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Lab Work Demystifies DNA

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Cutting, manipulating, and matching DNA molecules usually is the work of forensic scientists -- not middle school and high school students. However, a program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook allows students to spend a day conducting experiments. Included: Comments from students and teachers about the program.


Image Four suspects have surfaced in the murder of a young woman. DNA has been found at the murder scene -- but whose is it?

That scenario could be straight out of a news story, but it was playing out in a laboratory at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. The murder mystery was a forensics-laboratory project for 12 high school students from Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, New York. Using current technology, the students cut DNA samples with enzymes to help determine which of the four samples matched the one at "the crime scene."

The forensics lab was one of two projects students worked on during their daylong visit to the university. In the second project, they transformed bacteria by introducing a foreign type of DNA into it. All the Ward Melville students were enrolled in a microbiology course at their high school.

The almost ten-year-old program at Stony Brook, called the Biotechnology Teaching Laboratory, attracted more than 3,000 middle and high school students this year, according to Dr. David Bynum, the project director. Most of the students are from Long Island, New York, where the university is located, but some came from New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, he says.

"This exposes them to doing real lab work they can't do in a 40-minute period," says Judy Nimmo, an administrator with SUNY Stony Brook's department of biochemistry and cell biology.

The university and a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Biological Sciences Education program support the lab program. The institute is a not-for-profit medical research organization that funds research projects and has a number of grant programs. The Long Island Group About Science Education, which is a consortium consisting of SUNY Stony Brook, two community colleges, two high schools, and representatives of the biotechnology industry, oversees the programming.

Stony Brook also works closely with ten school districts on Long Island that have limited resources. Funding from the Hughes Institute pays the fees for students from the partner districts to attend the labs and pays for some students to attend a summer research program at the university.

The institute gave grants to Stony Brook in 1994 and 1998 for outreach programs and built six labs and three preparation rooms at the college, according to Maria Koszalka, associate program officer for the institute's undergraduate biological sciences education program. The Stony Brook program fits the Hughes Institute's mission of recruiting and retaining young scientists, particularly women and minorities, interested in research careers, Koszalka said. The institute also promotes science literacy, she adds.

DEMYSTIFYING DNA

The goal of the Stony Brook program is to introduce students to aspects of biotechnology and molecular biology as early as middle school, Bynum says. "Genetic engineering and research will be common among this generation," he notes. "But they have little knowledge about it. To see your own DNA -- that's fascinating."

Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, carries all the genetic material for a cell. DNA can be isolated from bodily fluids and cell samples. Among the most publicized ways DNA currently is being used is in criminal investigations.

As the number of fields in which DNA is used continues to grow, so do ethical questions about its applications. It is important that people be informed about those issues, Bynum says. As part of the program, students discuss such topics as who has the right to access DNA information, the implications of testing people's DNA, and the pros and cons of genetically modifying food, explains Joan Kiely, the laboratory director and one of the instructors. "It [DNA research] is in everything now: sports, health care, criminal justice, and food production."

Students learn that manipulating DNA actually is simple, Kiely tells Education World. "This demystifies it," she says of the lab. Some students who came for the day program wrote in surveys that although they really did not understand DNA before, now they want to learn more about it, Kiely adds.


STATE OF THE ART RESEARCH

Image The chance to work in a university laboratory is especially valuable for students from less affluent districts, according to Bynum. "We try to target districts [that have] limited resources; there is a lot of talent out there that doesn't get the opportunity to do these things."

Many students who attend the program have not had the experience of setting up lab equipment, and they get a chance to use problem-solving skills, Kiely says. "They challenge themselves because they have to do things properly. As soon as they get comfortable, they want to work it out themselves."

SOLVING THE CRIME

As part of the forensics lab, students cut DNA samples with enzymes because, Kiely says, it is easier to spot differences in smaller pieces of the molecules. Students used devices called pipettes to transfer the DNA to a solution. One student, David, 16, a junior, says the Stony Brook lab makes his high-school lessons easier to understand. "In class, you can talk about cutting DNA but you can't actually do it."

Using the equipment and doing the analysis also is helpful, says London, 17, a senior who plans to study nursing. "We won't get a chance to do something like this at school."

Todd Kettler, the students' teacher, says he enjoys the visits to Stony Brook because he can observe another instructor and his students can use sophisticated equipment. "It's nice for them to get into a real lab," Kettler says. "And it's nice for them to see a college campus. "

For some schools, the labs have inspired broader changes. Maryann Librizzi, head of the science department at Brentwood High School, one of Stony Brook's partner schools, says the association with the college prompted Brentwood administrators to open their own biotechnology lab and offer their own biotechnology course. Several of the school's teachers were trained by Stony Brook staff members to teach the course, Librizzi comments. "This is the wave of the future," she says of biotechnology.

In addition to the lab program, Stony Brook also offers two summer programs in biotechnology research for high school students. Bynum says he has seen some of the alumni of those programs go on to study biology in college. Even students who don't major in science have become more informed about a critical societal issue. "The net influence will be positive for young people," Bynum maintains.



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