Rockefeller University is known for creating a culture of innovation, so it goes without saying that it's just the type of place that might interest some of Bronxville’s science students. Their science teacher, Ms. Jiyoon Kim, recently organized a field trip on a Saturday for students interested in hearing a lecture by Robert Darnell, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Attending Physician who studies RNA regulation in autoimmunity, neurological disease, and cancer.
His lecture focused on paraneoplastic syndromes, the phenomena whereby some people are immune to cancer due to a particular protein produced in tumors and neurons. For some patients, the protein can also be found in the brain, triggering a response that produces a marked decline in a patient’s neurological function. In the two-hour lecture, Dr. Darnell also addressed how to help patients with this condition to improve neurological functionality. Another topic that was covered was ‘how memories are formed’. Ms. Kim said the students found this to be exciting as well. “Dr. Darnell made a parallel between the brain and computer chips. He explained how neurons are a binary system where they either fire or don't fire to neighboring neurons and how coinciding signals from neurons engrain memories in the brain,” said Ms. Kim.
The students were really engaged in the lecture, asking questions, and taking beautiful notes- according to Ms. Kim. They had no idea that neurons were binary and that this class of rare disease existed, and mostly they were amazed at the idea of academia as a professional field. Ms.Kim overheard one student say, “I’m definitely going to apply here as long as they have good sandwiches.” Bronxville junior Lucia Thiessen-Rodriguez described the day as 'incredible’ and was eager to share her thoughts. “I found Dr. Darnell's speech was both scary and fascinating. The fact that our body takes care of tumors is great, but if they are 'tagged' in the same way that brain cells are, patients will lose cerebellum function. Before I had never heard of paraneoplastic neurologic disorders but by the end of the talk I felt like an expert on the subject,” said Lucia.
At the end of the lecture, the Bronxville high school students had an opportunity to ask Rockefeller University graduate students about their research. They learned about cell imaging, radioactive markers, and the use of a special camera to layer images together. The experience opened their view of what can be done in this field, and they were able to make connections to their studies in biology and math. A connection to the latter was found when they learned about an RNA string, and how when its segments are combined and reformed, it yields all sorts of information- just from a single strand. This sparked in one student the similarity to the mathematical and statistical method of combinatorial variability.
Ms. Kim hopes this inaugural field trip to Rockefeller University will become a yearly tradition for Bronxville high school students who are keen on deeper science-related learning.