BALTIMORE – With new biotech labs opening throughout the state, the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute is eager to generate interest in biotech careers by inviting middle and high school students to visit its labs. And for those that can’t make it, no problem – the labs can be packed up and sent to the students.
“The idea is to try to get kids interested in science,” said Jennie Queen-Baker, who developed and manages UMBI’s Maryland Loaner Lab Program. That interest, she said, could help fill the need for more professionals in biotechnology fields, especially “with new biotech centers popping up throughout the state.”
“So many kids don’t know what biotech is, let alone what kinds of jobs are available in Maryland,” she said.
Thus, UMBI’s SciTech lab program invites Maryland students to its laboratories in the Columbus Center at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to perform one of 11 different experiments.
On a recent day, seventh graders from St. Mary’s Catholic School in Hagerstown visited the SciTech lab to investigate the anatomy and filter-feeding mechanism of a live oyster.
Life science teacher Patricia McDermott brought her students to UMBI because the curriculum includes a section dealing with the Chesapeake Bay and the lab gave the seventh graders hands-on experience.
Among the St. Mary’s students were twins Kevin and Mark Sokol, who were excited to watch the oysters filter red dye through their systems by looking through a high-powered microscope.
“We got to get these for our school,” Kevin said. “Our microscopes are lame.”
Aadil Iqbal echoed Kevin’s thoughts. He said they haven’t been able to do any experiments like the one with oysters at St. Mary’s.
“Our microscopes are more classic,” Iqbal said. “They’re small and not connected to computers like these are.”
But visits to the UMBI lab in Baltimore are not free and not always easy to arrange. Schools are charged $10 per student for materials and have to arrange for transportation to and from UMBI.
Thus, in the past few years MdBio Inc., a non-profit organization with the goal of advancing bioscience in the state, and UMBI introduced two new programs to bring the labs to the students, right at their schools, free of charge. The only requirement for the first-come-first-serve programs is that the teachers must be trained to use the equipment.
The MdBioLab, run by MdBio Inc., is a custom-designed tractor-trailer that accommodates 32 high-school students for a week. It has been operating since February 2003.
But demand for the truck has been so high that MdBio partnered with UMBI to create the Maryland Loaner Lab program last year. Under this program, 10 fully equipped lab stations are packed up and sent to the schools for use over two weeks.
Donna Clem, coordinator of the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School, has used the truck twice in the past two school years. She said she thinks the MdBioLab program is great because it brings lab equipment “right to your door.”
“Schools just can’t afford that equipment and students want to learn biotechnology,” Clem said. “They (the students) thought they were CSI.”
Loaner Lab participant Nicole Barth, a science teacher at St. Michael’s High School in Talbot County, said her students enjoyed using the lab equipment to solve a problem titled the Case of the Crown Jewels – in which students use DNA fingerprinting to learn who stole jewels from a museum.
“The loaner lab program is amazing,” she said. “It saves schools by not having to purchase very expensive equipment.”
Both programs offer the same seven experiments – among them a protein gel electrophoresis lab which is called the Mystery of the Crooked Cell and an environmental biotechnology lab known as the Chestnut Tree Lab.
Still in its first full school year, the Loaner Lab had served about 5,500 students in 14 counties and Baltimore City by the end of March.
UMBI and MdBio are able to offer the visiting lab programs free of charge because of funding help received from The Institute for Genomic Research.
Queen-Baker said she hopes MdBio will eventually be able to add trucks to its mobile lab program and that UMBI will be able to add lab kits and staff to the Loaner Lab program, but institutions will need more funding in order to do that. She often packs up the labs herself to be sent to the schools and reuses the bubble wrap when possible to cut down on funds. “Maybe someday I’ll get a big, fat budget,” she said.