DMU inspires high school STEM students

Yes, that’s an actual sheep’s brain in Katie Wilson’s hand.

A recent Tuesday found Katie Wilson, a junior at Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School, holding a sheep’s brain in the palm of her gloved hand. She points to parts of the specimen as she names them off.

“I’ve always really liked science, and this semester I’ve learned so much about the brain,” she says.

Wilson is a member of one of two groups of central Iowa high school students who have been working with DMU anatomy faculty. Both groups displayed their work to the 1,000-plus attendees, including Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, at the Governor’s 2018 Future Ready Iowa Summit, which brought together leaders from education, business, nonprofits, government and other sectors toward the goal of having all Iowans achieve education or training beyond high school by 2025. Wilson’s group is made up of high school juniors and seniors who take college anatomy and physiology or college genetics and microbiology courses taught by Kacia Cain, an instructor and longtime DMU collaborator at Central Campus, a regional academy of Des Moines Public Schools. The students applied to work with Muhammad Spocter, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy at DMU, for a program in which they explore brain structure, function and evolution of various creatures, from humans to dogs to Madagascar cockroaches.

Julie Meachen, Ph.D., (back row, left) and Susumu Tomiya, Ph.D., her DMU postdoctoral researcher (back row, right), with their Central Campus students show their research and specimens at the Governor’s Summit.

Another group of Central Campus students have been working with Julie Meachen, Ph.D., assistant professor of anatomy at DMU, to examine fossils and other specimens she helped excavate from Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming over several recent summers. The cave is a treasure trove of the remains of Pleistocene-era animals.

“I’m so impressed these faculty are willing to open their doors to our students,” Cain says. “That they take the time to do so is phenomenal.”

Spocter’s brain group has been sponsored in recent years by Kemin Industries Inc., a global manufacturer of ingredients for food, feed and health-related products. That came about when Brenda Fonseca, global technical services manager, invited Spocter to talk to her team about brain health. Now, in addition to learning about neuroanatomy, the students get to meet Kemin employees and apply for internships at the company.

Standing at right by their students are Brenda Fonseca, Kacia Cain and Muhammad Spocter, Ph.D.

“It’s been a great partnership and a way to lead high-performing students toward careers in biomedical sciences,” Fonseca says.

The high school students are equally jazzed about their interactions with DMU faculty and students.

“Dr. Spocter is awesome. He’s so willing to share his knowledge with us,” Wilson says. “He enthusiastically involves his graduate students, too. He makes learning about the brain fun and cool.”

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