Something Fishy About Genetics
Local high school students visit SU Biology Department to conduct college-level research with zebrafish
Standing between two towering rows of tiny, green, bubbling tanks, 9th-grader Drarton Harris gazes up in amazement. A thousand eyeballs stare back.
“I’ve never seen so many fish in one place! It’s like a fish museum!”
Drarton is one of two dozen students who visited Syracuse University this month as one of two High School Biology Apprenticeship Days sponsored by the Lewis Lab in the Biology Department in the College of Arts and Sciences. Students from the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central (ITC) spent the afternoon touring the Life Sciences Complex, conducting hands-on experiments, talking to Biology undergraduates and, of course, meeting the fish.
Kate Lewis, associate professor of biology, has lead the outreach program for the past five years, hosting over 150 high school students from the city of Syracuse and Central New York. The program is a unique component of a multi-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that funds her research work identifying key regulatory genes that instruct cells to grow into a particular population of spinal cord nerve cells. She mostly uses zebrafish, or Danio rerio, for her research.
By providing the high school students the opportunity to experience actual college research facilities, and talk to current biology students, it’s hoped that more young women and underrepresented minority students, in particular, will be inspired to pursue degrees and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
“This experience gives the students a chance to experience for themselves what a college classroom is like. They also get a chance to talk with undergraduates about what it is like to apply to college, manage the high school-to-college transition and research biology,” explains Lewis. “My hope is that we will inspire some students who might not otherwise have thought about applying to college, or studying biology, to realize that it is truly within their grasp.”
Assisted by a squad of postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate biologists, Lewis spent the afternoon guiding the students through a series of experiments around the lab, demonstrating how a microscopic fish embryo quickly develops from a simple cell cluster into a complex system of fins and gills. In the process, students received hands-on training in cell biology, genetics, sexual characteristics, mutations, phenotypes and nerve-cell development.
As ITC biology teacher Laurie Grulich observes one of her students enthusiastically examining genetic mutations through a microscope, she is impressed at how quickly the kids engaged with each lab experiment.
“For me personally, it was the best field trip I have ever taken in 15 years of teaching. They did a great job setting up the fish activities that students find relatable to what they learn during class,” Grulich says. “These opportunities are so important to show our students that what we teach them in high school really relates to research in the ‘real’ world.”
Ninth-grader Tiana Outly wholeheartedly agrees.
“My favorite part was when I got to see the spinal cord and see the blood cells moving through the embryo,” she shares. “I think that this could be an option for me in college.”