Small district finds avenue to big science
On Board Online • January 23, 2012
By Cathy Woodruff
Epigenetics. Methylation. Transgenic mouse.
Such terms are frequently on the lips of Germantown High School seniors Suma Hussien, Spencer Buhler and Brittany Klawson, each of whom will have spent some 240 hours on individual medical research projects by graduation.
“They are eloquent. They speak like scientists,” said Principal Karol Harlow. “Once they focus on an area, they learn the vocabulary.”
The students’ current experiments, capstones of a three-year sequence with science teacher Dale Strong, are college-level projects that can earn them 12 credits from the University at Albany. In the process, they say, they’ve become hooked on the process of scientific discovery.
While many schools in New York State are virtual factories of Intel semi-finalists and other high-achieving science students (see story below), none are as small as Germantown, a 260-student district in rural Columbia County.
One advantage that Germantown students have these days is a new relationship with Taconic Farms, a Columbia County company that provides animals for biomedical researchers around the globe.
Hussien has worked with 20 lab mice donated by Taconic Farms, each worth $250 to $400, to evaluate the potential value of combining two types of therapies – a drug called memantine and the herbal product ginkgo biloba – in treating Alzheimer’s disease. She has written a scientific journal-style article, the first step in a regional competition of the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.
Buhler’s research also involves mice donated by Taconic Farms. He has been fattening them up to examine whether obesity affects learning.
“This week, I started testing them on learning and endurance and how much they explore,” Buhler said. “I am curious about fatter mice – do they learn differently and will they be as open to exploring new spaces?”
Buhler figures it will take several more weeks to know the results, since the mice being fed a high-fat diet only recently gained enough heft to be classified as obese.
Klawson is going after the ubiquitous common cold. To examine the impact of drug therapies on the cold virus, she recently began working with a scientist from the state’s Wadsworth Laboratory, where she will undergo special lab training to qualify to work with an infectious pathogen, the rhinovirus.
While it’s the science that interests them, the students say they’re learning a lot more than that.
Klawson’s project does not involve lab animals, but she said participation in the class has prompted her to examine her personal opinions on the ethics of using animals in research.
“I am a huge animal activist,” said Klawson, a vegetarian. “But I realize that without animal testing in the science field, we would not be as far as we are now.”
Also, in order to work with the mice, Buhler noted that he, Hussien and Strong had to gain veterinary approval and pledge to treat the animals humanely. Buhler also said he felt more comfortable after being reassured that the experiments would not cause pain to the mice.
One of the most valuable lessons of the three-year research sequence isn’t specific to science, Strong said. It’s learning what it takes to stay focused on a goal and keep working to get there, he said.
“It is rigorous,” Strong said, “and they are tenacious. They have to do everything. The hardest thing for me is not to get too involved in the experiments.”
Buhler said the independence and reliance on his own motivation is what he likes most about scientific research.
“It’s up to you whether you want to keep the goals and get the project done,” he said.
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