Young approach to DNA's riddles

Students: Kids gain experience and earn money investigating the genetic code of bacteria that break down pollutants in the harbor.

July 17, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Balancing on her lab stool, Monique Jenkins quickly flips through her notebook to check how many drops of distilled water to add to the solution. She adjusts her goggles and gingerly picks up a syringe.

She's still a little tentative, handling the solution that will be used to try to fathom the secrets of bacterial life in Baltimore's harbor. It's a sophisticated project - especially for this research team.

These are not scientists with doctoral degrees; they're high school students from the inner city.

They're not working in a sleek high-tech lab but in an austere old-fashioned classroom at Southern High in South Baltimore.

For five weeks this summer, Jenkins and 10 other youths are getting a rare chance to experience the fascination and frustration, the painstaking progress and surprise discoveries of lab research. They're learning basic lab techniques - and getting paid minimum wage - while helping a microbiologist figure out the genetic makeup of bacteria that break down pollutants in the harbor.

"I'm really interested in learning more about DNA," says Jenkins, a sophomore who wants to be a neurosurgeon. "I'm already familiar with some of this, and doing more will help me."

The project was conceived by Mamie Green, coordinator of Southern High's biotechnology academy, which prepares scientifically minded students for careers in the fast-growing biotechnology industry.

Always on the lookout for hands-on training opportunities, Green enlisted the help of John Hind, a microbiologist who is doing post-doctoral research at the Center for Marine Biotechnology in Baltimore's Columbus Center. Hind is interested in bacteria that attack contaminants from exhaust fumes and industrial runoff that are polluting the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

To identify the different bacteria, Hind isn't studying how they look and act but their genetic code - the most fundamental way to determine the identity of a creature.

He is showing his student researchers how to take sediment samples from the Inner Harbor that contain colonies of bacteria. First, the students will learn to extract the bacterial DNA. Next, they will use a lab technique to make millions of copies of the DNA fragments that make them easier to scrutinize.

"This is real research, not just something we dreamed up to teach them skills," Hind says. "In a lot of ways, it's learning by doing. Even though some of the concepts may be a little difficult, seeing the result helps them understand it sometimes."

His research team is made up of students of widely differing ages and abilities. There is Jenkins, the 15-year-old hopeful neurosurgeon, and 12-year-old Kendra Gould, a science fair veteran who has little difficulty keeping up. But because Green opened the project to all who were interested, there are also freshmen and sophomores who can barely read at a sixth-grade level and have trouble with basic math.

It means that some of Hind's teen researchers want to see how to clone DNA - while others are trying to figure out the ratios of ingredients to mix the most commonly used solution.

Still, less than two weeks into the project, some students have begun to catch up in math, Green says. The entire class is becoming more adept at copying DNA fragments and has also begun to learn how to tell the difference between segments of genetic code from bacteria that are closely related.

"They're seeing DNA," Green says. "They're practicing percentages, ratios, metric units. They're writing. They're going to be recording information on a computer database. I think we're really making them stronger students."

They're being paid through a city jobs program. They're also getting lessons in responsibility.

It may be a breezy July morning, beckoning tourists to stroll along the waterfront just a few blocks from Southern High, but inside the third-floor lab, the students are taking notes. Their day starts at 10 a.m. and continues until 3 p.m., with a half-hour lunch break. They've given up the more typical teen-age summertime pursuits - hanging out at the pool or the mall - to show up at school five days a week in white lab coats.

Better yet, says Green, the project will yield long-term results. Not only are the students helping with Hind's research, they're learning skills that may be useful for entry-level jobs after graduation. Many medical, pharmaceutical and police labs hire technicians to do this type of genetic analysis.

That's the mission of Southern's biotechnology academy, which recruits students from across the city and aims to teach them marketable skills.

It was one of several career-oriented programs begun by city high schools in 1993 in an attempt to slow the dropout rate. Along with a heavy dose of math and science, the academy offers internships, work experience and the chance to earn credits at Baltimore City Community College.

Green, a 21-year teaching veteran at Southern, helps the biotech students prepare resumes and set up job interviews. She keeps in touch with a number of graduates. Some have gone on to college; others are working at pharmaceutical and police labs. One became a minister.

"I feel great, because I can be a resource to them," she says. "I'm not burned out, because every day is a learning experience"

She's always searching for new candidates to enroll in the academy - students such as Kendra Gould. Green helped Gould with her first science project in fourth grade. Now, even though she's just entering eighth grade, the eager young scientist is working beside high-schoolers - and a Ph.D. who likes to give thought-provoking descriptions of bacterial life.

"I think it's fun," Gould says. "Science is part of life. If you don't know it, you're lost."

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