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Scientists Introduce Middle School Students to Research World

By James Hadley

Photos by James Wolfinbarger

Scientists from NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont., recently brought their world of scientific research and laboratory experiments to 30 students at Ronan Middle School in Ronan, Mont.

Established in 1998, Biomedical Research After School Scholars (BRASS) is designed by RML technical and scientific staff to communicate the nature of scientific research and to stimulate interest in science careers among students in junior high and middle schools.

Ronan is located on the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribal reservation and the school district has a large Native American population. The event in Ronan was targeted to a mix of gifted and talented students who have demonstrated an interest in science and furthers NIAID's goal to reach schools with minority populations and underrepresented groups.

Student practices the use of a scalpel during "surgery."

"Pretty cool," is how one 13-year-old described the program in a local newspaper. Cordero McArthur said of the activities, "It was a chance to get away from the normal classes and do something fun."

Dr. Marshall Bloom, a senior scientist in NIAID's Laboratory of Persistent Viral Diseases and the unofficial coordinator of student programs at RML, said, "BRASS makes science come alive for the students. The positive response of these young people has been absolutely astounding. The amazement on their faces as they learn the proper techniques of surgery or when they see a glob of DNA in a test tube for the first time is priceless."

The typical BRASS course runs for 5 weeks and consists of lab sessions covering topics such as blood, genetics, cancer, AIDS, infectious diseases and animal research.

In order to retain the students' full attention, the program is interactive, rather than lecture-heavy. The youngsters become epidemiologists researching public health problems such as an "outbreak" of Legionnaire's disease. In another phase of the program, students play the role of hematologists investigating a deadly strain of bacteria in a contaminated blood supply. Using substitute solutions for blood, the students learn about the importance of controlled experiments.

Microbiologist Beth Fischer with a group of students

Classrooms are literally turned into operating rooms. Students decked out in surgical wear become surgeons-in-training as they learn the technique of suturing under the watchful direction of Dr. Michael Parnell, chief of the Veterinary Branch.

Microbiologists Beth Fischer and Dr. Kit Tilly and visual information specialist Anita Mora coordinate the program. Bloom serves as "dean," gives the "commencement" address and distributes certificates to graduates.

More than 30 RML staffers have volunteered to participate in the program to date. Other participants in the Ronan event included John Bailey, a supervisor in the Veterinary Branch; Dr. Rey Carabeo and Dr. Ken Fields, postdoctoral fellows who conduct chlamydia research in the Laboratory of Intracellular Parasites; and James Wolfinbarger, chair of the RML EEO committee.

Students hard at work in the "laboratory"

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