Students Paige Organick, Candace Ireland and Yunjung Kim, l-r, put together a DNA double helix model.
SPOKANE, Wash. – Clients who won’t exercise stymie their personal trainers. Similarly, mice that dodge their duties are the most frustrating aspect of Sue Marsh’s work.

Marsh is an assistant professor in WSU Spokane’s nutrition and exercise physiology program. She and her assistant put mice on little treadmills to study how exercise and diet affect a heart’s ability to recover from a heart attack.

Like some people, many mice will do anything they can to avoid the treadmill.

“These animals are pretty smart,” she said to a group of 14 high school students gathered around the little black exercise machine. “They will do anything to get out of running. They’ll watch you and, when they think you’re not watching them, they’ll try to get out.”

Students learn of animal contributions

The students listening to Marsh are sophomores and juniors from Spokane-area high schools. Many are interested in science careers. They’re at the Riverpoint Campus for a two-week fellowship about biomedical research, sponsored by the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR).

The organization sponsors a similar program in Seattle. The fellowships are funded by the National Institutes of Health through the Science Education Partnership Awards Program.  

The lesson this day is about the role of animals in research. Students listened closely as Marsh explained the strict rules and procedures she must follow to get permission to use mice in her experiments. Despite her occasional exasperation with her animals, Marsh said they’re absolutely essential for researchers.

“We study the proteins in muscle cells that make up the heart,” Marsh wrote in a later email. “Even if there were enough human volunteers, one would never gain legal and regulatory approval to work with them. Mice are our next best model and we respect their contribution to science.”

Animal studies controversial, even among students
Sylvia Oliver, right, WSU Spokane director of Health Science Laboratory Operations and Education Outreach, discusses a sheep heart with students Cassidy Doohan and Hannah Hicks.

On a piece of butcher paper on one wall of the lab is an unfinished statement: “A person who conducts animal research is…” Students wrote answers such as “doing it for the good of others” and “someone who cares more about humans than animals.”
That range of opinions doesn’t surprise Joan Griswold, a former teacher and a NWABR curriculum designer. She said that because the use of animals is controversial, students rarely learn about or discuss it in school. That’s one reason why credible, responsible animal use gets such prominent play at the fellowship.

“I want students to know that research with animals can be done humanely,” she said. “I want them to learn that medicines come from research done by professionals who value the result as well as the animals we use.”

Field trips, career considerations

But the ethical debates are just part of the students’ fellowship. They’re taking field trips to WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman and Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center to see various research settings.

Fellowship attendee Kendra Winchester, from Spokane’s Shadle Park High School, has set her sights on a biomedical career.

“I’m interested in finding a cure for the big diseases,” like cancer, which she said has attacked many members of her family.

She’s planning to take a new year-long biomedical class being offered at Shadle Park next fall.

Teacher training upcoming

This summer, two Shadle teachers will join others from about a dozen Inland Northwest schools at the Riverpoint Campus to learn about how to teach the Project Lead the Way biomedical curriculum. WSU Spokane is one of the affiliate sites for the national STEM program.