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April 18, 2019 | By Angela De Luca
“I want to be a zoologist…or an animator!” a student declares excitedly in the lobby of 3675 Market Street, as a group of 6th and 8th graders from Chester A. Arthur School in Philadelphia begin a brisk walk on an idyllic spring afternoon to nearby Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), along with the FirstHand team, their teacher and guidance counselor.
John McCann, a research associate with CHOP’s Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care Medicine and a member of the iSTEM team at CHOP, volunteered by partnering with the Science Center’s FirstHand program to get the students thinking early on about their own career development. CHOP, a supporter of FirstHand through the Science Center’s Ignite Innovation campaign, shares FirstHand’s goal of providing the West Philadelphia community with STEM training and career exposure during the formative middle school and high school years. Upon arrival John greets us in the lobby along with his colleague Donna Vito, Outreach Manager for CHOP’s Department of Biomedical and Health Informatics (DBHi). Wearing a Flyers t-shirt and jeans, he is calm, approachable and looks as excited as the students to get the lab tour started.
The tour starts with microscopy photos of rabbit heart tissue. John explains that the blue hematoxylin stained spots highlight the DNA of an untreated heart condition, whereas the brown regions represent regions labeled with specific marker antibodies. He is pleased to learn that during their time in the FirstHand program, the students have viewed similar cells through a microscope and are also familiar with polymers, spectrometers, centrifuges and micropipettes.
Next, we made our way to a smaller, darker room with fluorescent images of brain tissues on a computer screen. John shared how scientists can use brain fluorescence to investigate how much cell death is caused by trauma from a fall or blunt force, or natural causes like an aneurysm. A group of kids gathered around him who are clearly transfixed on the screen point to the top of the brain and ask him what it is. “The neocortex,” he answers. “It affects memory and motor function.”
“What other types of labs are there?” he asks the room. “Have you ever watched NCIS?” John engages the students in an impromptu game of “whodunnit” to figure out which of three suspects is guilty of a murder based on a DNA analysis from blood at the crime scene, using an instrument called a thermal cycler and a technique called PCR that can reproduce many copies of an individual’s DNA which, in turn, can be analyzed by gel electrophoresis.
When asked how he got into science, John recounts the full 18 years of childhood he spent as a patient at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children as his inspiration to pursue a career in science. In his current role he has found a happy convergence between pediatrics and neuroscience, and he wants to ensure that these budding scientists are aware of all the diverse opportunities within STEM: “You can go into forensics, medicine, environmental monitoring, or industries like oil. Look into the county police and not just the federal government - the same goes for environmental jobs. There are positions at the state and county EPA too.”
Donna Vito, Outreach Manager for CHOP’s Department of Biomedical and Health Informatics (DBHi)
As John hands out pens shaped like human bones to the students as they file out of the lab, I ask Donna why today’s visit was important, and whether she thinks this is something that will be repeated. “We will absolutely see more of this in the future,” she states unequivocally. “It’s important to the iSTEM team at CHOP that the kids explore careers in science because science is everywhere. We heard there was a student here interested in zoology or animation. Art and science do go together and he doesn’t have to choose between one or the other; he can do both!”