Hunting a great white shark, or at least its DNA

October 14, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Lab glasses securely in place, Amber Warfield inserted the scientific instrument into a small test tube and carefully extracted the dark liquid inside. She then bent over a small square of bright blue gel and transferred the newly acquired sample into one of the tiny rectangular holes puncturing the gel.

She handed the instrument, a micropipette used to measure very small volumes, to lab partner Joshua Ayres. He repeated her movements with a second sample substance, taking care not to spill it onto the gel and contaminate their experiment.

"Bravo," said Amber, 17, when Joshua, also 17, finished without spilling the substance.

The two teen scientists were lab technicians on a mission: to determine whether a package of dried fins was, in fact, holding the fins of a great white shark, a protected species. Customs officials had confiscated the package because they suspected an illegal shipment. But were they truly from the great white shark?

The answer lay in the hands of Joanne Brophy's Advanced Placement biology students.

They and others at Westminster High School spent the past week inside the lab, some testing shark DNA using a technique called gel electrophoresis. Other classes examined the virus that is striking the American Chestnut tree.

The 40-plus-foot tractor-trailer travels the state throughout the school year, opening its doors to give Maryland students the chance to experience a state-of-the-art laboratory. Since hitting the road in 2003, the lab has made it to all of the state's school systems, said Melissa Blain, one of its two instructors.

"It's just an opportunity that we can't provide inside the classroom," said Meghan Henning, a biology teacher at Westminster High, of the portable lab. "It's a good experience ... . It's able to provide just the cutting-edge technology that they're using with research now."

The students also immediately caught on to the quality of resources at their disposal inside the trailer. Upon entering the trailer last week, one group of students expressed surprise at what was housed in the red and white vehicle parked on the edge of a side lot.

"I'm so psyched about this," senior Brittany Bransford said to another classmate, looking around as they filed down the narrow aisle toward the back of the trailer during their period in the lab.

"This is so cool," said Cara Parks, 17, also a senior.

Both sides of the trailer are lined with black counters. Several stations were set up along the surfaces, with clusters of lab equipment ranging from the humble beaker to the $300 micropipettes, used to transfer very small quantities - a millionth-of-a-liter - of a substance.

In exposing students to the lab and the real-life applications of their experiments, MdBioLab aims to encourage them to consider jobs in the sciences.

The vehicle's inside walls testify to that goal: a poster on one end identifies careers in biotechnology, including in areas such as genetics, chemical engineering and molecular biology.

"How many of you have heard of biotechnology? What is it exactly?" asked Tyiesha Moore, the other MdBioLab instructor who was leading the class.

She broke the word down. "What's `bio'?"

"The study of life," several students said.

And examples of technology?

Computers, a couple of others replied.

"Right," Moore said. "So biotechnology is simply using equipment and tools to further your study of living organisms."

For Joshua and his peers, the pricey equipment they were using was a welcome novelty.

"I'd rather be here than the classroom. In the classroom, you don't get to use this kind of stuff," said Joshua, who is considering a career in medicine. "Most of the experiments we do in class, you don't think of scientists doing them. This is a practical application."

The gadgets didn't hurt, either.

"I just like how we got to use this high-tech stuff," Brittany said.

That high-tech equipment was in the process of revealing the kinds of DNA they were contending with, gradually separating the samples with the help of electricity.

Minutes later, the novice technicians had their answer: The first sample was no great white shark. But the second one ... well, it was the kind of shark that would definitely require a bigger boat.

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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