In 2001, the Museum became much more than a playground to Alex. Every day after school, and full-time over the summer, she worked in a molecular biology lab in the Museum's Department of Invertebrate Zoology, as part of the Precollege Science Collaborative for Urban Minority Youth (PSC). Now in its ninth year, this AMNH internship program gives high school students from underserved communities an opportunity to pursue serious research with working scientists. Past interns have worked with Museum staff on projects ranging from developing techniques for predicting volcanic eruptions to identifying Paleocene mammal fossils. Applicants must be in good academic standing and be able to commit to an intensive two-year experience. They must also be prepared to work as part of a research team with a curator or postdoctoral research scientist at the Museum, who serves as a mentor.
An opportunity for mentors, too
Alex Wise joins the Precollege Science Collaborative program
When Dr. Kass was unable to keep her on, Alex wondered if there was a chance to work in a lab at the Museum. "Lo and behold, there was a spot as an assistant to Dr. Mark Siddall and Dr. Susan Perkins, working with leeches," Alex recounts. Mark, Assistant Curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, is an expert on the systematics of leeches; Susan, who did her doctorate work on the systematics and biogeogaphy of malaria, had come to work with him that summer because of their shared interest in blood parasites.
Looking at leeches
Day-to-day activities depend on the lab's research priorities and long-term schedule. "Some days we dissect leeches. The ones we look at are about a quarter-inch to an inch long," says Alex. "I watch Dr. Siddall take the mycetomes out of them, and bring tissues up to the lab. They're visible to the naked eye, but small, like a tiny speck of dirt. We use a standard extraction protocol, with various buffersand then we heat the material overnight to break it down further. We want to get the DNA. DNA is an excellent chemical because it forms a helical structure that stays together very well when put in these washes. The next day, we finish the extraction, and then use the DNA in a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to amplify bacterial genes. Then we put it through a gel electrophoresisit's like Jell-O without the flavor, except that you wouldn't want to eat itto see the results. Sometimes it doesn't work, and we have to go back and do the PCR and gel electrophoresis again."
Learning what life in the lab is like
Susan also likes the more casual aspects of the job: "Being someone whom Alex can come and talk to after school. Being someone she can bounce ideas off of. We head up to the lab, where I show her what I'm doing and give her a chance to ask questions. That way she knows what I'm involved with, and gets a better feel for how the simple techniques that she's learningPCR and sequencingcan be used to answer a broad range of questions in biology," says Susan.
Mastering the techniques of genetic research
Pressed, Alex admits, "I'm not really interested in leeches themselves. We have thousands of different species in the lab, jars and jars, and we had some live ones." A high pointor perhaps a low pointwas once being offered the opportunity to feed a leech. "You put your hand in the water; it kind of feels like a little booster shot. But I did it. Ideally, I'd like to train them to become vegetarian!" she jokes. "Alex is very dedicated and very inquisitive," says Susan. "She asks me a lot of questions, which I always take as a good sign that someone's thinking through the process and understanding it. The program would definitely benefit any student who showed an interest in further work in science, to get out of the classroom and cookbook lab atmosphere, and to work with someone actually in the field." Now a freshman at Ohio Wesleyan and planning a double major in chemistry and neuropsychology, Alex definitely agrees that she got a lot out of PSC. "It's a great way to explore your interests," she declares. "Science is a huge field, and it's hard to say, 'I want to do this' until you get some hands-on experience and some basic building blocks."
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