OWENSVILLE — With a population near 2,500, this Gasconade County town doesn’t often get opportunities to embrace the high-tech trappings of MU up close.
Located about 85 miles southeast of Columbia, Owensville isn’t hard to miss. But thanks to an MU mobile biological sciences laboratory, teachers and students in Owensville and dozens of other small Missouri towns are able to keep abreast of the latest developments in genomics, biotechnology and other life sciences through a traveling science road show.
Carrie Read, an eighth-grade science teacher at Owensville Middle School, said the science van provides her students a firsthand experience with technology that would otherwise remain distant to their lives.
“When I came over here two years ago and took over this class, there was limited opportunity to do labs related to the curriculum,” Read said after a visit by the MU van earlier this month.
The mobile DNA laboratory is coordinated by Miriam Golomb, an MU associate professor of biological sciences. The program is supported through a combination of federal grants and foundation money.
The program requires science teachers from participating schools to attend a 2½ -week summer workshop in Columbia. Teachers are trained in the latest technology in the field of genetics and learn about its various applied aspects.
Once the school year starts, Golomb sends the mobile lab to each participating school for two weeks. Teachers pick up the equipment in Columbia and return it to MU when they’re finished.
“When I first told the principal about it, she was very positive,” Read said. “They are just excited to have all these equipments and resources for their students for free.”
The program began about 10 years ago as a stationary lab based in the state’s larger cities, Golomb said. Several years later, the lab went mobile.
Forty schools are participating during this academic year.
“Initially it was an institute, and then we started to supply equipment,” she said. “We have four modules right now: two stationery hubs, one in Kansas City and one in St. Louis, and two in constant circulation.”
Most participants are high school students and teachers, but in Owensville, middle-schoolers had the opportunity to extract DNA from their classmates’ cheek cells and then explore their genetic details.
Read’s students then cut the DNA into small pieces using bacterial enzymes and multiplied the pieces in a machine called a thermocycler. Such microscopic pieces can then be used for various purposes, including making vaccines and comparing DNA from crime scenes for matches, the teacher explained.
“Are we really going to be able to see the DNA?” a student asked.
Not exactly, Read responded. But after several rounds of amplifying or multiplying in the thermocycler, the DNA can be seen by using a dye that binds to it.
“You can take the picture home and show your DNA to your mom and dad,” Read said.
Her students said the technology reminded them of a popular TV crime drama.
“It’s kind of like ‘CSI,’ ” said 13-year-old Jessica Losh. “But now we know how they get the DNA samples and what they do to get the DNA samples.”
Golomb, though, said the hands-on science helps young learners understand the practical applications of what many see as an esoteric field of study.
“This gives them an opportunity to get a better understanding of genetics and how it affects their lives,” she said. “They also get an understanding of races. They get to see how race is purely a social and not a biological division.”
The lab work prompted Nick Epstein, also 13, to reflect on what he called a better understanding of how DNA can be used to debunk the notion of genetic racial differences.
“That notion can be completely put to rest with this technology,” Epstein said, “because you can compare the DNA of two people from two races and you will know that they are so similar.”
Aside from specific applications, the program’s biggest advantage is allowing students to translate concepts into practice, he said.
“Biology is really a hands-on kind of thing,” Epstein said. “You can read about it all you want. Doing it really puts it into perspective.”