Fun at the Wisconsin Science Festival

“Is this a real human brain?” I asked. The answer was yes. The liver, lungs, spleen and stomach that were on display were also real—all from donated human bodies. My 3-year-old daughter put on a latex glove and eagerly touched each of the organs, while my 6-year-old son stood back at a distance, wide-eyed. We were at the Discovery Expo on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, a free kid-friendly science event featuring dozens of interactive exploration stations. Continue reading

Meeting the Needs of Scientists at All Levels

One of the best things about the BTC Institute is that we have programs for all levels of learners. It is as rewarding to introduce the concept of how bioluminescence is used by different organisms in the natural world to middle-school students as it is to have top-level scientists use reporter genes to track their knock-in genome edits.

We spend a lot of time working over our curricula to determine whether the content meets the learner where they are to allow our students to achieve their goals. We develop activities that let students who comes to us —via field trips, high school courses, non-scientist sessions and graduate level programs—to test ideas and evaluate strategies for problem solving as they learn techniques and concepts central to biotechnology. Continue reading

Modeling Scientific Inquiry

Within science education, teaching Scientific Inquiry to students has gained both traction and prominence.  Teachers are increasingly being called to teach students not only science content, but how to take the concepts of the scientific method and put them into action; to think and to act like scientists. As Karin Borgh pointed out in last month’s blog, teachers invariably run up against the limitations of time and resources as they strive to get their students to enact science.  When a teacher brings students to the BTC Institute, they gain access to some of those resources and, on a field trip-basis, a little bit more of that luxury of time.  Continue reading

“Aha! Moments” in Science Education

Significant resources are required to deliver high-quality science experiences for students and their teachers. In addition to generous amounts of staff time, for both preparation and program delivery, often there are costly lab supplies. Access to a well-equipped laboratory designed to facilitate educational experiences is also important.

Of course, hands-on experiences are related to learning: for example, becoming scientifically literate, meeting science standards, preparing for AP tests. That said, many of us involved in science outreach activities will tell you that perhaps the most significant justification for these investments is that you never know when one of the students will experience that ‘Aha!’ moment which proves to be life-changing for them.

Over the years, we have heard many testimonials from students, teachers, school-to-career coordinators and other school district personnel, mentors and parents that speak to this experience. There just seems to be something about getting into the lab and engaging directly in “doing science” that stays with some participants as they head back to school, continue with their studies and on to their careers. Continue reading

Introduction to the Laboratory: A New Workshop in Partnership with the UW-Madison Center for Educational Opportunity

During the week of March 26, 2018, while many students were having fun and relaxing during Spring Break, others were busy doing extra lab work at the BTC Institute.  This four-day workshop was designed to provide an introduction to the molecular biology laboratory for students affiliated with the Center for Educational Opportunity (CeO) on the UW Madison campus.  As noted on its web site: “CeO promotes access to resources, academic achievement and personal growth for students whose parents have not received a four-year degree, students who meet specific federal family income guidelines, and students with documented disabilities.”

It is well known that first-generation college students, women and students of color persist in STEM fields at lower rates than the general population. This interferes with the creation of a diverse STEM talent pool, in turn needed to ensure diverse problem-solving perspectives.

Further, STEM fields are often seen as being stressful, given their competitive learning environments.  This may be especially discouraging for students from racial/ethnic minorities who may not have as many mentors and role models to turn to.

Group photo of attendees

Introduction to the Laboratory attendees

This workshop aimed to give students an experience that would strengthen their skills and confidence as they continue to pursue scientific paths. In addition to laboratory work, students discussed the importance of clear communication in written and oral presentations, were required to work as partners to experience teamwork, and were encouraged to use reflection and lab reporting as ways to internalize what they learned throughout the week. Continue reading

Why Hasn’t the “Alternative” Become Mainstream?

Pearl Jam, a popular alternative rock band in the 1990s (and still pretty awesome!). Photo credit: Rolling Stone Magazine.

This post could easily start out as an ode to ’90s alternative music (of which I’m a huge fan). That new and totally different sound (a la Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.) in the 1990s eventually made its way into the mainstream as it gained popularity. (I have to say that I got a shock when I recently heard some Pearl Jam on “classic rock” radio stations. But I digress…)

Why isn’t the same true for science career paths? Science careers outside of academia are still referred to as “alternative.” Continue reading

FutureQuest17: Dynamic Career Exploration for Middle School Students

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

Isabel Agasie speaks with middle school students at FutureQuest 17.

The Dane County School Consortium and the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Career and Technical Education Division collaborated to offer FutureQuest17 on December 6th at the Alliant Energy Center.  Designed as a hands-on experience for Dane County middle school students to explore areas of potential interest within a 16 career cluster, over 70 companies provided information and activities for 5300+ attendees.

