Harford Friends eighth-graders visit Johns Hopkins HeLa Lab

  • Harford Friends School students visit the Johns Hopkins HeLa Lab.
Harford Friends School students visit the Johns Hopkins HeLa…
January 15, 2013

At Harford Friends School, an unusual field trip for middle school resulted from an equally unusual assignment for Cheryl Foley's science class: reading and discussing "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

Eighth-graders from Harford Friends School recently toured the original lab at Johns Hopkins, where the HeLa cells were discovered. A HeLa cell is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. Although many groups tour the facility every day, this group of middle schoolers was one of the youngest ever to be received by researchers.

Prior to this unique field trip, students analyzed the non-fiction work by Rebecca Skloot in a unit on cells and genetics. They also discussed the many scientific, cultural, historical, medical and ethical issues that surround this family and the line of HeLa cells that continues to be replicated today.

While at Johns Hopkins, students learned about the preservation, storage, staining and high magnification viewing of cells in modern labs where today's research on HeLa cells continues. They had opportunities to ask questions of researchers like James Potter, director of JH Translational Research Enhancement Core.

Foley had prepared for the field trip by having students develop questions to ask medical personnel they met that day. Foley was thrilled that her class was given the chance to view cells through high-powered microscopes and to see scientists at work in state-of-the-art labs.

Foley, the school's middle school science teacher, enjoyed the experience of walking through the vast maze of walkways at the world-renowned Hopkins research facilities in Baltimore. Talking with researchers gave these students a first-hand view of scientists working with state-of-the-art electronic equipment. They learned about efforts at Hopkins to tailor medical treatment to each cancer patient by studying the specific cells of that individual.

When they visited the original lab where Dr. George Gey discovered the HeLa cells, students were surprised that the lab is exactly as it was in the 1950s. They spoke to a researcher who knew Dr. Gey during his tenure at Hopkins.

Cody Houston was impressed by how advanced the labs are, particularly the modern technology which allowed them to view actual HeLa cells on computers and through microscopes. "Seeing live cells move on camera and liver cancer cells under a microscope" made the idea of studying science more interesting to Lindsay Baker.

Cameron Emely was surprised to learn that Hopkins dedicated "Henrietta Lacks Day" to the family when they were invited to tour the labs and learn about their grandmother's cells.

Cameron was impressed that his class had the chance to learn about topics they are studying in class in a professional lab. "It's the experience of a lifetime," he said.

Cameron's father, Chip, who was instrumental in setting up the trip, commented on "this special opportunity for the students to visit the actual lab written about in the book and to see the amazing technology required to even work with the cells."

Foley commented that she hopes the field trip will motivate her students to consider future studies and possibly careers in scientific fields.

Each class at Harford Friends School takes a monthly field trip to local venues to explore curriculum-related topics. Overnight field trips are also included in the school's program for all students in middle school.

Harford Friends School is an independent school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, based on Quaker traditions, in Forest Hill.

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