Student interns help other students learn about DNA
Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Tucked in a small second floor workspace just behind the chemistry lab at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville is the Montgomery County Public Schools' DNA Lab.
The lab is not a place for solving classroom crimes, identifying lunchroom thieves or tracking down truant students — it is where six Wootton student interns learn the basics of DNA science and prepare the materials needed for students at other high schools to conduct DNA experiments.
"It's different from working anywhere else," said senior Liza Sarytchev, 18. "It prepares you for what may be down the road, working with people and the responsibility of handling your own time."
Liza, like the other interns, is interested in science as a career.
"I want to possibly get into the field of physics research," she said.
The real work of the lab is to put together science lessons and create class kits for all of the county's high school science labs. In addition to preparing the kits, student interns run many of the initial experiments to test the lessons.
"The most exciting [part is] I've actually run some of the labs like the bacterial transformation lab and a unique new buffer recipe for a fingerprint technique," senior Martin Zhou, 17, said. "It was a success and that was fun."
As Martin carefully prepared samples for a DNA fingerprinting lab by filling hundreds of small test tubes with just the right amount of reagent by using a research-grade micropipette, he talked about his internship. He and the other interns are enrolled in the Montgomery County Public Schools Science Internship program and average 10 hours per week in the lab.
"I thought I'd like to get experience in biotechnology and I like helping out," he said. "We are helping to teach the future by helping the school system to prepare the students."
Senior Uliana Andrianov, 17, works in the lab one period four days a week. On Fridays she goes to Shady Grove Hospital in Rockville for an internship.
"I'm interested in genetics, that's why I'm taking an internship," she said. "Because I get to participate, it's a stimulating work environment."
The students work under the supervision of Lesli Adler, director of the lab, and Karen Furr, technical manager.
The lab was started in 1987 after Adler attended a workshop at Georgetown University.
"We wanted to look at research-grade biotechnology and see if we could format it for use in precollege classes," she said.
At that time Adler was teaching biology at Wootton. The DNA Lab is housed at Wootton because of her involvement and the support it receives from school administrators and the community. Adler teaches research design as well as coordinates all the science interns from Wootton. In addition to the students in the DNA Lab, there are 80 interns from the school working at sites around the county.
"We are one of the largest biotechnology education programs in the country," Adler said.
If biotechnology and DNA seem like words from a mystical world of future science, Adler makes them understandable.
"Biotechnology is technology that has to do with living things," she explained. "DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] technologies are tools, like the microscope is a tool."
The lab uses only professional-grade materials in the kits, a decision made years ago, Adler said.
"I wanted them to know what the real thing is," she said.
The Wootton interns learn to use the tools of DNA while preparing kits to send throughout the county. They send lab materials to 17,000 participants per year, Adler said.
Sehar Maruf, a 17-year-old senior, likes preparing labs for other students and wished she knew how the students liked them. Her wish soon came true.
"I can give you feedback, I do some of these labs and I can tell you they are successful," Martin said.