April 21, 2008
Teen scientists bloom in lab
By carol clark
“Today’s the day I’m going to be famous,” declares William Wagstaff, a senior at North Atlanta High School, as he peers into a microscope.
Margaret Rohrbaugh, a post-doctoral fellow, rolls her eyes. “That’s his favorite saying,” she says, smiling. Rohrbaugh supervises a team of Emory students and high schoolers working together on an epigenetic research project in the lab of Victor Corces, chair of biology.
“For the high school students, everything is new, so they bring that excitement to the lab,” she says.
Corces once visited a research lab as a curious teenager, but he wasn’t allowed to touch anything. When he received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant in 2006, he used it to create Research Internship and Science Education (RISE) — a program to give gifted students from inner-city schools hands-on lab experience. College students mentor the 12 high school students currently in the program.
“The idea is for them to experience a sense of discovery,” Corces says. “When one of the students finds something, they get very happy. And there is a healthy competition among them.”
“The first time I saw GFP in a chromosome, I got excited, but then I realized there was a lot more to becoming famous than that,” acknowledges Wagstaff, who plans to go to medical school.
The gene for GFP (green florescent protein) has been isolated from Pacific jellyfish as a biological research tool. In this case, the GFP has been inserted into the genome of fruit flies to serve as a marker of protein interactions. Data gathered by the student researchers could one day benefit people with genetic diseases.
While the research is complex, the lab procedures are decidedly low-tech. Britney McCrary, a senior at Frederick Douglass High School, demonstrates. She removes a fruit-fly larva from a small jar, then uses tweezers to pull out its salivary glands. She affixes the glands to a glass slide with a mounting medium and invites a visitor to examine the squiggly lines through the microscope.
“You learn a lot when you get to do things like this,” says McCrary, who is headed for Tuskegee University, where she plans to major in biology.
“Other students think it’s cool that we have the chance to work in a real college lab,” says Sharonta Johnson, a junior at New Schools of Carver. “When they hear about it, they all want to do it, too.”
Corces hopes that, ultimately, some RISE students will return to Emory as undergraduate or graduate students and become RISE mentors. “Science is not just being in the lab doing your experiments,” he says.
“You have to communicate your knowledge and passion to the next generation. It will be a real benefit if we can pull some of these great minds into the field.”