Stem cell study yielding cancer insights turns high school senior into a finalist in national science fair

We love stem cells because they can turn into many things. In the case of seventeen-year-old Joshua Meier in Teaneck, New Jersey, he turned them into a $3,000 prize as a national finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

Meier spent three years studying how stem cells age, developing techniques to slow that aging and then figuring out how to apply that technique to the growth of cancer cells. He started with stem cells that had been generated by reprogramming adult tissues into embryonic-like stem cells–the so-called iPS cells. The project is described in the local paper The Record.

Meier was lucky in that his school, the Bergen County Academies, was a public magnet school for science and was one of the rare high schools to have both a stem cell lab and a faculty member recruited to run it. He credited that faculty member, Robert Pergolizzi, with inspiring him to do the project.

Pergolizzi teaches his classes using inquiry-based methods, not just memorizing facts. This fits nicely with the Next Generation Science Standards adopted nationally this summer and slowly being implemented in the state over the next few years. Clearly ahead of the curve, when Meier entered his class freshman year, Pergolizzi announced there would be no tests, just one assignment: come up with a research proposal.

As Meier dug into the proposal he found out science is much more difficult and time consuming than he had thought. The Record quotes Pergolizzi on the young man’s evolution:

“He came up with a very clever proposal and was extremely naïve — he thought he was going to run one experiment and show everything he had to show. He learned it’s a lot harder than it looks. At times he neglected other classes…. He would live in the lab if I left him. I have to get him out with a crowbar.”

Implementation of the new standards should get lots more students thinking in these ways. We recently revised our high school stem cell curriculum to add two new units pegged to the Next Generation Standards (there’s more about the new curriculum in this blog item).

Don Gibbons

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