Dr. TinChung Leung, of the NC Central University Nutrition Research Program at the NC Research Campus, is usually focused on cancer, cardiovascular and blood research. This year, he is expanding his focus to make an investment in the future of middle and high school students in Kannapolis City Schools.
He worked together with the Kannapolis City Schools, Kannapolis Education Foundation and the City of Kannapolis to organize six trips, three in February and three in March, for over 125 students to visit the main campus of N.C. Central University in Durham. At N.C. Central, the students will visit the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) where they will take part in BRITE Futures, a science, technology engineering and mathematics educational program.
Led by Betty Brown, a long-time science educator, BRITE Futures gives students hands-on laboratory experiences. “This is an opportunity for students to use equipment and run experiments they normally wouldn’t get to,” Brown said. “Every student gets to use a pipette, load a gel and run a gel, for example.”
Over 5,000 students from throughout North Carolina have participated in BRITE Futures since it launched in 2008. This is the first time Kannapolis City Schools students have attended. As part of the program, the students also tour the Biology Department at the Mary Townes Science Complex on the N.C. Central University campus. The visit gives them what Leung describes as a “snapshot of college.”
“We hope to inspire these students to pursue biotechnology or other scientific fields,” Leung said. “Experiences like this can transform the students’ expectations and understanding because when we are children everything can inspire us. It can be very powerful!”
Leung speaks from experience. As a child, he liked to raise fish. Today, he is an expert in the use of zebra fish as a model system to study the molecular mechanisms of diseases and to validate therapeutic compounds for disease prevention and treatment.
Xiaohe Yang, MD, PhD, also with the N.C. Central Nutrition Research Program at the N.C. Research Campus, is assisting with the trips to Durham.
“I do believe young kids benefit from early exposure to science,” he said. “This program can be one factor that helps them decide on their future.”
Yang has seen the result of early exposure to science in his family. He researches breast cancer. His father was a chemistry teacher, and his son is a medical student at the University of Oklahoma.
The City of Kannapolis is underwriting the program with a $5,000 Community Development Block Grant. Leung worked with Kannapolis City Schools and the Kannapolis Education Foundation to secure the grant that is paying for buses, substitute teachers and other program expenses.
“We feel it is important for people in Kannapolis to understand more about science and technology and how it relates to their lives, and, for students, how science relates to their career choices,” said Irene Sacks, director of business and community affairs for the City of Kannapolis. “It all ties back to the growth of the N.C. Research Campus and Kannapolis as a whole.”
Eric Dearmon, member of the Kannapolis Education Foundation Board of Directors, added, “We want to promote partnerships between the schools and the campus, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. My hope is that there will be many more of these programs and projects jointly gone into over the coming years to introduce our young people to the sciences.”