Students find medicine’s future ‘just down the road’

Rotary sponsored trip highlights nearby bio-science opportunities

County high schools students interested in a future in medicine recently got a chance to see some of the world’s top advancements thanks to a King Rotary Club program.

For the past two years the King Rotary Club has been sponsoring a job shadowing day for county high school students to highlight the job opportunities in the county.

“This year we wanted to find a way to expose students to new and emerging careers,” said Sue Jarvis who spearheads the program. “We want to hopefully keep talent in the Stokes County area. So we started thinking about the biotech field that was down in Winston-Salem and decided to target the science classes in all of the high schools.”

The result was a day of touring high-security facilities where some of the most cutting-edge advancements in tissue regeneration and organ transplants is being done coupled with a discussion of how local students can find a pathway to those careers through Forsyth Tech.

In mid-December, 53 students got a chance to visit the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, who’s scientists were the first in the world to successfully implant a laboratory-grown organ into humans and are today working to grow more than 30 different organs and tissues in the laboratory.

“We work on loss of tissue function,” said Lab Operations Manager Thomas Eaton. “That loss can come from a variety of things like birth defects, diseases like cancer, car accidents or battlefield injuries. We, as a society, have gotten pretty good at transplants, but the problem is there is a growing gap between the number of people who need transplants and the number of organs available for them.”

He said the institute was broken into a number of core labs which allowed them to bring people with expertise from a variety of fields together to work on a variety of projects, including creating organs from scratch.

That process involves creating a structure, called a scaffold, to grow cells from the patients on to create a new organ.

“The process takes about four to six weeks,” said Eaton. “We do a lot of artificial scaffolds which we print with a 3-d printer. We can also use natural scaffolds. We can take a pig liver and remove everything but the collagen so we have the structure you need to grow cells on.

“We are also looking at biochips which can be used to test things like toxicology without having to go through the normal long process of testing on animals,” he added.

After that introduction the students had a chance to tour the labs and see the multi-million dollar equipment used in the process.

Tour guide and intern Susan Zhao told students that security and a sterile facility was a key aspect of the institute.

“We do not want to give any doctors or hospitals material unless we know it is completely sterile,” she said. “The last thing we want is for someone to get an infection from the transplant tissue.

Zhao showed the students how organs can be de-cellurized to create organic scaffolds and said they could also print the scaffolds using a mixture of natural and synthetic materials.

Following the tour of that facility the students movedseveral blocks up the street to the new Forsyth Tech bio-science labs at 525@vine where they learned about the variety of jobs available in bio-sciences and had a chance to ask about how they could follow an educational path to get those jobs.

West Stokes High School chemistry and physics teacher Leah Bishop said the trip was a great opportunity for her students.

“Being exposed to things like this gives them a chance to be exposed to future careers,” she said. “I think it is priceless for them.”

She noted that it was wonderful seeing research posters done by top scientists because it reinforced the processes she taught in her own classes.

“It is great that our kids can see what is in their back yard and learn about the opportunities like the partnerships that are happening here,” agreed West Stokes High School Principal Kevin Spainhour. “It is real science. The Rotarians have really provided a great opportunity.”

But Jarvis said that while the Rotary Club provided funding for the trip through a grant, Stokes County Schools Career Development and Internship Coordinator David Martin and Forsyth Tech Stokes County Operations Director Ann Watts had been integral in making the trip a reality.

“I wanted the students to know there was an opportunity for them right down the road,” said Martin. “Rotary jumped in and helped with the cost of the travel and substitutes and Forsyth Tech jumped in and helped create the itinerary.”

He noted that the trip helped not only the students who got to go, but also those who did not.

“They can carry their experience back to other students,” said Martin. “They can show them what we have just down the road.”

He said he had provided students with a short survey following the visit offering more information for those who might want to pursue a similar career.

“From there we will go with the juniors and look at further trips or possible job shadowing,” said Martin. “For the seniors it will have to happen pretty quick , but we will help any of them interested in pursuing bio-sciences further.”

Watts noted that Forsyth Tech was a great place to find those career pathways.

“We have biotechnology degrees and we have nanotechnology degrees as well,” she said. “We have lots of pathways for students.”

Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.