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NMSU Mobile science lab racks up miles to spark interest in biology

Date: 04/01/2013

From Las Cruces to Belen to Roswell and back again, a science lab on wheels is making the rounds across the state.

A female student works in a laboratory.
Photo courtesy NMSU-HHMI program.

New Mexico State University's Mobile Molecular Biology Lab travels up to 10,000 miles a year, bringing technology and equipment to high school classrooms in Roswell, Farmington and Albuquerque to name a few. With the lab, students get hands-on experience participating in weeklong molecular genetics lab activities.

"We are trying to increase the students' access to science, and their interest in molecular biology and genetics," said Raena Cota, outreach scientist for the NMSU-Howard Hughes Medical Institute program in the College of Arts and Sciences. "One of the things that we talk a lot about is how molecular biology in general relates to real-life situations."

The lab is made possible by a four-year $1.8 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Initially awarded in 2006, the grant was renewed in 2010. The lab aims to engage both students and teachers with state-of-the-art technology and equipment free of charge.

During the initial visit, the outreach scientist will set up the lab and lead the activities. These activities are designed to help reach the New Mexico State Performance Standards and Benchmarks in the life sciences. The NMSU-HHMI Outreach Program also provides teachers with professional development support so that they can develop the skills to lead these activities themselves.

The mobile lab currently offers three genetic modules for the classrooms, with each taking four or five class periods to complete.

In the lab, Phenotypes to Genotypes - PTC Gene lab, students taste a bitter chemical to determine their phenotype. Then they predict their genotype from their phenotype using techniques such as DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction amplification, restriction enzyme digestion and gel electrophoresis.

Another lab is Phenotypes to Genotypes - Eyeless Fly and Molecular Forensics. In this activity, students use a fruit fly to explore the impact of a DNA mutation on the phenotype, specifically of the eye. Students first predict possible genotypes from observed phenotypes in a laboratory-bred population of flies. They then use molecular techniques to visualize the actual genotypes.

Molecular Forensics is the third lab. It asks students to act as forensic investigators using a "cold case" file from an actual crime committed on the NMSU campus. The laboratory techniques and discussion guide students through utilizing the scientific method. Students first form hypotheses about each suspect's DNA profile based on the relationship between suspect statements and predicted genotype. They then analyze the genetic data to evaluate the hypotheses.

This spring, a fourth lab will be piloted in classrooms around the state. The GMO Plant lab has students bring food items and produce from home to screen for the presence of genetic modification. The GMO Plant lab asks students to address misconceptions they may have about how GM foods are created. Students also evaluate the benefits and risks GM foods represent to human health, the environment and agricultural economics.

Cota said she noticed many students showing an interest in how molecular biology relates to television programs and popular music.

"We talk about "CSI," Cota said. "We talk about Maury Povich and the 'Who's your daddy?' shows. It is the sort of thing the public sees on a daily basis, but maybe don't understand the background behind the genetics or the forensics."

The most frequently-presented lab is the PTC Gene, according to Cota. She said it provides students with a clear example on how biology relates to real life. Students in this lab test their phenotype by tasting a bitter chemical on a tiny strip of PTC paper. Cota said a "strong taster" will react automatically, the "weak taster" will take longer to react, and "nontasters" do not taste the chemical at all.

"The students sometimes get overly dramatic about how strong the taste is," she said. "By the end of the lab they might think that they are a strong taster, but the actual genes they carry, may indicate they are a weak taster."

The lab is part of the HHMI's Precollege & College Science Education Program. The goal of the program is to broaden access to science by providing students with opportunities to be successful through outreach to high schools in under-served communities; through the enhancement of undergraduate biology courses; by providing students with undergraduate research opportunities; and by providing the next generation of faculty with training in scientific teaching.

"You can bring labs into the classroom, but not every lab where the students get to look at their own DNA," Cota said. "The level of what the students are learning is pretty high up."

For more information about the lab visit the website at http://hhmi.nmsu.edu/documents/faqs-mml.pdf. For more information about other NMSU-HHMI outreach efforts visit http://hhmi.nmsu.edu/outreach.html.

Written by Tonya Suther

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