Biotechnology is on a roll


Carefully extracting 20 microliters of the DNA sample with their micropipettes, the biology students at Westminster High School were earnestly searching for a way to save the American chestnut tree from a menacing fungus.

The fungus has nearly wiped out the American chestnut along the East Coast. While researchers at the University of Maryland have discovered they can disable the fungus by infecting it with a virus, they have not developed a way to do it efficiently. So far, they have been limited to infecting the fungi one by one.

The 10th-grade biology students at Westminster High were grappling with the problem by conducting DNA analysis aboard a state-of-the-art mobile biotechnology laboratory, called MdBioLab, in the school parking lot.

The mobile lab -- a $400,000 customized trailer equipped with all the amenities of a biotechnology research laboratory -- travels atop an 18-wheeler to high schools across the state, spending about a week at each location in an effort to spark interest in bioscience careers.

"A lot of kids feel they're too dumb for science," said Andrea Neuman, a molecular biologist from Gaithersburg who teaches aboard the lab. "We're trying to let all the kids know [they] can do the sciences."

She said most students are drawn to the opportunity to experiment with things they have seen on television programs such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The mobile lab "has exactly what you'd see in a real laboratory," Neuman said. "It's just on the back of a truck."

MdBioLab will visit two more Carroll high schools this month, Winters Mill and North Carroll. This semester, the mobile lab will have visited six of the area's seven high schools. After a winter break, the lab's staff is scheduled to visit schools in Baltimore City, and Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

The mobile lab is operated by MdBio Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Frederick, with funding from the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore and the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville. Fisher Scientific International Inc. and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health donated the laboratory equipment.

Aboard the mobile lab, students conduct experiments in DNA extraction, protein concentration, sickle-cell anemia, DNA crime-scene forensics and bacterial transformation. They also are conducting experiments in medical biotechnology, in which they study treatments for lactose intolerance, as well as the chestnut tree problem.

"Most of this stuff ... I didn't do in college, let alone high school," said Harold Kensinger of Waynesboro, Pa., the mobile lab's other instructor.

The lab provides the kind of learning opportunity that is beyond the range of many financially strapped school districts.

"We would not normally be able to do this. ... It's cost-prohibitive," said Bob Repsher, a 10th-grade biology teacher at Westminster High who said the school jumped at the offer to have the mobile lab visit. "This is giving [the students] an opportunity to do hands-on learning."

MdBioLab organizers, who started the program last year, estimate they will reach as many as 20,000 students and hundreds of teachers each year. Their goal of visiting every high school in the state could take about four years, Neuman said.

In addition to providing a learning environment for students, MdBioLab is also used after school for teacher training programs.

The mobile lab, which can accommodate up to 32 students, has work stations that line the truck's two longest walls.

On a recent morning, the students squeezed into an aisle space about 3 feet wide. Using micropipettes -- instruments used to measure very small quantities of liquid -- they prepared DNA samples to analyze, hoping to determine what scientists will need to do to save the American chestnut tree.

For many, the mobile lab provided a chance to put their hands on things they had only read about in textbooks.

"It's awesome. ... It's better than class," said Katie Fitzgerald, 15, who is considering a career in marine biology. "I get to see what kind of experiments I'll be working with in college and the type of stuff I'll get to do."

Jill Olson, 15, said the time she spent in the mobile lab had solidified her interest in pursuing a career in science. But more than that, she said, it made her aware of other possible paths to pursue.

"It opened my eyes to other opportunities in the biotechnology field," said Jill, who had been considering becoming a surgeon. She said the experience revealed career options such as crime-scene investigation.

Because Maryland is brimming with biotechnology companies -- Neuman estimated there are well over 300 of them -- MdBioLab wants more students to become interested in bioscience and to consider careers in the field as a means of providing employees for local companies.

"If they find that labor ... is more available elsewhere, the companies will locate there instead of Maryland," said Neuman, a University of Maryland graduate who has worked in the biotechnology field for about 15 years.

If "1 percent [of the students] decide to change career paths, that's a pretty good number," she said. "Hopefully, we're hitting more than that."

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