High school students and their teachers
logged lots of lab hours on the Homewood
campus as part of the IGM’s MGBR summer
September 2011--With the click of a slide, Kenwood High School senior Gatheru Gitau concludes his final presentation to the science teachers and fellow students with whom he has spent a dozen long summer days in a Johns Hopkins lab, analyzing duckweed genes: His parting words do not describe his gels (which, by the way, display lovely bands), nor are they peppered with nucleotide data. Rather, they make up an endorsement that’s as genuine as it is tongue-in-cheek: “Dr. Kirby for President!”
Flattered though he is by Gitau’s sentiment—and the heartfelt applause it generates from the crowd gathered in the Mudd Hall auditorium on the Hopkins Homewood campus—Professor Kirby Smith, Ph.D., is no presidential hopeful. This researcher in the McKusick-Nathans Institute for Genetic Medicine is more lab rat than political animal. But then again…it wasn’t all that long ago that he defined his life’s work much more narrowly than he does today.
“I used to be the kind of scientist who’d insist my work was confined to the lab, and that it was not my job to explain, interact or educate outside of professional training,” says Smith.
These days, he not only evangelizes about the importance of outreach by scientists, but also practices what he preaches. As a co-director of the Johns Hopkins 2011 Molecular Biology and Genomics Research (MBGR) Summer Institute, Smith has spent countless hours with other IGM colleagues organizing and preparing for these past two weeks, during which they’ve been happily hanging out in lecture halls and labs with high school students and teachers.
The collective mission—to sequence the genome of one of the world’s smallest flowering aquatic plants—is huge, requiring lots of individual efforts at Hopkins and elsewhere.
As one of two satellite sites of the Waksman Student Scholars Program developed 18 years ago at Rutgers University, Hopkins’ MBGR (along with a new sister program in Austin, Texas) receives funding from the National Science Foundation to teach genuine molecular biology discovery in the classroom. Now in its third year here in Baltimore, MBGR Hopkins kicked off in August with an intensive on-campus session for select teacher-student teams; 35 participants in all from 15 area high schools. Afterward, the teams take the lessons learned back to their respective schools, where they will draw dozens of others into the ongoing duckweed DNA research project via science clubs and classes.
The course will conclude at the end of the school year with a poster session presented by the teams. Because it’s unlikely that the entire duckweed gene repertoire will have been sequenced by that time and, not incidentally, because NSF funding is in place for another two years, the MBGR faculty team is looking forward to continued outreach opportunities with even more area high schools.
Directing the course is Forrest Spencer, Ph.D., an IGM associate professor in the departments of medicine and molecular biology. Cheryl Warren, Ph.D., also of the IGM, serves as laboratory coordinator for the summer institute and for school support throughout the academic year. Towson High School senior Diana Reighart assisted the IGM staff by serving as a student scholar instructor.
Had Smith not been exposed to the Waksman Student Scholars Program at Rutgers—friend and colleague Bill Sofer invited him some years ago to lecture about his real work, which involves investigating the genetic basis for phenotypic variability of inherited metabolic diseases—it never would have occurred to him to spend precious time engaging teenagers, of all people, in science, much less develop a progeny program at Hopkins.
Smith lays at least partial blame for a scientifically illiterate populace on researchers who, unlike him, haven’t budged in their refusal to reach out to the masses. He and Spencer agree that the best way to share the wonders, challenges and methods of modern molecular genetics with others—namely high school teachers and their students—is to let them experience it for themselves. The focus of MBGR Hopkins is authentic research and hands-on science; not pseudo-experiments with readymade conclusions, but the kind that yield honest-to-goodness Aha! discoveries and even opportunities for publication.
MBGR primarily is a professional development program for teachers, Spencer says, explaining that an emphasis on student involvement during the summer institute segment helps to ensure the continuation of the course throughout the year back at the respective high schools.
“I find it so exciting to watch them as they begin to understand they are responsible for finding out something that is truly novel,” she adds, “for making statements about what the truth is and putting it out there for other people to use. They work as investigators and get reviewed along the way. The course is organized around the fact that each participant has ownership over his or her discovery, and can publish it.”
Like Smith, Spencer also remembers feeling like her own research was all-consuming and that she didn’t have time to judge her kids’ science fairs, much less devote to long term commitments like MBGR.
“But I gradually came to care as much about outreach as I do about what I’m doing in the lab,” she concedes. “If researchers want what we do to be valued appropriately, or the way we think it should be valued, then we have to realize that the consumers of what it is we produce are everybody; and everybody is not getting the information they need about what we do.”
Before assuming the role as principle organizer of MBGR, Spencer participated in an American Society of Human Genetics program that partnered high school teachers with geneticists; the mission was to make an intervention that would address a common misconception in the classroom.
The Kenwood High School
contingent at MGBR included
Gatheru Gitau, senior,
(standing in back) and Roni
Cook, junior (seated). Not
pictured is the pair’s
biology teacher, Alison Meier.
“My eyes just popped open when I realized that these students’ biology experiences in high school would leave them ill prepared to deal with complex medical and environmental issues that are only going to get more complex in the coming decades as they become adults.
“That’s why at least some scientists need to be doing outreach wholeheartedly and really vigorously. I realized it is hard to do this well in ‘spare time’—there’s a learning curve to figuring out how to communicate and what a good program is, and how to deliver something that’s useful. For most of us, that takes more than a casual brush.”
Gatheru Gitau, who has his sights set on MIT, where he hopes to major in either math or neurobiology after he graduates in June from Kenwood High, is attending MBGR with Alison Maier, a 25-year-old international baccalaureate biology teacher who describes herself as “very research-oriented.”
“I think it’s important for my students to be in the lab so they know what true science is,” she says. “This is also fascinating for me, intellectually, as a teacher. It’s a great opportunity for all of us to conduct cutting-edge research on duckweed, which has the potential to be used as a biofuel and for bioremediation. If we can sequence its genome, then we can . . . maybe manipulate it as a source of biofuel.”
Addtional Information on MBGR:
The MBGR Research Project
MBGR participants are working with Wolffia australiana, a species of duckweed, an aquatic plant. The project begins using a cDNA library in which duckweed genes have been cloned into bacterial vectors. Each student or teacher isolates one or more clones that may contain an insert of a Wolffia cDNA. Students then determine the size of the cDNA insert by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and restriction digestion followed by agarose gel electrophoresis. Then the DNA samples are sequenced. Most of the research will involve computer analysis of this sequence using the tools of bioinformatics. A goal for the project is for each participant to be able to publish DNA sequences in the GenBank DNA Sequence Database (at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
To make the summer institute possible, IGM collaborated with the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biology, notably Chair Beverly Wendland and senior lecturer Carolyn Norris. The physics department and Center for Talented Youth loaned laptop computers to program participants.
Why Duckweed DNA?
At some point in its lifecycle, Duckweed produces about 75 percent of its dry body weight in starch, making it a great source of energy that’s under investigation for its potential not only as a biofuel but also as a food for livestock and for water purification uses, explains Kirby Smith, co-director of Hopkins MBGR: “It’s an important organism that’s long been regarded as little more than a pesky aquatic weed. Not very much is known about it at the genetic or molecular level. That’s what this group is trying to investigate. They’re actually finding out things that could be of great use. We’re helping high school teachers and their students to learn discovery-based science with a purpose.”