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'If We Can Put a Man on the Moon . . .'

By Bill Van Etten

Sept 15, 2005 | How many times have you heard that before? Your answer might depend on how old you are. I recall as a kid, the moment the United States put a man on the moon, there was sudden general confidence that virtually any problem could be solved by American science and engineering. Scientists were our heroes, science was "cool," and science had popular support of the American people. Today, we are producing fewer scientists and engineers, scientists are "geeks" - somewhat less than "cool" - and an increasing number of Americans are finding conflict with some of the most basic tenets of contemporary scientific understanding.

As scientists, what can we do to thwart this trend beyond wearing a T-shirt that says "Geeks Rule"? One answer is to better familiarize our community, and particularly our children, with contemporary science. Let them see what a scientist looks like, let them see what we do, and if at all possible enable them to perform and think critically about their own experiments. Here are a few examples from personal experience.

Every year or two, I give lectures to my daughter's classmates highlighting the major experiments that led to contemporary genetics and my experience in the Human Genome Project. They get to see pictures of the genomatron, the robotic system used to map the human genome, and the football field-sized room of automated DNA sequencers. It turns out that kids love this information. They are particularly intrigued by heredity, gene regulation, and expression. Cloning is a huge interest, provoking brilliant questions such as "What would be the difference between my dog and a clone of my dog?"

Many years ago as a graduate student, I was involved with a project to teach molecular biology to high-school teachers. This has become commonplace in well-funded high schools, but at the time this was bleeding-edge stuff. For several consecutive summers, teachers learned standard molecular biology techniques. They became proficient at performing "minipreps" of plasmid DNA, digesting DNA with restriction enzymes, isolating DNA fragments by gel electrophoresis, cloning into plasmid vectors, transforming these clones into bacteria, and selecting and screening. With these skills in hand, teachers developed lesson plans and returned to their schools with equipment and reagents to teach these techniques to their students. A side benefit was that many of these teachers went on to teach other teachers. Thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of students have been positively impacted.

Teaching Teachers
More recently, I've been involved with teaching teachers about informatics. I was approached by Gene Warfel, director of IT services for the Concord-Carlisle public school system in Concord, Mass. (Coincidentally, and unknown to Gene, I graduated from this high school.) Gene had purchased an Apple Workgroup Cluster bundled with BioTeam's iNquiry software and had secured funding to bring science teachers in for a summer workshop to develop curricula for teaching informatics research to their students. During the weeklong course, chemistry and physics teachers developed curricula using molecular dynamics software (AMBER, CHARMM, GROMACS), geology teachers used geographic information systems software (GIS), and biology teachers used phylogenetic analysis software (ClustalW and PHYLIP).

The biology curriculum leveraged an experiment described in the book Microbes Count (BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium and ASM) and software extensions to iNquiry developed by Steve Festin of Hamilton College (Clinton, N.Y.). The mockβ forensics experiment describes a situation where a number of people have contracted HIV and share in common a dentist who also has HIV. In this experiment, researchers must prove or disprove whether the people contracted HIV from their dentist. HIV DNA sequences isolated from each person (and controls) are aligned using clustalw, and a phylogenetic comparison between the HIV sequences computed using PHYLIP. The results demonstrate that HIV isolated from the dentist's patients is more closely related to the HIV from the dentist and more distantly related to HIV isolated from the negative control sample. Kids are very much intrigued by forensics.

Sure, it is a bit "geeky," but who can perform that experiment and say that science isn't "cool"? Before the United States stops producing scientists, before we outsource our scientific problem solving to Asia, before we outlaw scientific research and knowledge altogether, we as scientists must make our best effort to bring science to the mainstream by familiarizing our children and our community with who we are and what we do.

E-mail Bill Van Etten at

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