Opening Doors and Minds: Introducing Students to Science, Medicine and Research

Our first guest post of the year is written by to University of Minnesota students, Jessi Coryell and Kyle Walburg, and their Program Director, Prof. Richard Bianco. This post spells out the importance of laboratory outreach – something Speaking of Research is a great supporter of. The better informed the next generation is about animal research, the less likely they will become objectors to this important research tool.

In 1999, the Animal Liberation Front broke into 12 research labs at the University of Minnesota, causing two million dollars in damages, compromising laboratory equipment and destroying a decade’s worth of research data on Alzheimer’s and cancer vaccines. Animals that had been “liberated” from the ransacked labs were found frozen or half-eaten in a nearby field (Bell, 2007).

This is not an isolated event. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has caused millions of dollars in damage to labs, set back medical advancements, and garnered both positive and negative attention. Depending on your viewpoint, animal rights groups can be seen as either revolutionary, freeing animals from the terrors of medical research, or as radical terrorist groups, with little regard for medical advancement or human welfare.

People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is an international organization which has given money to individuals who have carried out illegal actions in the name of the Animal Liberation Front. PETA is best known for its ad campaigns enlisting celebrities opposing the use of fur. Their activities reach much further. In a single year PETA spent almost $11 million on outreach and education programs (PETA, 2011). Using pamphlets and magazines loaded with puzzles, quizzes, and stickers, PETA influences children with bright colors and biased images depicting use of animals in science as inhumane. By the time high school or college students have the opportunity to create their own ideas about medical research using animals they have already been influenced by these “education” programs. Children and young adults often don’t understand the benefits of medical research. The young and healthy can have a hard time grasping the future personal benefit of a new heart valve that resists calcification. If our future leaders maintain a negative view of medical research, it could halt the amazing progress in treating disease in both animals and humans.

Today in the United States, barely 18% of graduating seniors are capable of performing at or above the expected proficiency level of science (National Math and Science Initiative, 2012) Overall, US students finished 25th in math and 17th in science in a ranking of 31 countries . On the collegiate level, the number of American scientists and engineers has declined by 20% (National Math and Science Initiative, 2012). These alarming statistics show the decline in student interest in science. While the causes of the decline in Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM) education are complex, a bias against medical research from some camps is a factor and it leaves students susceptible to PETA propaganda, factually incapable of refuting what they read.

Experimental Surgical Services (ESS) at the University of Minnesota facilitates a hands-on outreach program that is in support of medical research and has the ability to make science appealing to children and young adults. ESS is a preclinical research lab specializing in the testing of medical devices using animal models.

Students pick up instruments and learn a continuous suture
Students pick up instruments and learn a continuous suture

For twelve years the ESS outreach program has had two main goals: to combat misconceptions students may have about medical research using animals, and to expose students to science, medical research techniques and methodologies. Bringing groups of students into a secure facility enables them to see what happens behind laboratory doors. Hands-on stations allow students to observe science in action, hopefully sparking an interest in a field that they may not have previously considered. Even if these students choose not to pursue careers in science or medicine, they are still presented with an opportunity to experience medical research in a way they hadn’t before.

Since the tour program began, over 15,000 students have come through the lab. Most are high school students from anatomy classes; others include elementary school students, pre-medical student groups, veterinary technicians, midwives, industry professionals, and science-based summer camps. The tour can be modified depending on the age and interest of the tour groups. Groups generally come for hour-long time slots and rotate through four different tour stations, including echocardiography, surgery, anatomy and physiology of the heart, suture, laparoscopy/robotics, and animal facilities.

Tours are led mainly by ESS student employees who are undergraduates with an interest in pursuing medical or veterinary careers. ESS staff takes the outreach students through the tour stations with hands on demonstrations.

Echocardiography demonstration on human volunteer
Echocardiography demonstration on human volunteer

Echocardiograpy, visualizing technology

For the echocardiography station, a volunteer is requested for examination of the heart. The volunteer lies on the operating table while the employee describes how the ultrasound machine works, including the necessity of ultrasound gel and the importance of echocardiography in the evaluation of heart valves. Students view leaflet motion in the volunteer’s heart, their elbow joint, or their liver to show bile secretions. The students then have the opportunity to use the ultrasound probe themselves.

Live Surgery

At times, students are able to see surgical procedures, including cardiovascular and general surgery. They are allowed to stand around the operating table and ask questions regarding the procedure. A surgeon describes surgical technique, goals of the particular study, and anatomy and physiology of appropriate organs. Being exposed to these conditions is crucial in combating the image PETA paints of operating rooms in medical research laboratories. (It should be noted that no animals are used for the sole purpose of a tour demonstration.)

Hands on Tissue

The students experience the basics of intubation using a laryngoscope and an endotracheal tube and heart-lung blocks. The anatomical differences between the esophagus and trachea are described; the endotracheal tube is placed in the trachea and an ambulatory bag is used to inflate the lungs. Students are encouraged to touch the heart, feel the thickness of the aorta and locate the valves.

Heart-lung blocks are saved from euthanized animals from previous studies and used to teach anatomy and physiology.
Heart-lung blocks are saved from euthanized animals from previous studies and used to teach anatomy and physiology.

