Grandparents and grandchildren explore basic cancer research at the McArdle Laboratory

Grandparents and grandchildren in lab coats performing lab work with researchers

On July 12-13, the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research in collaboration with the Institute for Molecular Virology (IMV) and Carbone Cancer Center welcomed 31 grandparents and their grandchildren into the lab to learn about fundamental cancer research techniques and concepts as part of the “Researching Cancer Cures” major for Grandparents University®, or GPU.

This experience was one of 25 different “majors” offered as part of GPU, a program that allows Wisconsin Alumni Association members to return to campus with their grandchildren to immerse themselves in the Badger experience and explore any one of a variety of topics over the course of a two-day major. GPU began at Wisconsin-Madison in 2001 and, over 17 years, has grown from 4 majors and 160 participants to 25 majors and >1,400 participants in 2018. Based on this success, similar programs have since been started at several other universities. GPU majors range from journalism to urban gardening to, of course, cancer biology.

“Researching Cancer Cures” provided grandparents and grandchildren with a taste of what it takes to be a cancer researcher. The first day’s session began with an introductory talk by McArdle director Dr. Paul Lambert. The attendees then donned personal protective equipment (PPE) including lab coats, goggles, and gloves, and then broke out into two different hands-on activities led by members of the Lambert lab. The first activity taught attendees the basics of tissue staining and microscopy, and showed them how to determine whether tissues are normal or cancerous. During the second activity, the grandparents and grandchildren received a primer on how to run a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to determine whether a gene is mutated.

The second day’s session was hosted at Bock Laboratories in the Institute for Molecular Virology (IMV), and was led by McArdle Associate Professor Dr. Nathan Sherer and Biochemistry Professor Dr. Ann Palmenberg. In the IMV, grandparents and grandkids explored how to detect and study viruses and the roles they play in cancers. Activities included hunting for virus sequences, exploring how to target viruses with antiviral drugs and vaccines, and learning how to detect otherwise invisible viruses using viral growth assays and fluorescence microscopy.

Dr. Sherer served as “Dean” of the “Researching Cancer Cures” major, with organizational help from Drs. Megan Spurgeon, Marchel Hill, and Laraine Zimdars. This was the 4th year that McArdle and the IMV have hosted a GPU major.

Dr. Sherer notes, “”Researching Cancer Cures” has been a really great outreach and education event for McArdle, the IMV, and Carbone. We receive great feedback from the grandparents and grandkids alike. They enjoy learning about cancer and viruses, love the activities and using the cutting-edge facilities at WIMR and Bock, and think it’s an amazing treat to get to interact directly with the incredible students, post-docs, and staff donating their brains and talents to make this a special event. It’s also really fun and rewarding for us – a chance to give back in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, and a valuable opportunity to convey the crucial role basic cancer research plays in developing tomorrow’s needed cures.”