By Tim Stoddard
At the peak of summer camp season this past August, when many teenagers were on the beach or learning to drive, about 45 Boston-area high school students were in a Medical Campus laboratory genetically engineering bacteria. The scene could have been from any biotechnology company in Boston or Cambridge: teams of white-coated scientists huddling around lab benches, transforming bacteria into tiny factories that manufacture a desired product. The only difference, of course, is that the scientists were 14- to 18-year-olds.
Now in its 10th year, the Biotechnology SummerLab Program is a weeklong camp for high school students interested in learning the concepts and skills of DNA science. Run through the School of Medicine’s CityLab, SummerLab is a unique opportunity for students to get hands-on experience learning and collaborating as fellow scientists.
The innovative curriculum is structured around a role-playing exercise. On their first day, the students imagine they’ve been hired at a fictional biotechnology company called BioCity. The company managers, who are CityLab instructors, tell the new hires that BioCity wants to produce and market a green fluorescent protein that’s derived from jellyfish and used in many research applications. It’s not feasible to harvest the protein from living jellyfish, “so we have to borrow some of the tools of nature and put them to work for us to build this protein,” says Don Derosa, a MED research assistant professor and founding director of CityLab. The company has copies of the gene that encodes the green fluorescent protein (GFP), and the challenge is to insert this gene into Escherichia coli bacteria, so that they manufacture the GFP in petri dishes.
It’s advanced science for high schoolers, but Derosa says the students absorb the ideas quickly. “We wanted the program to have that same atmosphere one really encounters in a research lab,” says Derosa, who codirects SummerLab with Carla Romney, a MED research assistant professor. “We wanted it to be more authentic, so that students would be part of a research and development team with a real problem to solve. We learned early on that if you give students more independence, they really enjoy being able to make decisions in the lab. And that’s how we learn: by making decisions using the knowledge we’ve acquired.”
The budding biotechnologists divide into three groups on the first day, and each learns a technique, such as bacterial transformation, cell lysis, or protein purification. The next morning, the students are assigned to teams of three, with a specialist in each technique. By the end of the week, the teams have accomplished what many aspiring biologists don’t attempt until college. Derosa recently bumped into a former SummerLab student now studying biomedical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. “She told me that this past semester she did the same experiment at UPenn that we did in SummerLab,” he says. “She was able to take it to the next level because she already understood the basics.”
Midway through the week, the students go on a field trip to Wyeth, a biotechnology company in Cambridge. “We think it’s important that the students get a chance to go to a real company and talk to researchers,” Derosa says. “We want them to approach the scientists as colleagues, and it gives the message to the students that what they’re doing is valuable.” They get to ask the Wyeth scientists what they think of their jobs, and how they prepared for a career in biotechnology. “That exchange also seems to demystify the vision of a scientist being a middle-aged white male in a labcoat,” Derosa adds. “It’s important to negate that stereotype.”
This year SummerLab received a grant from the National Science Foundation to accommodate students with disabilities. In collaboration with teachers from Partners for Youth with Disabilities, a nonprofit that provides mentoring programs for young people with disabilities, the SummerLab staff helped several students with neuromuscular disabilities join the staff at BioCity. “The idea was to open doors for students with disabilities who might not otherwise have a chance to explore a career in science,” says Derosa. “It may or may not be for them, but at least they have the chance to explore biotechnology.”
Three students with disabilities have signed up for CityLab’s Scholars Program, which is a kind of biotechnology club for SummerLab graduates who want to continue exploring more advanced molecular biology during the school year. The program meets once a month at CityLab, and if the students are hungry for more after a year, the staff tries to place them in a BU research lab. “The faculty are often willing to take on the high school students,” says Derosa, “because they have a good deal of experience.”
And, he adds, it’s one of the most authentic experiences a young scientist could have: “The students here feel free to express their ideas, and we emphasize that this is the way scientists work. We try to foster an atmosphere of cooperation, responsibility, and accountability.”