BTC Institute staff members (Isabel Agasie, Amy Prevost and Karin Borgh) and volunteer Promega production scientists (Molly Nyholm and Kay Rashka) created a lively table area that focused on bioluminescence. Our space included opportunities to see an illustration of the range of careers in a biotechnology company like Promega, practice with different sizes of pipettes, view glowing recombinant luciferase, watch a scrolling slide show illustrating bioluminescence both in nature and in the lab and consider why a scientist might be interested in bioluminescence as a research tool.

Most importantly, we were able to engage in many wonderful conversations, and for this we needed all five of us since the schedule for the day included 14 periods of 20 minutes each—our estimate is that we were able to speak with ~40–50 students during each of these cycles!

As Molly noted:

The questions students asked were fantastic!!  “What is the chemical composition of this luciferin solution?”  “How much money do you make?”  “Do all glowing creatures have the same luciferase enzyme or are they different?”  “Are there any bioluminescent fish in Wisconsin?”  “Do I have to go to school for as long as you did if I want to be a scientist?”  “What pH is this solution?”  “Does this have potassium or sodium iodide?”  “Can I do an internship?”  “Can I be on the culinary team at Promega?”  “Does my glow paint have luciferase in it?”  “Do you have to take luciferase and luciferin out of those creatures or is there a way to make it in the lab?”

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

Kay Rashka works with students at FutureQuest17.

And, Isabel added:

It was really great to connect with students and also with teachers. Lots of fun being surrounded by kids and fantastic adults. Some kids were surprised to learn that a biotechnology company hires people in other areas besides science. They asked about diversity and were very glad to hear that there are many different kinds of jobs in biotech companies.

Some of the other presenters in the STEM area of the event that we were in close proximity to included: the City of Madison Engineering Division (where students could construct marble runs that represented water flow), Saris (where students could ride bikes set up to display a training program), Laser Tag (try it out!), very active construction companies’ hammering stations and the MG&E’s electric car. In other words, the level of activity was high, and it was wonderful to contribute to this event—we’ll be back next year!

They’re Eating WHAT? Understanding Ecosystems Through Weird Meals

A few days ago, while taking an unplanned distraction break on Facebook, I came across a video of an enormous coconut crab attacking a red-footed booby. The footage was captured by a biologist studying crab behavior in the Chagos Archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. On this trip he had already confirmed that the monstrous crustaceans snacked on large rats, but he never expected to watch one devour a full bird.
This video sent me on a research journey into other interesting meals discovered by animal researchers. Besides providing sensational headlines about what’s eating what, these studies help us understand everything from nutrient exchange to learned behavior. I’ve compiled a short list of observations and discoveries made in the past few months where researchers have used weird meals to understand complex phenomena. Warning: this might get gruesome! Continue reading

Playing it Forward: Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship and Mentorship

Amani Gillette’s Story

Amani working in the laboratory of Dr. McFall-Ngai’s as a high school Youth Apprentice

Amani Gillette, a junior from LaFollette High School in Madison, started the Biotechnology Youth Apprenticeship Program (YAP) in Fall Semester, 2010.  An outstanding youth apprentice (YA) throughout her two years in the program, she excelled in both the specialized laboratory course at the BTC Institute and in her work site research under the mentorship of Professor Margaret McFall-Ngai, UW-Madison Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology.  Amani’s characterization of a gene and protein found in a small tropical squid resulted in her first scientific publication and poster presentation.

Fast forward— after receiving a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Michigan Technological University (which included working in a tissue engineering lab and two summers interning at Promega Corporation under the supervision of Dr. Dan Lazar to help develop an assay for autophagy), Amani is now back in Madison. She is in her second year of graduate school and, working with Dr. Melissa Skala at the Morgridge Institute for Research, is currently mentoring Biotechnology YA Ava VanDommelen (senior from DeForest High School). Following in Amani’s footsteps, Ava will present her research nationally this January at the SPIE conference (the International Society of Optics and Photonics). Continue reading

Tick, Tock! The Molecular Basis of Biological Clocks

A long time ago, before the rise of humans, before the first single celled organisms, before the planet even accumulated atmospheric oxygen, Earth was already turning, creating a 24-hour day-night cycle. It’s no surprise, then, that most living things reflect this cycle in their behavior. Certain plants close their leaves at night, others bloom exclusively at certain times of day. Roosters cock-a-doodle-doo every morning, and I’m drowsy by 9:00 pm every night. These behaviors roughly align with the daylight cycles, but internally they are governed by a set of highly conserved molecular circadian rhythms.

Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for their discoveries relating to molecular circadian rhythms. The official statement from the Nobel Committee reads, “…this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. [They exposed] the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.” What, then, does this self-sustaining clockwork look like? And how does it affect our daily lives (1)?

Continue reading