Tilghman tells high school students of bright future in science

Nov. 2, 2001, 9:28 p.m.

On her first major trip as Princeton's president, Shirley M. Tilghman addressed high school students from three Los Angeles science magnet schools Thursday, telling the students of a great future in genetic research and medicine and encouraging them to continue their science studies.

Tilghman spoke to about 400 students from King-Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, Francisco Bravo High School and Van Nuys High School. All three schools have "medical magnet" programs featuring enriched math and science curricula and hands-on, work-study experiences at nearby medical centers.

"The 21st century is going to be a century for biology. It is going through a true scientific revolution," Tilghman told the students, who had gathered at the King-Drew auditorium. "The reason it's exciting is because we're finally beginning to understand the fundamental connection between biology and medicine."

A molecular biologist, Tilghman told the students how genetic research has been used to diagnose an array of diseases.

"When you go to university, you'll be studying the connection between genes and disease," Tilghman told the students. "Once you understand the genetic disposition toward disease, you'll be able to develop cures."

Tilghman both outlined the future of gene therapy and referred to the past, explaining that genetic-based medicine has had victories dating to the 1960s. In particular, she highlighted the success in diagnosing and treating phenylketonuria, a deficiency in processing the protein phenylalanine that can lead to mental retardation in early childhood if certain foods are consumed.

Although scientists have been less successful treating cystic fibrosis, a lung disorder that is one of the most common genetic diseases, Tilghman predicted that ongoing research will lead to a successful therapy. "Genes will be drugs, used for therapies. Doctors will prescribe them and ameliorate human suffering," Tilghman said.

The students rewarded Tilghman with a standing ovation at the end of her presentation. They then promptly peppered her with questions about genetic links to and treatments for anthrax, AIDS and scoliosis, as well as the potential misuse of an individual's genetic information.

King-Drew Principal J. Michelle Woods said Tilghman's talk helped the students make the connection between what they are learning in high school and what they might see and do in their professional lives. "Their interest, and the questions they asked, showed how much they have already learned," Woods said. "They made me proud."

Etinosa Agbonwaneten, 16, a junior at Francisco Bravo High, reads the New England Journal of Medicine and aspires to be a pediatrician. She believes Tilghman's speech will prove helpful in her college applications. "She really encouraged me to know more about DNA, AIDS and other genetic issues," Agbonwaneten said after the presentation.

Before her address, Tilghman met with principals and guidance counselors to answer their questions about the University. Rosemary Ndubuizu, 16, a senior at King-Drew, also attended that session and said that few of her fellow students apply to Princeton because of fear of rejection.

While most students from the three high schools attend college, a large majority remain in California, school district officials said. Woods suggested that her predominantly African-American student body may be reluctant to enter uncertain surroundings, or may believe that a Princeton education is unattainable. Tilghman acknowledged that it's not easy to get into Princeton, but that the University seeks and admits a diverse student body.

Ndubuizu, who wants to become a gynecologist, said she was encouraged by the meeting and planned to apply to Princeton. "I'm more compelled to take a risk," she said. "I'm going to take that leap and try."

During Tilghman's four-day visit to the west coast, she also met with alumni and others interested in the University.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601