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Dr. David Micklos, Executive Dir. of the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Transcribed By Valentina Cordero

Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Would you tell us about some of the education programs that you have won awards for here at Cold Spring Harbor Lab?

Dr. David Micklos, Executive Director of the DNA Learning Center (DM): We provide enrichment for about 30,000 students per year who come here to do experiments or we do experiments in their classes with them [in their schools]. That’s one element of what we do here.

PR: What is the age range of the students?

DM: The students who come to us or who we visit in their school range from fifth grade up through 12th grade.

PR: If a school is interested in getting involved in this program what steps can they take?

DM: They can look at our website, see the things that we offer and request a visit. All school visits are arranged by classroom teachers at the elementary, middle or high school level.

PR: What kind of projects do the middle-schoolers do? What would they learn?

DM: Middle school students really need to learn that there’s variation between living things and that the variation is inherited to a great extent, and there’s a common heredity for things. And this is pretty much agreed across the United States in syllabi from fourth through the sixth grades. For the younger kids, we introduce them to variability between living things and between human beings and how that relates to inheritance, genetic programs or instructions that an organism inherits.

PR: What about at the high school level?

DM: At the high school level there is a broad agreement across the United States that kids have to learn a few key concepts. They have to do with inheritance, but now the hereditary mechanisms, how exactly genes are passed from parents to offspring. And particularly across the United States, curricula have an emphasis on biotechnology, whatever that means to various people, but clearly that means using living things to make products and to run businesses, and do new things in the world. That tends to be taught in a paper-and-pen and textbook sort of way. What we try to do is provide experiments that show how the hereditary mechanism works, and how biotechnology works. How would you go about putting a new gene into a plant or animal? How conceptually would you find a drought gene and put it into a corn plant to help us to deal with global warming, for example? How would you look at some of your genes and determine that you might be at risk for a disease, or that one drug might work better for you than for me? These are all concepts that can be gotten at by doing experiments.

PR: We saw two classrooms today. The students were absorbed in what they were doing, and in one of them the students were learning how the firefly lights up. And in the other one, they were working on the transference of a genetic sequence in the worm. Can you tell us a little bit about those two projects that we saw today?

DM: Those are two good examples of genetic engineering or things that bear on the biotechnology industry. It’s pretty dramatic if you take a gene that makes something glow, such as a firefly gene, or the genes that you can find in deep-sea animals that help them see one another in the dark, where you can take those genes, and you can insert them into, say a bacterium, and then the bacterium will take on the properties of glowing like the firefly, or the eyelid of a fish that has to attract a mate at 4,000 feet underneath the ocean. So that’s a pretty classic notion in gene manipulation, which is to find a gene that has a particular property or use, and then to put that gene somewhere else where it might be useful for us. That’s the experiment that the younger kids were doing. The older kids were working in a field called RNA interference, which is a field that’s only a dozen years old, and which received a Noble Prize just five or six years ago. It’s an extremely new and current field and that’s a field where you can manipulate genes by inserting a piece of RNA. So a little different concept, but it operates at a much higher level in organisms and it is a mechanism that works better and less obtrusively in higher organism such as humans and plants and animals, and in that case, worms.

PR: What do you think Charles Darwin might say about all of this gene manipulation?

DM: Darwin was actually interested also in barnyard plants and animals, and he, among other people, had the idea that if you crossbred two different plants, two different say, types of corn plants, or two different breeds of dog, that when you did that crossing you would come up with a more vigorous type of organism.

PR: Is that true?

DM: That is true. This is a concept called hybrid vigor, which was rigorously shown here at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1908 in corn. Darwin was acutely aware that just in the same way as species evolve, domestic plants and animals evolve at the hands of human beings. And he was interested in that, although he didn’t know the mechanism of genetics either. I think that Darwin would say that the things that humans do with plants and animals, to bend them to their uses, are just human-directed evolution.

PR: Can you give us some information about what the Lab does in online learning?

DM: The DNA Learning Center publishes a lot of Web sites, somewhere around 28 different Web sites. The classic thing that people think about a Web site is that it is something that you learn from, probably looking at animations and videos and things like that, a multimedia learning experience, and we have a number of Web sites, that offer an online learning experience that helps in learning concepts, especially, or content.

PR: So teachers can tap in, as well as students and parents?

DM: Yes, anyone. Many people feel that this is an effective way to allow people to learn in a more engaging way than say a book, which doesn’t have animations and videos. We have a number of interesting ones in a number of fields, from cancer to neuroscience, to the history of genetics, to the history of eugenics, which was a not-so-pleasant period in our background. So we have all of that. But the things I am actually more interested in now are providing tools that allow students and teachers to explore biology in the same way that researchers do — for example, tools that allow you to work with DNA sequencing and to understand how to get the information from that, or how an organism uses that information. And one of our biggest projects is called the iPlant collaborative, that’s a project that provides infrastructure for people to learn about plants and animals, and to provide the information at a base level that allows researchers to work. But what we’re trying to do is take that infrastructure and allow all kinds of biology students and faculty to work with that same problem. We have at this point in time a very unique situation in biology education, if you want to talk about STEM education, it’s very, very unique because of the large amounts of data that are being generated about genomics, and phenomics, which is the traits of an organism, and the great computer resources we have, and the capability of communicating on the Internet. We now have, for the first time in the history of science, a situation where students and teachers can work with the same data, using the same tools at the same time, using very, very high-level research. The capability is upon us and that’s my biggest interest right now, to facilitate that students and teachers can work right alongside researchers with the same tools, the same data.

PR: One of the most compelling things to me is that you provide hands-on experience for students in schools of all age, and I know that you also send teams out to schools, and there are two schools out in New York City. Are there other schools that can tap into their expertise?

DM: The two schools we work with are Trinity and Chapen. Those arrangements are done at the level of the headmasters and curriculum specialists, and we’re building a very small foundation of those schools, [which are] charter members of our effort to move into New York City in a big way. We currently have two charter members and we’re looking for maybe a total of five, so it’s quite a select group. #

For more information about getting your school involved with the DNA Learning Center, visit www.dnalc.org.



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