BAR HARBOR — Through the halls of The Jackson Laboratory walk some of the world’s most brilliant biomedical research scientists, some of whom have won international awards — including a Nobel Prize — for their work.
But last week, those halls hosted a special visit by a group of nine high school students who might someday win prizes of their own. The students were from the first ever biomedical research class at Hancock County Technical Center (HCTC), the technical high school in Ellsworth that prepares students for jumping immediately into their careers after graduating.
“When I turn 18, I want to get a job here,” said Leah McGraw while standing in the laboratory’s spotless visitors entrance.
McGraw goes to Sumner Memorial High School when she’s not taking the HCTC biomedical research class, which is held at Ellsworth High School, for two hours a day.
“This is a good experience to see what it’s all about,” McGraw said.
For the students, the trip to Jackson Lab was the culmination of several weeks of classes about genomics and ethics.
The Jackson Laboratory helped build the curriculum and provided the equipment as part of its Teaching the Genome Generation program. The program helps train science teachers across New England and provide curricula for them on teaching up-to-date genomics and genetics.
The program exists because Jackson Lab is growing fast: it will open a new facility in Ellsworth by 2018 and it is discussing a possible research agreement with the government and medical university of Wenzhou, China. To feed that growth, the laboratory needs more highly trained scientists.
“We have a number of positions to be filled at all levels,” said Michael McKernan, the director of the Maine State Science Fair and the program director of STEM and undergraduate education at the Jackson Laboratory. “We do need to take steps to increase the skill level of local students and provide them with opportunities to see what’s going on inside the Jax Lab.”
Hancock County Technical Center is the first technical high school to join the Teaching the Genome Generation program. The idea was hatched in 2014 when Micki Sumpter, Ellsworth’s economic development director, met with Amy Boles, HCTC’s director, to explore new possibilities for technical education in the area.
“All the school superintendents saw a collaboration between Jax and HCTC as a marriage made in heaven in terms of opportunities for kids,” Boles said.
The idea gained momentum last fall, when Boles and Sumpter met with McKernan to set up a curriculum.
The development could not have come at a better time for Sarah Petroulis, who teaches the HCTC’s biomedical research class.
After eight years of working as a biomedical researcher, Petroulis pursued her passion for teaching by earning a master’s degree in science education. She graduated this May, right around the time HCTC was looking for someone to teach their new biomedical research class.
“I saw the job and I was like, ‘I think this job was meant for me,’” said Petroulis, who spent much of her career studying cancer at Jackson Laboratory. “I’ve published a few papers and now I can help educate the next generation of scientists.”
While many high-schoolers don’t yet know what they want to be when they grow up, Petroulis’s students have firm goals of becoming doctors, surgeons, veterinarians, biomedical researchers like Petroulis or forensic scientists.
“The program we’re doing is super-cool,” said Shayley Bridges, a student from Bucksport who plans on studying to become a veterinarian soon. “We’ve been analyzing our own DNA.”
To do that, the students worked with highly advanced — and expensive — equipment provided by the Jackson Laboratory. Those included micropipettors, which are capable of transferring a thousandth of a thousandth of a liter (a microliter) of liquid for extracting DNA from a saliva sample. Those samples were collected by the less-sophisticated task of spitting in a tube.
“This is very specially calibrated equipment,” said Petroulis, about the micropipettors. The intense, two-hour-a-day classes allow Petroulis to teach her students advanced skills such as developing their own genotyping assay. That skill — which amplifies certain genes so that, for example, a forensic scientist can track down a criminal’s DNA — is generally what graduate students do, Petroulis explained.
“Part of being at a technical high school is giving them skills that would be applicable right after high school,” she said. “They really get ahead of the game that way.”
After two hours a day spent working with Jackson Lab equipment, learning from a Jackson Lab-inspired curriculum, and listening to a former Jackson Lab employee, finally visiting the actual Jackson Laboratory was the icing on the cake for the students.
“Jax itself matched what they’re doing in our lab to what scientists are doing at an actual research facility,” said Petroulis. “And they got to talk to people who might hire them.”
Or course, last week’s visit wasn’t the end of the year-round biomedical research class. Ahead lie lessons in breeding mice, the clinical side of research, and who knows what else.
“It’s a cool position to be in right now,” Petroulis said. “The possibilities are endless.”