Teachers find DNA and inspiration in summer program

Karen Oliver

Karen Oliver of William L. Dickinson High School in Jersey City, N.J., is one of 23 secondary school teachers learning the ropes of DNA analysis this summer at Princeton University. The two-week workshop, "Hot Topics, Cool Genes," is sponsored by the Department of Molecular Biology and funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Above left: DNA samples await analysis.
Photos: John Jameson

Test tubes in ice

White coats and all, the gene sleuths are at it.

On this hot July morning, the researchers are hunched at lab benches in 103 Schultz. Test tubes lean in mounds of ice. Nimble fingers are grasping pipettes at angles and pumping slippery stuff from flask to petri dish. There's a low, happy chatter in the room.

These 23 vacationing science teachers, who could be anywhere, have chosen to be in this room at Princeton University where they are learning to extract DNA from corn chips, cheese puffs and other forms of exotic cuisine. Their quest for today? To seek out a specific strand of genetic material that is characteristically found in genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Can a soy dog contain GMOs?

This group wants to know.

These men and women from places as diverse as Jersey City, N.J., and Lexington, Ky., are here to learn the most modern techniques available for studying the principles of molecular biology. The two-week program, sponsored by Princeton's Department of Molecular Biology and funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is designed to help them return to school with a new vision of how to teach science.

Karen Oliver of William L. Dickinson High School in Jersey City, N.J., and Lisa Stickle of Middletown North High School in Middletown, N.J., are lab partners for this exercise. They are moving through the many steps of the experiment -- outlined in a thick, illustrated lab book before them -- that will show how to take a mashed soy dog (Oliver's experiment) and a crushed granola bar (Stickle's) and investigate whether genetically modified soybeans or corn  have been used to make them.

Teacher workstation

High school teachers are learning the essential research techniques of modern molecular biology as part of the workshop. In one of many experiments, they must find out whether certain foods contain genetically modified organisms.

"I was on point with the theory in the books of how to do this," said Oliver, who teaches biology to students from ninth to 12th grades. "But this is the first time I'm doing this hands-on."

"It makes it much more clear," added Stickle, who teaches biotechnology, medical technology and environmental science to students in 11th and 12th grades.

Across the lab bench, Meme Mackley of Cherry Hill (N.J.) High School East, along with her lab partner, Marnie Jones of the Ranney School in Tinton Falls, N.J., are musing about how they will apply what they are learning.

"I just taught a challenging upper level science course last year for the first time," said Mackley. A colleague at her school who had attended an earlier workshop at Princeton urged her to come this summer, slapping a program pamphlet on her desk one day. "He told me, 'Do it,'" Mackley added. "Now I can't wait to teach the course again to implement the great ideas I've learned in the workshop."

Jones, who both chairs the science department at her private K-12 school and teaches its ninth grade honors biology and environmental science courses, wants to better understand the research process. "Part of my job is to think about the 'big picture' in terms of how we are teaching science, so this is enormously helpful," she said. She plans to start a research club in the fall that will prep students who want to conduct independent research projects.

Ann Slisky reviewing progress

Part of the routine of the summer workshop is perfecting lab techniques. Ann Sliski (right), the educational outreach director in Princeton's Department of Molecular Biology, checks whether Virginia Pearson of Springside School in Philadelphia has enough DNA in her sample to complete the experiment. (She did.)

This is all music to the ears of Ann Sliski, the educational outreach director in Princeton's Department of Molecular Biology, who wracks her brain all year to devise innovative experiments for the summer course with the whimsical name, "Hot Topics, Cool Genes." So far, in addition to numerous lectures, some of those activities have included determining how much bacteria remained on the participants' hands even after they washed and detecting a form of petroleum-gobbling bacteria that lived outdoors in a crack beneath a pool of motor oil.

"These are the teachers you want your kids to have," said Sliski, as she looked upon the bustling group, marveling at their dedication. "During the school year, they come in at 5 a.m. to set up their experiments so they are ready for the students when they come in. They work through lunch. Now they're here, when they could be at the beach."

She designed the workshop, which she describes as an intense schedule of hands-on introductory and advanced experiments, to illustrate the principles of modern molecular biology and genetics. She also hopes it will apply to questions of human health and disease and the way in which discoveries are made in the natural sciences.

Being at Princeton, the teachers said, is also quite a draw.

"Where else can you learn research like this and get to meet Nobel Prize winners while you're at it?" said John Anderson, who teaches chemistry and forensic science at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash. Anderson and his colleagues said they were looking forward to meeting Eric Wieschaus later that evening. Wieschaus, the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology at Princeton, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1995. He is just one of several renowned Princeton researchers who visit the program.

Ian McCrone and Preeti Jain

Ian McCrone (left), who will join the science department at Fair Lawn (N.J.) High School this fall, and his lab partner in the summer science workshop, Preeti Jain, who teaches biology and advanced science at Elizabeth (N.J.) High School, carefully compare samples of DNA extracted from snack food. Every step of the experiment, they said, has to be precisely done in order to gain sufficient data and satisfactory answers.

The experiments performed by teachers in the program aren't easy. At one point, Ian McCrone, who will join the science department at Fair Lawn (N.J.) High School this fall, and his lab partner, Preeti Jain, who teaches biology and advanced science at Elizabeth (N.J.) High School, were worried about getting the right results. "As is always the case in science, precision is everything," said Jain. "And for a while there, I wasn't sure I had gotten any DNA in solution." When she pulled a test tube, however, from a centrifuge, she could see the gooey swirls at the bottom, clear as day.

That sense of anticipation, that feeling that one never knows what to expect in science, can be and should be conveyed to students, McCrone said. "I think my students will love it," Jain said.

The experimental results proved that point. Some of the items that tested positive for GMOs were foods where they would be least expected: granola bars, raisins, cereals, tofu, organic corn chips, cheese puffs and soy dogs.

Test results

Sanford Overton, a science teacher at Robbinsville (N.J.) High School, inspects patterns on a gel showing gene sequences for genetically modified organisms. The "gel" (at right), an image produced by a technique called gel electrophoresis, is one of the principal tools of molecular biology.