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Women’s Health Science Program Expands to Include the Physical Sciences

In 2007, the Oncofertility Consortium joined forces with the Women’s Health Science Program (WHSP) to launch a unique high school-university science partnership called the Oncofertility Saturday Academy. This weekend program allows girls in the Chicago Public Schools to learn about scientific and clinical concepts in oncofertility. Since that time, the oncofertility academy has expanded nationwide and acted as a model for other programs within WHSP for high school students to learn about cardiology and infectious diseases. The model has been expanded to teach students about the physical sciences through the Physical Science Weekend Academy.

Early Saturday morning, 14 girls from Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago, entered the hallowed halls of Northwestern University to learn about the physical attributes of proteins. Lead scientist and Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Cell Biology, Heather Pinkett, PhD, began with a discussion on the structures of proteins and the techniques scientists use to determine these shapes. Then it was off to the lab!

The gaggle of sophomore, junior, and senior girls worked in Crystal Teams to analyze proteins including P-glycoprotein, HIV-1 protease, and pepsin. They purified their proteins, performed crystallography, and used visualization techniques usually restricted to advanced college students. With the information gleaned from their experimental results, the girls were able to relate the structures of the proteins to their function within the human body.

The attendees at the Physical Science Weekend Academy also determined the amino acid building blocks of their proteins. Once they figured out this sequence, they made beaded bracelets where each bead correlated with a specific amino acid so they could show off their “sequences” to their friends and family and share their knowledge on the function of the proteins.

According to the lead educators of the program, Megan Faurot, MEd, and Cathryn Smeyers, MAT, this introductory year of the Physical Science Weekend Academy was so successful that next year, they plan on delivering an even larger academy with more experiments and workshops. Hopefully, further dissemination of the Oncofertility Saturday Academy model will instill even more young women with a  love of science.

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