Students Consider a New Future at Science Day

12 November 2012
Published in Science and Society
Written by  Kim Schuske
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On Saturday, hundreds of high school students got their first taste of being on a college campus, and heard about scientific research that they could one day take part in.  (Katie Basham contributed to this story)

With a shout out, the 24th annual University of Utah Science Day began. The event aims to recruit students to the University and expose them to scientific research. High school students participated in workshops and demonstrations to stir up interest in careers in science, math, and engineering. Hundreds of students showed up, some from as far away as California, Nevada, and Idaho.

"A lot of these science minded students are isolated, you know. Particularly in the rural areas," says Pierre Sokolsky, dean of the college of Science and professor of physics. "They don't have a lot of friends that are interested in science and you bring them out here and all of a sudden they look around and there's like 700 people that are really excited about what they're excited about. That's transforming."

Sokolsky says another goal of science day is to reach out to students who might not otherwise pursue a degree in science. To do that, the University put together 29 workshops and demonstrations ranging from research on whales to how to make objects invisible.

"We have such a strong need for more scientists and engineers, that the growth is going to have to come from that area of kids who aren't quite sure they could do it. And we want to excite their imaginations," says Sokolsky.

About forty students chose to listen to Kirk Ririe, co-founder and CEO of Biofire Diagnostics. He says he went from being kind of a mad bomber kid in rural Idaho, to being a real hardcore biochemistry nerd. Leaving bombs and rockets behind, Ririe is now using his creativity and basic science knowledge to tackle tough medical problems. And that, he told the students, is to figure out what bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi are trying to attack us.

"All of these different viruses and bacteria cause basically the same kind of symptoms. Fever, runny nose, headache, etc."

Ririe says there is a huge need for hospitals to diagnose which of 20 different viruses and bacteria can cause respiratory infections and flu-like symptoms. From experience, he knows how important it is to quickly identify the cause of an infection.

"My uncle went in for relatively routine heart bypass surgery and was dead of an infection the next week. And as the testing cycle went around and around it was basically too late after they got him on the right antibiotic, and he went downhill." Ririe adds, "finding out what patients are infected with can inform treatment and lead to prompt and timely treatment and really save lives."

This is why BioFire Diagnostics, formerly Idaho Technologies, is developing tools right here in Utah to help doctors diagnose patients with infectious diseases quickly. The test only takes an hour compared to days using current testing systems. Last year they launched FilmArray. The 50-thousand dollar machine and individual use test kits are the first of it's kind with FDA approval.

"It's not like we're the only company working on this. The medical need has been there for a long time," says Ririe. "So there are a lot of companies that are aimed at this same market. But the combination of a comprehensive test, that is really easy to use that a hospital lab can run in house, that just hasn't been available until now.

BioFire Diagnostics isn't stopping with the flu. Similar testing platforms for blood infections, meningitis, and gastrointestinal infections are in the pipeline.

Surprisingly, it was a question about regulations a company like BioFire faces from the FDA that brought on one of the biggest discussion by the students. To get the system on the market, it took close to 60-million dollars and multiple clinical trials. One student asked if BioFire was planning to get approval for their future tests in Europe first. That question didn't surprise Ririe.

"Perhaps at first blush, you wouldn't think that you would get the most insightful comments from high school kids," says Ririe. "It is awesome. High school students get this story like that [snaps fingers]. And they're immediately thinking twenty years down the future. And they have no concept of what the regulatory hurdles might be or the technical hurdles might be, but they see the possibilities."

Jessi Poulson, a senior from Herriman High School, asked if the test could be used in veterinary medicine. Ririe told her eventually it could.

"I found it really interesting. Like I can see how it would really benefit the world and other different medical fields to get this machine. This is pretty cool."

Jessie wants to be a vet and says she came to Science Day because she really likes science and thought it would be a good way to get informed and see what's out there. She's looking at multiple schools, not just the University of Utah. Maybe Saturday's Science Day will help her make up her mind.

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