages to see how these insects respond to environmental stimuli.

As we progressed through the different areas of the Vosshall lab, the students’ eyes scanned every surface, eager to absorb all the new sights and sounds. Wrapping up the tour and heading back down the CRC stairs, the students thoughtfully asked Veronica questions about research on mosquitoes.

After the morning lab tours, all of the students participating in the DOE STEM Matters NYC Career Day gathered in Carson Family Auditorium to hear from Rockefeller graduate fellow Gabriella Spitz, who is working in the Simon Laboratory of Cellular Biophysics. Gabriella described her path to graduate school, and the students listened attentively, gaining a realistic, nuanced perspective of the challenges and joys of pursuing a scientific path. Next, we opened up the discussion to answer students’ questions about careers in science.

Before we knew it, students needed to leave for their afternoon sessions across town. On their way out, we gave them information on summer research opportunities here and at other institutions, knowing that these go-getter students would be ideal candidates for such programs.

Student responses to the prompt “Science should…” #ScienceShould

After a peaceful lunch break, the afternoon students began arriving. We had some time before they began their lab tours, so I sat down with them in Carson Family Auditorium and asked to respond to the prompt: “Science should…” on Post-It notes. The students responses on STEM Matters NYC Career Day went above and beyond. Several responses focused on equitable access to science, providing ample opportunity for people of all races, classes, genders, and backgrounds.

The response “Science should explain how everything works” prompted a vigorous group discussion on the power and limitations of science, touching upon issues of science and religion, human subjectivity, ethics, policy, and funding.

Next, we split up and went on our lab tours. I tagged along on the tour led by HHMI Investigator and Head of the Laboratory of Sensory Neuroscience, Dr. Jim Hudspeth. Dr. Hudspeth wasted no time, excitedly explaining his research on the genetics of hearing loss in zebrafish as we walked across campus.

Once in his lab, he gave us a more thorough explanation of his research, drawing out the genetics and neuroscience strategies he uses on the whiteboard. With this context in mind, we got to see the breathtaking floor-to-ceiling stacks of zebrafish tanks. Research assistant Adedeji Afolalu then showed us zebrafish at different life stages as well as the live brine shrimp that he feeds the zebrafish.

We then got to look under the microscope to see how zebrafish that have damaged hair cells do not respond to pulses of sound like their non-mutant counterparts. We even got to see images of hair cells stained with green fluorescent protein (GFP) on a confocal microscope, allowing us to scan through the 3D layers of the cells.

The students’ minds filled with new sights and sounds, we returned to Carson Family Auditorium. Just as in the morning, we joined the other students to listen to a Rockefeller student describe her scientific path. This time, Gabrielle Rabinowitz, a graduate fellow in the Darnell Laboratory of Molecular Neuro-oncology, discussed her research experiences in high school and college, and emphasized the importance of building a relationship with teachers and mentors.

 

After the discussion, some students stayed behind to ask us questions before heading off to sports practice, babysitting, and homework. We can’t know where these students will go next or what they will become, but I am so proud that we opened our doors and gave them an exciting, enlightening that they will likely not forget. Maybe, some of them will even return here one day, with labs of their own to share with others.

Thanks to all of the members of the Rockefeller community who generously offered their time to connect with our local students, to the NYC DOE who allowed us to participate, and to the students who gave up their Netflix and Chill day to talk science!


Anna Zeidman is the Research Coordinator for The Rockefeller University Science Outreach Program. You can find her tweeting about science under the @RockEdu_ handle, or tweeting about Drake’s dance moves at @Anna_Zeidz.