The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Summer Engineering Program Changes Lives of Two Amherst High School Students

Shelly Peyton

A professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is doing something inspiring to address the ongoing problem of far too few women in engineering and science. As part of a $590,000 three-year grant co-funded from the National Science Foundation and the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Shelly Peyton of the UMass Chemical Engineering Department has been running a five-week summer educational outreach program that has transformed the future career goals of two female students from Amherst Regional High School.

Peyton’s program, entitled “Engineering the Cell: A Bioengineering Experience for Young Women,” not only exposed incoming high school juniors Maia Hamin and Christina Manson to a pioneering new method to stop breast cancer from spreading. The program also taught them many fundamentals of engineering and science and inspired them to take on the challenging task of breaking into a field dominated by men.

In fact, that last lesson was the ultimate purpose of Peyton’s summer educational program: the greater inclusion of underrepresented women in engineering and science research. 

What motivated the two Amherst high school students to apply for the program? It was both idealistic and practical, in a wonderfully youthful way. “Well, frankly, my mother wanted me to do something with my summer,” says Hamin. “You know, she didn’t want me just sitting around the house. So I applied to this program because it’s in areas that are interesting to me. I especially liked the aspect that it is hands-on work in the lab.”

The bioengineering program, which took place in Peyton’s laboratory with the help of her graduate students, was based on her groundbreaking research fighting cancer. Peyton actually engineers authentic replicas of brain, bone, lung, and other tissues in her lab and uses them to develop very patient-specific drugs to block breast cancer from spreading. Her lab is the only one in the world employing this promising new bioengineering method.

“What we’re trying to understand is why breast cancer doesn’t spread randomly,” explains Peyton. “It almost always ends up in a few areas of your body, and that’s what makes it so deadly. Ninety percent of breast cancer deaths are due to metastasis. So the ability of breast cancer to spread to your brain, your lungs, your bone, your liver, and take over those organs, that’s the real danger.”

Operating in this supercharged research environment, the two high school students learned numerous sophisticated lab techniques. They cultured cancer cells and stem cells in the lab. They tested how different chemotherapy drugs might kill certain cancer cells but not others. They watched how cancer cells and stem cells move through two-dimensional and three-dimensional tissues. And they cultured small tumor spheroids in three-dimensional materials to test how drugs kill those cancer cells.

“Basically, the program is a mixture between learning what it is to function in a science lab by working with my graduate students on mini-projects,” explains Peyton, “and lectures by me. I gave them lectures on what cancer is, why it is so dangerous, what engineers might do to help cure cancer, what stem cells are, what tissue engineering is, and how engineers use stem cells to make tissues. And we also did basic lectures on the scientific method and how engineers approach the world to solve problems.”

This approach affected both Amherst students in exactly the way intended. For example, Hamin’s favorite course before this summer was history, but now she says chemical engineering has gone to the head of her classes.

Similarly, Manson has found her own future field of dreams. “Would I like to work on cancer specifically?” says Manson. “Maybe something like that. Cancer seems sort of scary, watching how cancer survives almost everything. But now I think working with cells, especially stem cells, would be really cool.”

The rationale behind Peyton’s summer educational program was quite simply to inspire more women to enter bioengineering in particular and chemical engineering, engineering, and scientific fields in general. Women make up 50 percent of the undergraduate student body at UMass Amherst, yet they consistently represent only 15 percent of the students in the UMass College of Engineering. These enrollments reflect national trends.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, differences between girls’ and boys’ science and mathematics scores have narrowed, and girls now take the upper level mathematics and science courses required to enter engineering at the same rate as boys. However, girls’ confidence in their abilities in mathematics and science, and their interest in these careers, typically decline during high school. Additionally, media and real-life images of women in scientific and technical careers are rare (as are female role models and mentors, in general), sending the meta-message to girls that a career in engineering is not for them.

Recruitment was facilitated by Dr. Paula Rees, director of the College of Engineering Diversity Programs Office, who contacted many high schools to locate interested and qualified applicants for the program. After being selected by Peyton from some 20 applicants from various schools, Hamin and Manson each received a $2,500 stipend to support their participation.

Peyton explains that “The reason I have taken rising juniors is that it’s early enough for them either to get inspired the first time or re-inspired about doing science. I’d like them to get excited about doing science projects. It gives them a confidence that they can do this kind of work. We’re trying to provide some strong female role models in the lab. And, as they’re learning all these things, maybe they will think about doing science or engineering when they go to college.”

Indeed, Peyton’s logic worked its magic. As Hamin notes, “The most obvious thing I learned was a lot about cancer. I really enjoyed the lectures we had because it’s really fascinating to see how these things work. And I enjoyed putting that knowledge into practice. You look into a microscope and you say, 'Oh! There’s what they were talking about!’ So I really enjoyed being able to learn things and then carrying out a practical application of them.”

Now Hamin says she can see herself working on cancer or some other disease, because this is a scientific field in which she could do things that have “very real-world applications that can help people.”

Manson was also inspired to focus her future plans more clearly. “Before I started the program, I didn’t really know what I wanted to go into for a field,” says Manson. “I figured it would probably be something either ‘sciency’ or ‘engineery.’ Now, after this program, I’ve found out that what I really want to do is actually chemical engineering. I think that would be a great college major.”

In other words, both students have swallowed Peyton’s bait, hook, line, and sinker. (August 2014)

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