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News / 06.2.08

Students discover what's under their beds

By Haley Bridger, Communications
Outreach logo
Image by Bang Wong, Broad Communications

For fifteen high school sophomores, May 17 was a big day. At lunchtime, they sat together in a conference room at the Broad, munching on sandwiches and swapping stories about weekend plans and high school classes. But amid the exchange of comments about favorite foods and complaints about upcoming French tests, there was an air of nervousness and eager anticipation. That afternoon, they would be presenting the work that had occupied their Saturday afternoons every other weekend since January. After learning to isolate DNA from microbes, run gels, and create phylogenetic trees, the students faced the ultimate challenge: explaining their research projects to an audience that included not only Broad scientists but also their parents and teachers.

This spring's group of young scientists was the second to participate in a semester-long research project offered through the Broad's Educational Outreach Program. In the fall, fourteen high school seniors joined Broad staff to isolate microbes from the environment and identify them by sequencing their DNA, working on the same project as this spring's students. To meet the student researchers who participated in these two programs, please visit the fall 2007 and spring 2008 websites.

Students prepare samples
Students prepare samples in the Broad's outreach lab
Photo by Kate MacSwain

These fall and spring Saturday programs are part of the Broad's Educational Outreach Program, which also includes summer internships and field trips to the Broad for high school students, and science seminars for high school teachers. Megan Rokop directs the Educational Outreach Program at the Broad. "The goals are the same for all areas of our program: to make science fun and exciting," said Rokop. "Science isn't reading a textbook and memorizing. It's being at a laboratory bench and discovering things. It's hands-on and all about investigating the things that interest you."

The students in the semester-long program complete research projects to explore the microscopic world around them. All of the students' projects center around identifying a microbe they isolate from the environment by sequencing part of its DNA, but each student gets to pick the place in which to find their organism of choice. This year, they swabbed rock climbing shoes, cutting boards, subway handrails, dog toys, the floor under their bed, and more in order to find microbes. Getting to choose the environmental site to sample makes the experiment more personal. "They take ownership of the microbe and discover what's around them," said Rokop.

The students see their projects through from swabbing an everyday surface at the beginning to presenting their findings at the end. Along the way, they receive plenty of help from Rokop, outreach coordinator Kate MacSwain, and Scituate middle school science teacher Allison Martino. They also get some personal guidance from Broad researchers. "During the semester, Broad scientists volunteer to lead the students on lab tours or chat with them over tea and cookies about their careers," said Rokop. "This gives the students a chance to meet real world scientists and see science as a profession." This year, 18 Broad scientists, including Eric Lander, also volunteered their time to attend the students' final presentations.

Working side by side at lab benches, these fifteen students, who come from schools throughout the greater Boston area, have a unique opportunity to get to know each other. Although the students may be quiet and serious at first, over the weeks of the semester, they become more relaxed around one another as they share lab materials and discoveries. On their last day of the semester-long project, the students present their findings together as a group. The students who worked together in the fall still stay in touch with one another. They have gotten together since the end of the program and even have their own Facebook group.

As this spring's students stood before the audience in an eclectic assortment of sneakers, ironed shirts, and the occasional tie, they explained their scientific work through professional-grade Powerpoint presentations. Pronouncing words like "Pseudomonas fluorescens" and "sporulating" with ease, the students made it easy for audience members to forget that these were high school sophomores.

"High school students will do what's expected of them," said Rokop. "If you expect them to learn information about basic biology, then they'll do just that. But if you expect them to complete a research project that spans the fields of microbiology, molecular biology, and genomics, it's amazing what they will be able to accomplish."