Post-doctoral fellow turns youngsters on to science

Posted: Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Post-doctoral student Jessica Ibarra, Ph.D., who made presentations to 1,000 San Antonio students about what it’s like to be a scientist, discusses the cardiovascular system at Driscoll Middle School.clear graphic
Post-doctoral student Jessica Ibarra, Ph.D., who made presentations to 1,000 San Antonio students about what it’s like to be a scientist, discusses the cardiovascular system at Driscoll Middle School. 

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By Rosanne Fohn

Before Jessica Ibarra, Ph.D., visited with more than a thousand San Antonio school children last fall as part of the American Physiology Society’s (APS) Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week 2010, many of them thought that only men were scientists.

The children also had other preconceived notions. “In a pre-visit activity, the students drew pictures of a scientist or their idea of what a scientist is. Most drew pictures of ‘crazy, mad scientists,’” Dr. Ibarra said.

But by the end of her presentations at five minority-serving elementary and middle schools, her mission was accomplished. “The students drew pictures of themselves as scientists!” she said.

National presentation
Dr. Ibarra’s school visits touched 1,000 school children, accounting for 11 percent of the 9,000 students who participated in the PhUn Week activities nationwide. She will give a presentation about her project to participants of the APS’ K-12 Education Program during the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Experimental Biology to be held April 9-13 in Washington, D.C.

The APS 2010 K-12 minority outreach fellow is studying in the UT Health Science Center San Antonio’s Division of Nephrology under the mentorship of medical professor Seema S. Ahuja, M.D. Dr. Ibarra is researching the immune response in experimental models of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes persistent pain and stiffness, progressive joint destruction and functional disability in people.

Graduate student Ann Chiao demonstrates how to use a pipette.clear graphic
Graduate student Ann Chiao demonstrates how to use a pipette. 


PhUn Week
Physiology is the study of how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in good health and disease. Held the week of Nov. 1-5, 2010, PhUn Week gave students in kindergarten through 12th grade the chance to meet research scientists, learn about physiology in their daily lives and explore physiology as a possible career. It also built local partnerships between science teachers and scientists to provide new materials for teachers and give researchers a chance to reach out to the next generation of scientists.

“My participation during PhUn Week actually spanned Oct. 22-Nov. 9, based on the availability of the teachers and schools,” Dr. Ibarra said. “Some of the schools coordinated the visit with Red Ribbon Week and my visit provided the health and exercise component, as well as the push for higher education. Other schools used my visit to promote career awareness and I participated as a speaker during career day as a scientist/physiologist.”

Five schools
Dr. Ibarra visited Mary Lou Fisher Elementary School, Woodlawn Hills Elementary, Palm Heights Baptist School, Driscoll Middle School and E.T. Wrenn Middle School.

“The student visits involved hands-on and interactive activities that required assistance, so I recruited volunteers from the Health Science Center and the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW), where I am an adjunct biology instructor,” Dr. Ibarra said.

Other Health Science Center volunteers were Ann Chiao, a graduate student in the laboratory of Merry Lindsey, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine; Ashley Lynn Rodriguez, a master’s degree student in the laboratory of Luzhe Sun, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology; and Kassandra Clark, a senior research assistant in Dr. Ahuja’s lab.

Chiao and Rodriguez assisted at Woodlawn Hills where Chiao demonstrated her laboratory skills and Rodriguez shared her anatomy expertise with students. Clark assisted Dr. Ibarra at Wrenn Middle School.

PhUn Week curriculum
The topics presented at the various schools included:

  • “Meet the Physiologist,” a presentation of science and physiology, including Dr. Ibarra’s area of research, and encouragement to explore opportunities in higher education
  • “Be a Scientist,” where students used pipettes to add blue dye to gels, simulating a real laboratory technique, with the goal of better understanding the importance of accurate measurements and the tools scientists use
  • “The Pressure is On,” where student learned how to take each other’s blood pressure to learn how scientists and clinicians measure health
  • “Heart to Heart,” which gave students the opportunity to explore and touch a real cow heart specimen to see learning aids used by scientists
  • “So You Think You Can Text,” where students used a “squeezy toy heart” provided by the APS for the students to simulate as many heart contractions as they could in one minute to model muscle physiology
After the presentations, the students were asked to draw a new picture of a scientist. Dr. Ibarra was happy to see that many drew a picture of themselves.

“My involvement in this national program and my participation as an APS minority research fellow would not have been possible without the support of my mentor, Dr. Ahuja. Her letter of support helped me obtain the position and her ongoing support gave me the flexibility to visit all of these schools and take this program to so many students. Dr. Ahuja is an expert in the development, maintenance and characterization of mouse models of rheumatoid arthritis. She also is an amazing mentor committed to providing young students an enriching research experience they would otherwise never encounter,” Dr. Ibarra said.

“I’d also like to thank Dr. Christy MacKinnon, professor and chair of biology at UIW and a former UT Health Science Center postdoctoral student, who was so kind to let me borrow supplies for these activities,” she added.

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