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Because It’s Cool

A new biotech lab at Carnegie Museum of Natural History gives kids a taste of the cool science they see on TV—and a possible jumpstart on biotech careers.





Museum Director Bill DeWalt joins biology teacher Ellen Wright and her students in the new Fisher Scientific Biotechnology Laboratory.

A few years ago, who would have guessed a bunch of forensic scientists would be the sex symbols of prime time TV? Now it’s hard to imagine television without the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series—all four or five of them—and all its intoxicatingly grizzly story lines.

But Lauren Giarratani, a University of Pittsburgh research specialist, isn’t at all surprised. “It looks cool,” she says, simply, of the appeal of forensic science. “And people love to solve mysteries.”

Kids, especially. And it’s mystery-loving kids that Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Fisher Scientific want to attract to the museum’s new Fisher Scientific Biotechnology Laboratory.

The lab’s inaugural, biotech science investigation took place on October 15, when middle-school students from Perry Traditional Academy and their biology teacher, Ellen Wright, performed some genetic fingerprinting thanks to sophisticated lab equipment donated by Fisher Scientific. They extracted DNA from a number of organisms and then identified their origins.

“ Biotechnology is a 21st-century science,” Wright says. “We hope that by having students conduct fun and engaging biotechnology experiments, we can capture their interest and encourage them to study and pursue careers in science.”

Wright, a finalist for the 2005 National Biotechnology Teacher of the Year Award, developed the curriculum that other visiting school groups and their teachers will use to conduct experiments in the Fisher Lab. The museum will also hold teacher training, starting in December, to help biology teachers become proficient in biotech science so they can share that knowledge with their students. Funding for all of the curriculum development came from The Grable Foundation.

The lab will be open on Saturdays, too, so that families can do some scientific sleuthing together. Those programs are being developed by Lauren Giarratani, who was a biotech researcher before joining the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE).

“ Our goal is to engage the public with real science and help them make a connection between what they see at the museum—the biodiversity shown in all of the exhibits—and biotechnology,” Giarratani explains.

Nancy Drew, Eat Your Heart Out
Giarratani compares the public’s current fascination with forensic science to the thrill of reading a good mystery novel. As kids, she says, “we read Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and imagined
ourselves doing what they did”—solving mysteries and catching criminals.

At Carnegie Museum of Natural History, kids don’t have to imagine. They can take part in mystery-solving overnighters and summer camps with names like Forensic Fanatics, Super Sleuths, Carnegie Science Investigation—and, for the holidays, Who ate the Cookie? And the
adventure seekers will now be conducting their investigations with the aid of current DNA-identification technology in the Fisher Lab.

A description of the CSI overnighter reads like this: Join the Carnegie Science Investigation team as an overnight detective and help us find out who took the carved walrus tusk! Our young detectives help crack the case by collecting evidence at the scene, dusting for fingerprints, extracting DNA, doing a hair and fiber analysis, and utilizing other sleuthing skills.

Douglas Chew, Ph.D., a medical researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, volunteers on the scientific overnight adventures. Working with the museum’s Trish Radford, he helps come up with new experiences for kids who come to camp out at the museum and experience something totally unique.

“ I really like to share the science I love,” Chew says. “And now that we have this great laboratory from Fisher Scientific, we can really do Class A science.”

Fisher Scientific was founded in Pittsburgh in 1902, and today the company supplies more than half a million products and services to university scientists, hospital researchers and physicians, scientists working in pharmaceutical companies, and government researchers.

In addition to the new Fisher Scientific Biotechnology Laboratory, located in one of the museum’s basement classrooms, the company recently donated equipment to outfit the museum with a new molecular lab, which also bears the Fisher name. The lab is being used by museum scientists, researchers, and students from regional universities, and as a training center for Fisher Scientific staff. Fisher plans to update both labs as needed.

“ Our goal in partnering with the museum is to help educate young people and foster scientific discovery in the Pittsburgh region,” says Ed Pesicka, general manager for Fisher Scientific Research.

From the looks of determination on the faces of Ellen Wright’s eighth-grade biology students as they participated in the Biotech Lab’s first classroom experiment, the Carnegie Museum-Fisher Scientific partnership is sure to produce at least a few biotech scientists. And lots of engaged mystery lovers.

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