How often do students enrolled in adult basic education programs get to look through high-tech microscopes in a bioengineering lab at one of the most prestigious private liberal arts colleges in the United States?
For ABE students taking a science elective at HCC's Adult Learning Center in Holyoke, such opportunities have become regular and routine.
Earlier this week, about 10 of them visited the Clark Science Center at Smith College in Northampton to examine live cancer cells.
The HCC students had just finished reading the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which documents the case of cancer patient Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, Lacks had cervical cells removed without her knowledge or permission. Those cells -- "HeLa" cells -- became the first immortal cell line, meaning they can be kept alive and grown in a culture.
In the years since, Lacks's cells have been used in cancer research, in vitro fertilization, the development of the polio vaccine, and more.
On Tuesday, to follow up on their classroom discussion, the students from HCC came face-to-face with the controversially obtained cells.
The examination of HeLa cells was part of a presentation about the behavior of cancer cells conducted by Smith grad student Allison Sirois and sophomore Sahar Aftab, as part of a program led by Tom Gralinski, Smith College science outreach coordinator, and Judith Wopereis, manager of the Center for Microscopy and Imaging.
Aliza Ansell, special programs coordinator at HCC's Adult Learning Center and teacher of the ALC science class, works with Gralinski to create themed presentations that complement what ALC students are studying. Her students make frequent field trips to the labs and science classrooms at Smith College.
The ALC science elective - and the field trips - are meant to educate these adult learners and inspire them to continue their studies beyond preparing to take their high school equivalency exam.
"Tonight is a follow-up on the plant and animal cells class," Wopereis said. "We knew they'd read the Henrietta Lacks book."
"It was just by chance that I'd obtained the HeLa cells for my own research," Sirois explained.
Sirois is investigating cancer diagnostics and therapeutics, but once the HeLa cells stopped expressing the protein she was studying, she put them back into storage.
"It was easy to thaw them and bring them down tonight," she said.
Sirois provided the HeLa cells and Wopereis prepared them for the ALC students' visit.
"Learning about something is nice, but it's better if we can provide some research experience," Wopereis said.
In addition, students were invited to tour Smith's labs, learning about cell storage and culturing.
Lacks suffered from adenocarcinoma, a rare form of cervical cancer. Students used inverted microscopes to view live tissue cultures of her cells, oval-shaped in a pale yellow stain.
"Henrietta's here!" Ansell whispered as ALC students bent over their microscopes, meeting in person the controversial, scientifically revolutionary material they'd been studying for months.
PHOTOS by HANNAH WAREHAM: (Left) Allison Sirois, a Smith College bioengineering grad student, talks to students from HCC's Adult Learning Center during a visit to Smith College. (Right) An HCC Adult Learning Center student looks at cancer cells under a microscope during a visit to Smith College.