On Friday, November 16, 2018, Professor Keyue Shen welcomed science teacher Ms. Sandra Oh and her students of the STEM Academy of Boyle Heights to his Integrative Biosystems Engineering Lab at USC Viterbi. This visit is part of a partnership between Professor Shen and the STEM Academy of Boyle Heights that aims to increase awareness and enthusiasm for STEM pathways for the traditionally underserved community of Boyle Heights. Touring Professor Shen’s biomedical engineering lab, the STEM Academy students saw practical applications of the content they are currently learning in biology class.
Professor Keyue Shen, English teacher Ms. Annette Del Rio and Biology teacher Ms. Sandra Oh, (L-R).
STEM Academy of Boyle Heights students learn from a PhD student in the Shen lab.
Fundamental biology concepts like cell metabolism and homeostasis are also central to Professor Shen’s research, which creates “biologically inspired in vitro platforms” to study cell signaling in microenvironments and discover new therapeutic approaches to combat diseases like cancer. By recreating tumor microenvironments, for example, Professor Shen and his lab study the complex ways in which malignant tumors interact with healthy cells and envision therapeutic responses tailored to the specifics of those interactions. Another branch of the Shen lab’s research seeks to revolutionize the therapeutic use of hematopoietic stem cells. These cells are at the same time incredibly versatile—being able to divide into any component of the blood—and extremely difficult to sustain outside of bone marrow. By engineering in vitro simulations of bone marrow, the Shen lab seeks to make fighting blood and bone marrow cancers more feasible than ever.
To help the STEM Academy students draw connections to their studies more easily, Professor Shen organized his lab into four stations, each led by a member of his research lab. Through introductions to concepts like immuno-staining and equipment like a flow cytometer, the STEM Academy students learned about the technology and equipment necessary to conduct the Shen lab’s innovative research.
In addition to seeing their textbooks come alive in the Shen lab, the students were also able to envision a future in which they, too, could contribute to socially beneficial research like Professor Shen. The students’ eyes widened when PhD student Yuta Ando explained the concept of a “Principal Investigator” and suggested that, in becoming Principal Investigators themselves, they too could have a lab named after them.
After the tour of the Shen lab, Ms. Oh’s students experienced life as a USC undergrad for a day. They had lunch together at the RTH Cafe patio and took selfies next to Tommy Trojan. USC undergraduate and Aerospace Engineering major Patrick Valadez led the students on a tour of the University Park Campus and spoke of his own pathway from a Los Angeles high schooler to first generation college student at USC. When the STEM Academy students left USC Campus to return home that day, they understood in a new way that the distance between Boyle Heights and USC is not so great.
Students from STEM Academy tour the Shen lab.