INBIONET fellow lab hosts High School Student at MFPL

Dec ,12 2016

This summer I had an opportunity to be a lab-host for one day to a high school student
Alexandra. A colleague of mine from Max F. Perutz Laboratories was Alexandra’s supervisor
during her summer internship and we agreed that it would be nice for Alexandra to visit other
labs as well. I have decided to start with presenting my project and the focus of my lab, and
then move on to some practical demonstrations. Before she came to the lab, I sat down and
thought about how to explain to her what I am working on using simplified terminology, as
Alexandra is only 15 years old and had just finished first grade of high school in Vienna.
Luckily, in her high school subjects are focused on biology and chemistry, so she already had
some basic knowledge in these branches of science, but I still did not know what to expect. I
was later honestly impressed with how carefully this 15-year-old girl listens, thinks and asks
very well thought-through questions.

I work with animal models of bacterial lung infections, and I thought it would be interesting
to talk to her about the lung immune system, and we agreed how fascinating it is to have a
system in constant direct contact with environmental cues, which can balance between
tolerating and inducing an inflammatory response to fight dangerous pathogens. We
continued by talking about pneumonia and bacterial pathogens that cause it and especially
about dangers of antibiotic resistance that many bacteria are developing. Alexandra was, to
my surprise, very well informed about the fact that bacteria can develop resistance to
antibiotics as well as how to use antibiotics in a responsible manner.

As I work with mouse models of bacterial infection and S2 grade pathogens, it was
impossible to demonstrate any experiments, so I have decided that we spend some time at the
microscope looking at uninfected and Klebsiella pneumoniae and Streptococcus pneumoniea
infected lung and spleen sections I have previously acquired. We have examined the
architecture of uninfected lungs, observed the structure of alveoli, talked about how gasexchange
works and found a few alveolar macrophages. She was really interested in those
cells, so I have explained how they patrol the lungs and are first line of defense and also
showed her electron microscopy images of these cells in people that smoke, where you can
observe dark granules in the cytoplasm. Alexandra was shocked by these images and declared
she will never smoke . Then we have observed how lungs of infected lungs look like, how
the architecture of the lungs and especially alveoli changes and how some new cells come to
the lungs. In higher magnifications I could show her that those are neutrophils, we have
observed their interestingly shaped nucleus and granules in the cytoplasm, and took some nice
pictures. In the afternoon, I brought her with me to the cell culture where we took a look at
bone marrow derived macrophages, and also different cells from my co-workers,
keratinocytes, endothelial cells and different macrophage cell lines, to demonstrate the
diversity and morphology of cells. We have finished a day with after-work tea and talked
some more about Alexandra’s interests and what she would like to be when she grows up. She
already knows that she wants to study biochemistry, maybe molecular biology, or maybe
medicine, as she finds life sciences the most fascinating. We thanked each other for the
wonderful day and said goodbye.

Later that evening I was thinking about how often we say that young people are not interested
in anything and that they spend all of their time next to TVs and smart-phones, but I have just
spent a day with a 15 year-old girl that was expressing unbelievable interest and enthusiasm
and could follow and interact. She inspired me and reminded me of high school myself, when
I was learning about biology for the first time, and all the joy that I had felt while discovering
this new world.

Organizing events like this for young high school students, where they could visit different
science and technology institutes would be a great way to motivate and show them the vast
possibilities for their education that they were previously unaware of.