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Dowling lab post-doctoral fellow Farida Emran (second from left) working with CRLS students

A satisfied CRLS student (CRLS biology teacher Cate Stabile -left – and Outreach Program Coordinator Susan Johnson – right – in the background)

As fifteen teenagers from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School shuffled into the Hunter lab’s “tea room,” their nonchalant demeanors seemed out of place. The students jockeyed for seats next to their friends and plopped themselves unenthusiastically into chairs. But when Hunter post-doc, Jacqueline Brooks, premiered her video-tour of the zebrafish facility, her audience quickly focused. Featuring Farida Emran, a post-doc in the Dowling lab, the video showed tanks upon tanks upon tanks of zebrafish, gas-station-sized hoses that supplied ready-made fish water and a tank of brine shrimp as large as a student. As Steve Zimmerman, co-director of the fish facility, demonstrated how to harvest enough brine shrimp to feed every tank, the students were rapt. At the end, the students broke into spontaneous applause much to Brooks’ surprise and delight.

Their next stop was the teaching laboratory, BioLabs 109, where the students got to know Emran in person as she led them clearly and carefully through a cartilage staining protocol. When finished, the students took their first look at live fish embryos. Emran, Brooks, Dowling lab post-doc Josh Cameron, and MCB graduate student Shila Mekhoubad, circulated around the room to make sure everyone was on track. As the students became engaged with the fish in front of them, any remaining apathy melted away. “Whoa! This stuff is so fascinating,” exclaimed one enthusiast. Brooks quickly responded, “That’s what I like to hear! Tell me — what’s fascinating?”

So began a pilot lab to test whether zebrafish embryology would be a good addition to Life Science-HHMI Outreach‘s spring high school laboratory program. This morning’s situation was unusual because the Science Center, where Outreach holds its classes, abruptly closed due to a chemical spill. Instead of canceling the lab at the last minute, Emran and Brooks scrambled to find substitute space in BioLabs, exhibiting the high level of commitment typical of participating graduate students and post-docs since the Outreach’s inception in 2003.

Every Outreach laboratory has been developed in partnership with Harvard graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, most of whom are part of MCB. Some Outreach teaching fellows come with experience teaching a similar undergraduate protocol while others are motivated to develop a new protocol from scratch based upon their area of expertise. All are enthusiastic about their research and want to convince high school students that studying science is exciting and worthwhile.

The development of the zebrafish embryology laboratory was typical of this partnership. Veteran teaching fellow Jacqueline Brooks, Outreach Program Director Tara Bennett and Program Coordinator Susan Johnson had long mused about developing a lab that would showcase MCB’s zebrafish facility and the zebrafish as a model organism, while providing a reliable substitute for a popular yet fickle sea urchin embryology lab. While in conversation with Jeff Gross (formerly an MCB post-doc and now an Assistant Professor at U.T./Austin), Brooks learned about Farida Emran’s work in the Dowling lab. Shortly thereafter, Emran enthusiastically joined Brooks as the project’s zebrafish expert and worked to identify appropriate fish mutants. Post-doc Benjamin Allen in the McMahon lab helped Brooks develop a simple Alcian blue cartilage stain and generously provided her with mouse embryos exhibiting cartilage and bone stained blue and red to show the students. Finally, graduate student Casey Roehrig of the Hunter lab, Josh Cameron, and Shila Mekhoubad joined forces with Brooks and Emran to ensure that each student could receive expert personal attention during the laboratory.

This year, Outreach hosted 450 students from 26 schools between March 4th and April 10th. The classes represented a broad cross-section of New England’s population, including students enrolled in remedial science through AP biology from urban, suburban, rural, public, private and parochial schools. In most high schools, students no longer have access to long, investigative, hands-on laboratories. Therefore, the spring Outreach laboratory program fills an immediate need for many biology teachers and usually has a lengthy waiting list. “The availability of meaningful laboratory experiences for high school students is critical given the financial situations of schools,” stated Director Tara Bennett. “Both students and teachers appreciate the chance to participate in investigations that would otherwise be impossible within their classroom settings.”

As the Rindge and Latin students carefully examined the results of their Alcian blue zebrafish stain, Brooks peppered them with questions.
“When and where do we see cartilage form?”
Replies emerged, “…on the top.”
“Good. On the top of the fish. Where exactly?”
Brooks paused, listened to an answer and nodded encouragingly, adding, “On the top of the head – protecting the brain is going to be very important.”
Another student chimed in, “Ours has it [the stain] on the back too.”

The pilot zebrafish protocol was showing all the hallmarks of a successful Outreach lab: it was clear, produced reliable results, and most important, generated student curiosity and enthusiasm. After the students departed, Brooks and Emran set about formalizing the protocol, presentations and lab notes so that next year’s Outreach teaching fellows could seamlessly implement the lab for incoming classes. The collaborative effort and tremendous support of the MCB community will enable countless high school students to experience vertebrate embryology first-hand through the zebrafish. These future students and their teachers thank you all.

LS-HHMI Outreach wishes to thank professors John Dowling and Alex Schier for their support in the development of this lab. LS-HHMI Outreach is always looking for teaching fellows who wish to work with high school students and high school biology teachers. We compensate our teaching fellows for time spent developing and testing lab protocols and presentations in addition to the actual hours in the classroom. This summer and fall we will offer a program for biology teachers on microbes and infectious disease and next spring, we will offer the high school laboratory program again. If you are interested in working with Outreach, please contact Tara Bennett: tbennett@fas.harvard.edu.