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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 7, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 33
First Person: Engaging the Next Generation of Would-Be Scientists

Bryan Bishe, a senior technician in the Chakravarti lab, shows off his DNA model.
Photo by Courtesy of Betty Doan

By Betty Doan
Special to The Gazette

One afternoon in April, 19 students from Murray Hill Middle School in Laurel, Md., visited the laboratory of Aravinda Chakravarti in the School of Medicine's McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. Through a grant provided by Kaiser Permanente, their teacher, Amanda Brewer, runs a weekly after-school science activity club and plans occasional visits to various health care settings to give her students some exposure to the health sciences. The trips are designed to encourage them to choose health science careers. For many, this trip was their first visit to a university, and for more it was their first visit to a research laboratory.

As hosts, our mission was simple: to teach genetics to middle school students in a way that was fun. Our two hours was planned to the minute: first, greetings by David Valle, director of the institute; second, a short slide show about the basic principles of DNA and heredity; third, a DNA model building exercise; fourth, a tour of the lab and its robotics equipment; and then, the grand finale, a hands-on activity to make DNA from strawberries. Ambitious, yes, but it was designed to be high-packed to meet the high expectations of today's young students.

Our initial meeting with the students found them seemingly more excited to be out of school than in a new environment. No matter how much we tried to engage them, the prejudices that most kids have about science were evident. When Dr. Valle asked if any were excited to learn science, many said no, adding that biology was boring. Even snacks did not help.

We were up for a big challenge. Yet, with the slide show on heredity and discussions of real examples of genetic traits like tongue rolling, they developed a glimmer of interest as they started to examine themselves for these traits. This was a good start.

Next up: making a DNA model from candy. Using two strands of Twizzlers and some gumdrops of different colors, they were to set up the DNA helix, first building a ladderlike structure with two gumdrops stuck together in specific color combinations to form each rung. Many preferred eating their bases to putting them together. But once the first student raised and twisted his finished ladder and the model of the double helical structure of DNA formed before their eyes, the others rushed to finish their own DNA models. As they were all proudly modeling their creations, I noted to one student, Desmond Sessomes, "Hey, you have a lot of mutations in your DNA." After a few moments, he shouted, "I have a cancer!" Not many people would be so excited to have uttered those words, nor would I have been pleased to hear such words from a child, but it was true: He did have a model of a cancerous DNA. And in a few moments, it was thoroughly enjoyed and resting soundly in his stomach.

Tykia Harper, a student from Murray Hill Middle School in Laurel, Md., isolates DNA from strawberries.
Photo by Courtesy of Betty Doan

After the students ate their DNA, they toured the lab to see how we conduct genetic research using robotic- and microchip-based technologies. Working off their great excitement from seeing robots in action, they were ready to conduct their own experiment — isolating DNA from strawberries. Donning gloves, they mashed the strawberries to separate the cells and then added a mixture of dishwashing detergent and salt to break them open. As they slowly poured ice-cold rubbing alcohol into their test tubes to precipitate the DNA, they watched in awe as a stringy white substance started to form before their eyes. Shouts of "Is that the DNA?" "Where is my DNA?" "Cool!" were heard throughout the lab. Some students were so excited that they asked if they could keep their tubes to show their moms.

Soon they were gone from the lab, leaving behind an aroma of strawberries and detergent as a reminder of our day together.

Those of us working as researchers at Hopkins strive to be the best at what we do, to be at the forefront of the research in our fields and to be well recognized for our achievements. We appreciate the value of a long-term time commitment, as many careers are built on decades of work. However, we often neglect what I believe is our responsibility to provide opportunities to the young. Too often, social and economic situations will be barriers to opportunities for some young students, but even more damaging is the disconnect between what is taught in schools and what one can do professionally.

Students who think that science is boring will quickly close the door to potential new exposures to the field. Of course, sometimes our work is boring and mundane, but it is the intellectual curiosity it generates that makes it interesting — and that often cannot be taught through books but instead is better shown. Regardless of the work that we do, unless we can teach that work to others — making it interesting to those not in the field — we lessen our impact on our community. As long as there is an expectation that we will invest our time in research that may take years to conduct, there should be an expectation that we will invest our time in promoting our fields to those younger students who will be the future researchers. Many of these interactions between academic institutions and public schools do currently exist, but not enough. We constantly must find new, creative ways to increase such opportunities.

By the end of the students' visit, quite a number of them had claimed interest in pursuing science — a stark contrast to their initial responses. Even if none become genetic researchers, they will have gained a better understanding and appreciation of genetics and the work we do.

"I thought scientists just did a bunch of math and measuring, but they get to do fun things, too," said Tina Howard. "I hope I can come back soon."

As Daniel Nathans, one of our institute's namesakes, said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "I am struck by the good fortune that came my way. Throughout my schooling, there was an abundance of opportunity and encouragement."

We in our lab hope that the few hours we shared with Amanda Brewer's students gave them opportunity to learn and encouragement to dream. And that some of them, at least, will join the next generation of scientists.

Editor's note: Betty Doan is a research fellow in the School of Medicine's McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine.


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