Biotech outreach helps students
By Stewart MacInnis
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 06 - October 2, 1997
More than 60 high-school and community-college science teachers have signed up for help from the Fralin Biotechnology Center this academic year.
Help comes in the form of trunks of equipment and supplies that allow teachers to conduct one- and two-week blocks of instruction on DNA analysis or on column chromatography. A third block of instruction on protein electrophoresis is expected to be fielded this fall.
"For many schools, the cost of this equipment and the supplies is just too much for them afford," said Tracy Wilkins, director of the Fralin center. "The idea is that if we can loan these trunks to schools across the state we can expose students to ideas and experiments they wouldn't otherwise be able to experience."
Funded through private gifts, the loan program provides materials valued at up to $6,000.
Biotechnology consists of using living organisms or their cellular or biochemical components as powerful tools for the improvement of human health, for the production and well being of animals and plants, and for the betterment of the environment.
Blacksburg is the center of the biotechnology industry in Virginia, thanks to the innovative research conducted at the Fralin center, as well as the presence of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. A number of biotech companies call the Corporate Research Center home, including private companies begun by some university researchers.
"There is a need throughout the industry for trained workers in all aspect of the business who understand the concepts of biotechnology," Wilkins said. "Not only are bench scientists needed, but people in a company's business office, in marketing, and in variety of disciplines are needed who have a basic literacy in the science behind biotechnology."
The Fralin center is training young people for positions in biotech companies today, but Wilkins predicts the need for well-trained personnel will increase in the years ahead.
"That's why we're really excited about reaching into the high schools and the community colleges," he said. "We're working at an early stage in a young person's academic career to introduce an appreciation for what science has to offer, and for the career potential in the field of biotechnology. We need to instill an enthusiasm for biotechnology if we are to ensure an adequate flow of people into the field in the future."
Teachers being loaned the trunks participated in hands-on training in the appropriate procedures, said Kristi DeCourcy, lab manager and coordinator of this equipment-loan program.
Forty-four high-school and community-college teachers are scheduled to receive trunks of equipment on DNA restriction analysis. The Fralin center is scheduled to loan another set of trucks to 19 more teachers for experiments involving column chromatography, which is used by biotechnology scientists to purify proteins.
The high-school and community-college students won't be cloning genes, sequencing proteins, or doing the other highly sophisticated techniques now being done at Virginia Tech. But they will be able to benefit from the knowledge and the resources available to the Fralin center.
They will learn some basic laboratory techniques as well as some of the more specialized techniques used in biotechnology. The safe and highly structured demonstrations allow students to gain first-hand knowledge about how biotechnology can be put to use.
The techniques they will learn are similar to DNA "fingerprinting," used by law-enforcement agencies in criminal investigations. The demonstrations involve the use of prepared compounds and step-by-step procedures, or protocols.
Column chromatography is used in biotechnology research and in the production of compounds using biotechnology techniques. It is a method of separating a target compound from unwanted compounds.
For example, DeCourcy pointed to transgenic tobacco plants developed by Virginia Tech researchers that hold the promise of producing a human blood-coagulation and anti-coagulation serum protein. Column chromatography is used to separate the serum protein from the thousands of other proteins present in the plant.
The students experiment with a mixture of four harmless substances in one exercise, and with grape soda in a second exercise.
A number of teachers have already said they want to receive equipment to do experiments on protein electrophoresis that will be available this fall, DeCourcy said. During the one-week block of instruction, students will be able to use laboratory techniques to compare protein samples prepared from commonly available fish.
As with the other trunks, high-school teachers were involved in testing and recommending changes to the protein-electrophoresis block of instruction, DeCourcy said. That input, she said, helps ensure the Fralin center's outreach effort is both practical and relevant to the instruction the teachers are presenting.