Rural Wisconsin high school students get hands-on learning experience with human embyronic stem cells from top UW–Madison researchers

Incoming high school seniors and their teachers learn to coax the human embryonic stem cells into heart and nerve cells at summer science camp


MADISON, Wis. – Rural Wisconsin high school students eager to excel in science are getting the chance this week to work alongside top researchers and faculty from UW-Madison’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.

Hosted by WiCell Research Institute, the summer science camp runs from July 14 to 17 and features a variety of hands-on activities for the students, ranging from maintaining and nourishing the cells to introducing the genetic factors that direct the cells to grow in different ways. Human embryonic stem cells are blank-slate, or pluripotent, cells that have the capacity to differentiate into any of the more than 220 cell types in the human body.
This year, 21 incoming high school seniors from small communities around Wisconsin will gather on the UW-Madison campus to gain insight into possible careers in science while also learning how human embryonic stem cells are used in research. The program includes lectures on scientific ethics as well as presentations from researchers who are now leading biotechnology start-up companies.
The four-day program, developed by WiCell in partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, is designed to expose rural students to scientific disciplines not available in their schools and to establish long-term relationships with high school science teachers. The students enrolled in the camp are from Dodgeville, River Falls, Denmark, Hartford and Ellsworth high schools and were selected by their teachers based on an essay and a quiz testing their knowledge of stem cells. The authors of the two best essays will be awarded a cash grant at the conclusion of the program. (A list of the participants follows.)

“We have been working closely with the state’s larger school districts on a variety of scientific outreach programs, but we also want to provide academic and leadership opportunities for rural Wisconsin students,” said Rupa Shevde, a senior scientist and director of education and outreach with WiCell. “We want to help rural students and their teachers gain a better understanding of the career possibilities that exist for all Wisconsin students and also make sure they feel welcome on the UW-Madison campus.”

Shevde said WiCell focused on inviting students from rural areas since many of these schools face the challenge of limited resources to support science education. The camp aims to provide the students and teachers with knowledge of cutting-edge laboratory techniques and scientific advancements as well as an opportunity to meet with admissions and recruiting counselors from UW-Madison.

“As scientists, we want to inspire curiosity, impart knowledge and encourage creativity in the minds of students,’’ said Shevde. “We believe human embryonic stem cells are a useful tool in this regard because they can be used to teach concepts of common ancestry and diversity as well as enhance understanding of the genetic aspect of human diseases.”

In addition to Shevde, UW presenters at the camp include: Alta Charo, a law professor and bioethicist; Clive Svendsen, an anatomy and neurology professor; Dr. Gabriela Cezar, an entrepreneur and pioneer in the field of metabolomics; Sean Pelacek, Brenda Ogle and William Murphy, all biomedical engineering faculty; Dr. Tim Kamp, a cardiovascular specialist; Jeff Jones, a clinical embryologist who was instrumental in deriving the first human embryonic stem cell lines; and scientists from UW-Madison’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.

Beyond the lectures and time spent in the lab, participants will have opportunities to interact with the other aspiring scientists during social and recreation times. The camp will conclude Thursday evening with a reception and awards ceremony hosted by Erik Forsberg, executive director of WiCell Research Institute.

Human embryonic stem cells were first isolated on the UW-Madison campus by Dr. James Thomson. Today, Wisconsin researchers are considered leaders in developing an understanding of the early development of these cells and the search for stem cell treatments and cures for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and heart disease. Much of this research occurs under the auspices of UW-Madison’s Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center.
WiCell Research Institute, a subsidiary of WARF, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, operates the U.S. National Stem Cell Bank and has distributed human embryonic stem cells to more than 500 research groups in 40 states and 25 countries. The National Stem Cell Bank was established in 2005 to support scale-up, characterization and distribution of the human embryonic stem cell lines that can be used in federally funded research. It also provides comprehensive technical support to the scientists using the cells.
For more information on WiCell outreach programs, visit or send an email to [email protected].