In the basement of Eucalyptus Hall, there resides a room full of tanks harboring sea urchins. The prickly creatures are harvested by biology students and used for research in the Center for Cancer and Developmental Biology lab next door. Here, mostly undergraduate students use the skills and knowledge they have acquired in their chemistry classes to research cancer and embryonic development.
In addition to sea urchins, the Center also purchases cancer cells and harvests them for use in experiments. While the undergraduates study molecular inhibition using beads and cancer cells, graduate biology students study embryonic development in the sea urchins. Of particular interest to the students and Steven Oppenheimer, Ph.D., the director of the Center, is the molecular basis of how cancer is spread. He said the sea urchins were chosen because of their simplicity, and their embryos develop similar to the way human embryos develop.
“What’s true in sea urchins is also true in humans,” he said.
The students study molecules involved in cell adhesion in hopes of developing new, anti-cancer drugs that would serve as an alternative to chemotherapy. Oppenheimer said chemotherapy kills normal cells in addition to cancer cells. He hopes to find a drug that can target the cancer cells without killing off the healthy cells. One approach the students use (in layman’s terms) is to find out “what cancer cells stick to, and what they don’t stick to.” According to Oppenheimer, a main focus of their research is to find the link between the way embryonic cells behave and the way cancer cells behave.
Oppenheimer founded the Center in 1984 as an umbrella organization to serve as a center for community outreach, teaching, student research and to help get grants for cancer and embryonic development research. It is funded by awards received from the National Institutes of Health, among many other institutions.
Oppenheimer is quick to say that the students are what keep things going and should be credited for their ongoing research.
“The students do the work. I tell the jokes,” Oppenheimer said.
He said since the Center opened, about 600 students have conducted research in the lab and they have co-authored more than 300 publications. He said publishing research findings is a normal part of lab operations. The students regularly publish and even present their work at seminars throughout the year.
Laurie Goldstein, senior biology major, is one of many students who have been published. Since she is an undergraduate, she works with the cancer cells on the molecular inhibition project. Goldstein is also one of the “leads,” which means she helps run the lab and train other students.
Goldstein plans to attend dental school, and is currently looking at USC, UCLA and University of the Pacific. Goldstein said the research she has done in the lab should help her get into the school of her choice. “It shows you’re motivated, willing to get involved, dedicate your time to research and better the community.”
The research she has done at the Center has also influenced her educational outlook. “Being in the lab (has made me want to consider) dental research, because I love it that much,” she said.
Goldstein said that working in the lab affects her personally, in addition to helping her reach her educational and career goals.
“Doing the work makes you feel good,” she said. “We’re at the bottom of the chain, but we help the pharmaceutical companies ? It makes us feel like we’re a part of something.”
According to Goldstein, pharmaceutical companies are very interested in their approach to using sugar beads to study molecules and drug inhibition. She also said Oppenheimer motivates the students and makes the lab a pleasant place to be.
Azalia Contreras, a graduate biology student who works in the lab, said Oppenheimer is very motivational.
“He motivated me to pursue graduate studies,” said Contreras, who received her undergraduate degree from CSUN. “Working in the lab exposed me to what it’s like doing research and gave me the skills and abilities to do what I like, (and) learn different techniques and protocols and further my knowledge.”
Community outreach, not just research, is a very important part of the Center. Every fall, the biology department opens their doors to the public by allowing people to attend Oppenheimer’s “Biology of Cancer” class. The class is meant for non-biology majors, and the public can sit in if there are available seats. Oppenheimer calls the class a public service – a way to reach people and teach them not to be intimidated by cancer by dispelling some of the myths about the disease.
“A lot of people are afraid of cancer, because they don’t understand it,” he said. “They are fearful, so they don’t seek help. That’s the wrong thing to do.”
The class attracts Valley residents as well as experts and doctors from USC and other universities and institutions. Oppenheimer said there are about 20 community members who attend the class this semester.
Another means of outreach is the New Journal of Student Research Abstracts. CSUN and the Van Nuys Airport publish the journal annually. It features scientific articles from students in middle schools and high schools across the San Fernando Valley. The journal is recognized by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which is the largest library in the U.S. Oppenheimer said the program started as a way to get kids interested in research.
According to Terri Miller, who teaches health and science at Holmes International Middle School, teachers in participating middle schools and high schools come to CSUN and are taught research skills by professors. The teachers take the knowledge back to their classrooms and pass it along to their students. Miller was trained to conduct research using an insect called Collembola. She then taught her students to apply the scientific method to experiments using the tiny creatures.
“It’s not cookie cutter science. The students get really excited about it, because it’s theirs,” she said.
Perhaps the most meaningful thing produced by the Center, aside from the research, is the continual pursuit and practice of science and desire to understand how things work. In fact, it is an ever-present mood in the lab and among the students who are there. If any good comes from research, such as alternatives to cancer treatment, high school students who decide to study science in college, public awareness or breakthroughs in medicine, they are icing on the cake.