Martina, aged 15, alternated between school and work in a cancer research laboratory

Who said the experience performed within PCTO (formerly School-Work Shift) is it just a waste of time? There student education it can be defined as really constructive when the school subject theory is also combined with a practical part, which over the years has been given greater and greater importance thanks to the opportunity to closely follow a job from within companies that offer the opportunity to complete small “practice courses” of a few weeks duration.

As in the case of Martinaone 15 year old student who wanted to set aside a few hours of his PCTO (Pathways for Transversal Skills and Orientation) to better understand the dynamics taking place withinIFOM, AIRC Foundation Institute of Molecular Oncology. After a moment of skepticism from Andrewthat researcher who should have followed Martina’s path within the Institute, the work carried out over the course of two weeks was largely productive from several points of view. Even for Andrea, despite the significant age difference with the student, she was actually able to learn more than she expected from this experience. In fact, the researcher told in a letter about the short work interlude that saw him at Martina’s side, and thanked those who today give the youngest the opportunity to touch even such complex and seemingly “distant” work from everyday life. .

“There were two of us who had to learn, and maybe between me and Martina, the student, the one who learned the most from this experience is me – said the scholar warmly. “And I understand that we researchers, who often put ourselves in a position to teach others from top to bottom, should realize that we have a lot to learn from others.”

PCTO inside a cancer research laboratory: the letter from the supervisor to the student

In my time, in high school, this possibility was not there, and I must say that when they introduced it, and I was already a researcher, I was always skeptical about it. I said to myself “what do you want them to learn in a few weeks, they are just wasting your time and they will lose it”. But from life and from my work I have learned that dogmas and certainties are made to be unsustainable. My name is Andrea, I am 48 years old and I have been doing research for almost half of my life. I work at IFOM, the AIRC Foundation Institute of Molecular Oncology. For years I, like so many researchers here at IFOM, have tried to understand some of the mechanisms that lead normal cells to
“Transform” and become cancer cells. In particular, our group studies the strategies that cancer cells use to “escape” from the primary tumor, spread throughout the body and form metastases. Last month I was asked to supervise M., a 15-year-old student who wanted to spend a two-week stay in our laboratory. First reaction “no, why me?! Is there anyone else?!”. Then I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be so terrible, and I began to “design” the experience that the student would have during the time she would spend with us in the lab. After all, the purpose of spending 15 days in the laboratory at our side would have been just that, to “touch” by hand what we do every day in our working environment. I was about to start a series of experiments and the student could have supported me in what are the “internal controls” of the experimental block. “Routine” indeed, but no less important than any data that can emerge from any experiment. Sounds like a good plan to me. And finally Martina arrives, accompanied by her mother. The mother is super excited, Martina seems a bit confused, but that’s normal; I let them into the Institute and take them on a little tour to give them an idea of ​​the different environments and the different “technologies” we use every day. After leaving the mother, M. and I immerse ourselves in our days with exchange school work. Not too fast, it’s unthinkable to get her to do something practical from the start. For a few days, Martina will support me and stay with me while I do my work. Let’s start talking a bit, I’ll explain what we do and what our line of research is.

The message I want to convey to you is that behind our work and practical experiments there are studies. Yes, because studies never end, and knowledge of scientific literature, learning what other laboratories around the world are doing, keeps us up to date and gives us starting points for new ideas and new experimental methods. As the minutes and hours pass, Martina gains confidence and starts asking me questions. Many questions. She is alert, she is curious… Perfect, I think, curiosity and the desire to know and explore are the basis of our work. We spend the first few days like this where I work and she supports me, observes what I do and asks me questions. I’m surprised to find that it doesn’t bother me. Still, there would have been the conditions: the age separates us light years, M. has a little more than my children’s age. Despite this, we begin to get to know each other and take action. Like my children he listens to unknown or unwelcome music, he doesn’t know who Giorgia is and thinks Laura Pausini is a TV face for TG ……… apart from this though we are able to communicate and above all, and it makes me happy, being “at the counter” generates a state of euphoria in M.: he can’t wait to start his experiments. Friday of the first week comes, the day of “sowing”! In the afternoon we will “seed” the cells that will be used from the following Monday for our experiments. The goal is to understand how much the gene we are studying, irsp53, affects the migration capacity of cells derived from breast cancer. An “easy” way to understand this is to “turn off” irsp53 and compare cells where the gene is on and cells where the gene is off. The results of these experiments will be the basis for a new line of research in our laboratory. However, the magnitude of these results would be meaningless without the experiment’s “internal controls”. But what are these internal controls? They are cell biochemistry and microscopy assays that will allow us to verify whether we have indeed succeeded in turning off irsp53. Without these controls, the entire experimental block would not make sense. This is M’s task starting from the following Monday. Four days at the counter: two dedicated to the “Western Blot” analysis, a biochemical technique that enables the identification of a specific protein (the one encoded by our irsp53 gene) in a mixture of proteins, using
recognition of specific antibodies; two dedicated to the analysis of our cells with immunofluorescence techniques that use antibodies made fluorescent with a fluorochrome and make it possible to identify under the microscope the presence of a protein inside the cells of interest. If we have done everything correctly, M. will only be able to observe specific signals in the cell extracts or in the cells where our gene is turned on, but not in the cells where it was turned off.

