Near the end of the third-floor corridor in the Lindsay Center for Mathematics and Science is an impressive array of scientific tools, but walk too fast, and you might miss them.
Room 327, better known as the cell culture lab, is a sliver-sized space situated between the Molecular Biology and Human Anatomy and Physiology classrooms. It is one of – if not the – smallest rooms in the building, but it holds enormous potential for students. Housed within its 28x10-foot dimensions are the tools and technology that make cell exploration feasible. There is a cell culture hood that provides a sterile space to open and work with materials, and a microscope with a computer connection to take pictures of the magnified samples. Next to it is a carbon dioxide incubator to keep cells at 37C, the average body temperature. Nearby is a -80C freezer where cells, frozen samples, and other materials are stored to ensure they do not degrade before experiments.
This lab, in addition to the Kwok Engineering Lab located on the ground level, serves as the hub for students in the Applied Science & Engineering Program (ASEP). “The cell culture room is critical to the work of biology-focused Applied Science & Engineering Program students,” explains Sarah Boylan, director of ASEP. “In this space, we are capable of growing, maintaining, and experimenting with human and mouse cells. The room has a special incubator, microscope, cell culture hood, and much more. The ability to grow human cells at SPS enables our students to explore human molecular mechanisms, which ultimately can lead to enhanced knowledge about particular diseases and hopefully towards cures.”
Sixth Former Varun Reddy worked with Boylan in the cell culture lab last spring to prepare for his summer externship analzying samples for sickle cell disease research at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, Texas.
“I focused on getting the basics of molecular biology down,” recalls Reddy. “I learned a lot about how to work in the lab.”
In the SPS cell culture lab, Reddy grew and maintained chronic myelogenous leukemia (K562) cells, ultimately treating them with Vitamin D to determine if it would be an effective treatment to treat sickle cell disease. In order to do this, he learned how to perform quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), a machine that determines the expression of a certain gene. He also conducted Western blots, a process to identify proteins, and supplemented the hands-on work with course materials on DNA transcription and gene expression.
“It was tough at first because I just didn't have the experience, period,” explains Reddy. “But, over the Spring Term I became familiar with the culture hood, which is used for the express purpose of culturing cells. It was just a matter of making sure everything is clean and covered so it won’t ruin the sample”
Fellow Sixth Former and ASEP student Liam Pharr refers to the cell culture lab as “the fun room.” His externship involved the study of embryonic diapause, the hibernation state of cells, and its relationship to triple-negative breast cancer cells. His continuing lab work wouldn’t be possible without the tools in room 327. Pharr also made use of the qPCR machine, to conduct a more in-depth analysis of DNA and gene expression. “A lot of colleges don't have this,” remarks Pharr. "The School having this, as well as the culture hood, incubator, and the -80C freezer, is phenomenal."
The cell culture lab has made more than an externship and continued research possible for Reddy. “I've been interested in bio for literally forever,” says Reddy. “I don't remember a time where I wasn't reading about biology. I’m glad that we have the resources to maintain this kind of work because it is so expensive. It's great that the School is willing to invest in students exploring biology.”