The suture station includes pig limbs, instruments, and suture set up on an operating room table. The students are instructed on proper instrument handling and guided through general suturing techniques. They are taught the continuous stitch or for more advanced groups, the mattress stitch. This station is often the most gratifying. By actually using instruments, students can feel like real doctors. If they have never considered a career in the medical field, this particular station can spark an interest.

Advanced Technology

ESS uses a da Vinci Surgical System (surgical robot) to train physicians on surgical procedures. For tours, a demo board that mimics a surgical site is set up under the robot arms. Tour students attempt to tie surgical knots or pick up rubber bands using only their fingertips to control the arms of the surgical robot. Students also explore using laparoscopic instruments. A model thoracic cavity complete with a chambered heart is used to demonstrate instrument and scope use. A piece of gauze hidden in a chamber of the heart becomes the target for the students to retrieve. Using a laparoscopic trainer, students attempt to rip open an alcohol prep pad using laproscopic instruments while watching their movements on a monitor. Students gain an appreciation of the many kinds of skill sets that are valuable for physicians.

Facility Tours

Tours of the animal facilities are a new addition to the tour agenda. Students are taken into animal housing and allowed to observe animal patients, some of which have undergone surgical procedures. The students witness for themselves adequate living spaces and the humane treatment of animals. This is also where an important dialogue on biomedical research ethics takes place. The importance of the animals that are utilized in the research process is discussed directly. It is an opportunity to point out that catastrophic events can be predicted before the valves are ever put into a human patient, many of which will be the parents or grandparents of these students.

The students get the opportunity to ask difficult questions at this stage. Often they ask why animals are euthanized after procedures are completed. The guide asks the students to evaluate the animals in front of them, often sheep. They are described as standing, eating, and drinking. Then they are asked to describe the health of the animal’s heart. The students will say that they can’t see it, but could use echocardiography as seen earlier in the tour to look at the valve. The final question is then posed: how does the valve look on the inside? Does it have a systemic effect on the rest of the organs? The students see that the only way to have a full picture of tested devices and their effect on the body is to euthanize the animal and perform a necropsy.

The animal facility section of the tour is important as it allows students to see first hand that the animals are kept humanely. The security threat of bringing students into a card access only facility and the occasional student fainting in the OR are the risks involved in this program. The outreach effort costs $50,000 yearly, and is privately funded. High schools from a six state area participate in this unique opportunity.

The tour program has received a strong showing of support from area students and teachers since its inception. Kjersten Welter, an anatomy teacher from a local high school commented on her students’ experiences within the program. “It takes what we have been studying and lets the students see some aspects of it first-hand. They get to talk with students and staff, they get to test out their own skills and view surgeries live. These are invaluable experiences that most people would not have access to. I repeatedly hear that it is by far their favorite fieldtrip ever, but my favorite stories are the ones when students come back and say that the fieldtrips and speakers we had in class were what had inspired them to really pursue a health care field.” Colleen Raasch, an anatomy teacher from another local high school shows the students’ perspective of the program. “My experience with the Experimental Surgical Services is one that students will never forget. The excitement on the bus ride home is like no other. Students are talking about ‘After that field trip, I’m going into the medical field’ or ‘when I go to the University of Minnesota next year, I am going to work at the ESS.’ It is all they talk about. Whether they go into medicine or ever work in the ESS lab is beside the point; the passion from the students is sparked by the phenomenal experience they just had.” These teachers and their students are showing that the outreach program is accomplishing exactly what it was designed to: they are experiencing medical research firsthand, and fostering a passion for science while doing it.

PETA leads a very successful program. Students are flooded with biased information made to look as believable as possible. They aren’t given the opportunity to make a decision about medical research using animals because often, they haven’t been exposed to what actually happens. When students are shown first-hand what happens in a medical research facility, their perception can be drastically altered. By employing hands-on activities and an open door policy, students can see how animals are treated, how anesthesia is used, and how animals are necessary for the advancement of medicine. Students are encouraged to ask questions and to challenge their minds. The limited and biased information that they were previously exposed to can be overcome with just an hour long tour. If these biased opinions are not challenged, students can mature into professionals with a viewpoint against medical research using animals that stands in the way of progress. Limiting the minds of our young adults will diminish the potential of what medicine is capable of developing in to, and will lessen the aptitude of those who are involved. If even a single student passes through the lab and becomes passionate about science and research, the outreach program has been successful in paving the way towards informed students, who are the future of science and medicine, to be on the right side of this issue.

Jessi Coryell and Kyle Walburg, and Prof. Richard Bianco

Bell, H. (2007). Of Mice and Medicine. Minnesota Medicine ,

National Math and Science Initiative. (2012). National Math and Science Initiative: Staying Competitive. Retrieved from National Math and Science Initiative:

National Math and Science Initiative. (2012). National Math and Science Initiative: Staying Competitive Brochure. Retrieved from National Math and Science Initiative:

PETA. (2011). PETA Financial Reports. Retrieved 2012, from PETA:

One thought on “Opening Doors and Minds: Introducing Students to Science, Medicine and Research

  1. The hands-on approach to public education taken by the Experimental Surgical Services at the University of Minnesota is inspiring. An outstanding commitment to public outreach!

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