It’s four intense days for M., everything that is taken for granted for those who work in the laboratory is nothing at all for her. It is necessary to prepare solutions, make dilutions, calculate molecular weights……… he struggles, makes mistakes, but does not give up and in the end we find the right conditions to be able to carry out the experiments. The first result is obtained from “Western Blot”. The captured images tell us that our gene has been globally turned off. Eureka! I see Martina smiling, radiant, and I know the best is yet to come. Yes, for now it is immunofluorescence and then microscope observation. We prepare our cells, more solutions, more dilutions, more calculations. Alright, now we’ll let them rest for a night and then the next morning we’ll go under the microscope. Thursday morning, appointment at 9:30 under the microscope. Martina arrives at 9.00 accompanied by his father. He was also, like mother, excited. We are the same age, we call you. I am happy to let him visit IFOM as well. I believe that everyone should know what we do and how we do it. Many believe that research is useless, we do not produce, we do not have that
useful … in our small way we try to give answers to many questions, we produce “knowledge”, a knowledge that could be useful in the not too distant future, to have new tools in the fight against cancer, a knowledge , that need resources to be released. At 9:25 we say goodbye to dad, because the microscope is waiting for us. We arrive at the fluorescence microscope room. #4, the trusty Olympus Upright BX51, awaits us. He has been a traveling companion for many years. I explain to Martina how to use it, what to do and, above all, what not to do. Microscopes are delicate and expensive instruments, we cannot afford to destroy them. Much of the research we do here at IFOM is funded by the AIRC Foundation, money that comes from people who believe in our mission and to whom we owe gratitude and respect. You have to be super careful and super strict in all that
what are we doing. Okay, ready to look at our cells and acquire the images. I resist the temptation to
putting myself under the magnifying glass is one of the things I love the most and I would spend hours looking at the eyepieces. But this is Martina’s experiment and it is right to give her the space. From there, I can already imagine what his reactions will be. And indeed, it takes very little to see how much Martina gets turned on by looking at the fluorescent cells; I seem to see myself again 20 years ago ……. In fact, it’s still like that for me today, after so many years. Martina is no longer in the skin, she continues to tell me “Andrea, you should see how good it looks in the eyepieces!”. I don’t even try to explain to her that I know what she feels, I follow her with amusement and try to run her “Pindaric escape”. After two hours, we have collected all the images we need. In this case too, the collected images tell us that we have worked well. We go back to the lab, we go to the computer. It is time to “fix” all the collected data and to prepare a report on what we have done in the past few days. The afternoon slips away, we prepare our report and it is already time to say goodbye. Kind of sorry, I got used to the idea of ​​being a bit of a “pain in the ass” around the lab.

I greet her, with hope and awareness: the hope is that there is something left from this experience that will guide her in what she wants to do when she grows up, the awareness is that this experience has taught me a lot. I learned that … if research work is important because it has responsibility for the future of human health, it also has a certain responsibility for the dissemination of knowledge. It is our duty, it is an integral part of our work to confront society to make it understood, especially with young people.
I have learned a lot to capture the curious gaze of those who look to their future and who are passionate about research despite the not rosy prospects that the world of work offers. Dealing with such a young interlocutor is much more than stimulating. M., as is right for his age, fasts for many things, fasts experiences, fasts knowledge, but on his part he has a desire to do and discover that leaves you unarmed. M. has the advantage that he has not yet acquired a method and therefore uses reasoning and mechanisms different from mine to seek solutions to various problems. It doesn’t always find the right path, but it’s great to relate to a way of thinking that travels on other levels. Confrontation is always instructive, for young people but above all for us “adults”. Comparison is the basis of everything.
Today I go home doubly satisfied, I love my job and I like the idea of ​​having passed something on and above all having taught many others.
Thanks Martina!

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