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Mobile laboratory brings science to NM high school students

A Howard Hughes Medical Institute program at NMSU is sending science on a trip around the state, and seeing some stellar results so far.

Christin Slaughter, center, works on the Genotype-PTC lab activity with biology students at Gadsden High School. The activities are part of the Mobile Molecular Biology Outreach Program from the NMSU Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Photo courtesy Christin Slaughter)

The Mobile Molecular Biology Lab is an outreach program in the Department of Biology. The program takes contemporary biology research techniques to high school classrooms across the state and gives students an opportunity to get hands-on experience with state-of-the-art lab equipment.

"Observations have been made that high schools were strapped for funding, including that for equipment," program administrator Tonia Lane said. "The idea was to bring access to this technology by traveling from high school to high school and showcasing these activities."

Part of these activities include a Phenotype-Genotype-PTC lab in which students are able to isolate their own DNA. Students have the resources to determine their genotype by using research techniques including PCR (polymerase chain reaction) amplification, restriction enzyme digestion and gel electrophoresis, three common methods used on popular television shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

"The students have responded really well because they are learning something about themselves," Lane said. "The teachers like it too, they always invite us back."

There are three different five-day labs that are in practice right now, which keep Program Facilitator Christin Slaughter fairly busy. Each lab is designated for a specific classroom level. The PTC lab is for lower level courses, the eyeless fruit fly lab, a population genetics activity, is for honors or Advanced Placement courses and a forensics lab is offered for those students who have a forensics elective course.

Slaughter described the forensics lab as an NMSU "cold case." It uses evidence based on a Hot Pocket-theft incident that happened in a sorority house a few years ago.

"I frame the lab around practicing the Scientific Method which focuses more on developing hypotheses and then testing those hypotheses with molecular tools," Slaughter said.

Lane said their goal is to generate interest in life science and research, and make it accessible to New Mexico students, an effort achieved by Slaughter's mobility. She takes these experiments, techniques and opportunities all across New Mexico, sometimes as far as Gallup, Crownpoint or Farmington.

Slaughter said she works with an average of 500 students per semester, which allows her to see a two-fold benefit from what she does.

"Because I'm in the classroom, the direct benefit is seeing these kids, who are so obviously engaged, take science from something that is so isolating to something that is inclusive - that they can be a part of," Slaughter said, adding that the indirect benefit is seeing students after a lab activity. "I didn't realize I was making an impact on students until I saw them on [the NMSU] campus and they approach me to say they are now taking biology classes. It's a cool thing to be a part of."

In an effort to expand the program, facilitators put on workshops for the high school science teachers to get acquainted with the technology and to get trained and certified with the equipment.

"This is so they're comfortable without our technology in the classroom," Lane said. "Teachers who are familiar with molecular biology just need access to the equipment."

By engaging the teachers, the program is able to become even more effective long after Slaughter has left the laboratory.

"To be in these classrooms, you have to have a strong background in biology, not just regurgitating information," Slaughter said. "When a teacher is invested, it gets students excited. They can sense that honesty."

The outreach program is made possible by a research grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Undergraduate Science Education Program. The four-year, $1.5 million grant began in September 2006. A proposal for renewal has been submitted and the university will be notified in May on whether the grant will be re-funded. Lane said outreach is just one component of the grant as it is being used for undergraduate research programs as well.

For more information on the program visit http://biology-web.nmsu.edu/hhmi-program/MobileLab.html.