• Eleventh-grader Nick Tetreault of Hudson High School examines a model of a mitotic spindle at MIT on March 23. Tetreault was one of dozens of high school biology students who visited the Institute during spring break to see what graduate work in the field is like.

    Photo / Mandana Sassanfar

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Youngsters get peek at labs

For dozens of AP and advanced biology high school students from Cambridge and beyond, MIT's spring break offered a chance to become graduate students for a day.

On Wednesday and Thursday, March 23 and 24, more than 160 students from six different area high schools, including Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (CRLS), came to Building 68 to tour labs, attend presentations and generally get a feel for the graduate student experience at the Institute. Students from Arlington, Peabody, Hudson, Lawrence and Newburyport also attended.

The program, now in its third year, invites students to take a closer look at biology and to learn what it takes to embark on graduate studies in the field. "We are trying to help make science exciting and real. We want some of them to learn that you can make a living doing this," said biology Professor Jonathan King, who takes part in the event every year.

The students spent the day in small class or lab activities. Each lab focused on one activity designed to spark interest and to be easily applicable to student's real lives. For example, one lab focused on microbiology and sporulation, which is relevant to anthrax and other infectious diseases.

Another lab showed the different stages of development of fruit flies and displayed flies with eye mutations as well as flies whose nervous systems glow green.

"I was surprised by how interested they were," said Jessica Whited, a Ph.D. candidate who helped lead a tour called "Neurobiology in Flies" in the Garrity Lab. "They were asking really good questions and explaining what they saw clearly."

Graduate student Ishara Mills, who worked with students on examining mutant zebrafish embryos agreed. "They actually sounded like scientists," she said.

"They were definitely excited to be here," said Shannon Flaugh, a fellow graduate student. Flaugh worked on explaining sickle cell anemia and the structure of hemoglobin by using protein modeling software and individual laptop computers.

"I was delighted to see how excited and interested my students were in the research going on at MIT. I think it is remarkable and wonderful that you all make this investment in our high school students," said Elizabeth Howell, a biology teacher at Arlington High School. "Every one of them mentioned how well treated they were and they noticed the passion and talent of the investigators they interacted with. It gives me a wealth of ideas to refer back to for the rest of the year."

All told, nine labs participated in the tour and more than 16 graduate students, 12 postdocs and five faculty members were involved. "According to some of the returning teachers, the field trip is one of the highlights of their school year," said biology Instructor Mandana Sassanfar, one of the organizers of the annual event, which is funded primarily through the Howard Hughes grant awarded to Professor Graham Walker of the Biology Department, one of the founders of the program.

"The students appeared to enjoy all of the activities today but it is always very important to excite them about research, show them how science is really done and to give them the opportunity to meet grad students, postdocs and researchers in action," said Sassanfar. "They will notice that scientists are very nice, quite young and normal people, with a passion for research and discovery."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 6, 2005 (download PDF).

Topics: Bioengineering and biotechnology, Cambridge, Boston and region, Volunteering, outreach, public service


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