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UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering

Sparking interest in engineering and science

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Bioengineering professor Christian Metallo uses a candle to explain how metabolism works to a class of high school students. 

Bioengineers share knowledge with students at San Ysidro High School

San Diego, Calif., June 29, 2016 -- Bioengineering professor Christian Metallo stands in front of 35 students at San Ysidro High School. He lights a candle. What is burning, he asks? No, it’s not the wick, as you might think. It is actually the wax, a biological molecule—basically fat, which becomes energy—heat and light—when it burns. This is essentially the same process that powers human metabolism, during which mitochondria “burn” glucose and fat using oxygen and turn them into water, carbon dioxide and ATP.

Metallo’s talk was part of a collaboration between the University of California, San Diego and the San Diego Unified School District to expose students to the research that takes place on university campuses through hands-on activities and lectures. Metallo and his team spent a week on the San Ysidro High campus during spring quarter, exposing to concepts related to his research more than 140 students in five classes.

“It allows our students to get a better idea of what is going on in university science labs,” said Carrie Northum, a medical chemistry and chemistry teacher at San Ysidro High.

She teaches the school’s medical chemistry classes, which are part of a partnership between San Diego Unified and UC San Diego Health Sciences. Metallo joined the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego in 2011 and applies systems biology and engineering approaches to study metabolism, with a focus on understanding how metabolic dysfunction contributes to diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

“This is a learning experience for me,” Metallo said. “I am getting a better perspective on what our students know when they start off as undergraduates. On the other hand, by exposing students to some of these more advanced concepts we hope to stimulate interest in science and engineering. Back in high school, I never even heard the term ‘bioengineering’ or knew what it meant.”

On a recent morning, the 35 students in Northum’s medical chemistry class were taking part in a hands-on activity put together by Metallo’s team. Their job was to inoculate a bacterial culture and “watch” it consume sugar by measuring changes in glucose as time passed. After inoculating the cultures, Metallo and his team took students to a device designed to agitate the cultures and speed up the growth of the cells. Students then used glucose meters, the same ones used by diabetics to monitor blood glucose at home, to measure glucose levels and record the results.

Northum said she hoped the experience would rectify some of the misconceptions that students might have about what scientists look like. She also hoped it would help them decide majors and careers. And it seemed to be working.

“This is a really good opportunity to see what college classes are about,” said Denice Chavarria, 17. She was gingerly holding a pipette to inoculate a bacterial culture. Ricardo Cota, 16, was standing next to her and chimed in: “We’re learning how to mix chemistry and biotechnology to make them one. If the UC San Diego researchers weren’t here, we’d be a lot more confused.”


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Students inoculated a bacterial culture and “watched” it consume sugar by measuring changes in glucose as time passed.




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Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899