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CSHL Hires Geneticist to Head Initiative Aimed at Introducing RNAi to Students


Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Dolan DNA Learning Center has hired on a C. elegans geneticist to oversee the organization's effort to develop RNA interference experiments and curricula for high school and college students, RNAi News has learned.

An advisory committee for the project is expected to meet as early as next spring, with formal workshops for teachers planned to begin in the summer.

In June last year, CSHL was awarded a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to establish modules "of investigative laboratories and bioinformatics exercises that engage students in the new technologies of RNA interference and computer-based genome analysis" (see RNAi News, 10/1/2004). To do so, CSHL researchers David Micklos, Gregory Hannon, and Jennifer Aizenman proposed a collaboration between two- and four-year colleges and the Dolan DNA Learning Center, which is an operating unit of CSHL focused on educating the public about genetics.

"Newly developed modules will be introduced to and critiqued by biology faculty and high school biology teachers," the grant's abstract stated. "Instructional and bioinformatics resources developed in this project will be disseminated via [Dolan's website], Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and Carolina Biological Supply Company."

As his time at the University of Oregon wound down, Nash said that he "was looking to shift gears into education, and it turns out that [CSHL] had this job for a C. elegans geneticist who was interested in teaching. It seemed like a good fit."

In September, to get the effort moving, the Dolan DNA Learning Center brought on Bruce Nash, who recently completed a postdoctoral stint at the University of Oregon's Institute of Molecular Biology under Bruce Bowerman, as an education manager with a specific focus on the RNAi project.

"My job [as a postdoc] was to study cell division in the early C. elegans embryo," Nash told RNAi News this week. "I participated in a genome-wide screen for suppressors and enhancers of one of the genes I was studying, and I also used RNAi to look at interactions [between genes or] in order to aid in the cloning of genes we identified in a traditional screen."

As his time at the University of Oregon wound down, Nash said that he "was looking to shift gears into education, and it turns out that [CSHL] had this job for a C. elegans geneticist who was interested in teaching. It seemed like a good fit."

According to Nash, the initial goal of his work at the Dolan DNA Learning Center is "to come up with experiments and curriculum … that will demonstrate and explain the concepts of RNA interference [in C. elegans], and the various uses and implications of RNA interference, to college and high school teachers … so that they will then be able to incorporate [the gene-silencing technology] in their classrooms."

Nash said that although the project might at some point be expanded to include a variety of different animals, it is currently limited to C. elegans as a model organism because "it's relatively fast and easy and cheap [to use worms]. With relatively few tools, you can do RNA interference — you have to be able to grow bacteria, pour plates, pick worms, and look at them with a microscope."

In preparation for the spring advisory committee meeting, Nash said that the bulk of his effort is centered on developing and optimizing "robust, easily understood experiments that are do-able by students within a reasonable timeframe. I'm trying to develop RNA-feeding experiments and an associated molecular biology module in order to explain RNAi and demonstrate it within the context of a five-day time span," he said.

The goal, he added, is to design experiments "so that they work every time, show good phenotypes, and demonstrate some of the more powerful aspects of RNAi ... as well as something about the mechanism."

Once the advisory committee has met and provided feedback on the experiments and curricula, the Dolan DNA Learning Center expects that it will be able to run three teacher workshops next summer. While it is expected that the workshops will primarily be attended by college instructors, Nash said that they will likely be open to interested high school teachers, as well.

Although high school students are typically less savvy than college students, Nash noted that he is working to "come up with a curriculum that's do-able in a high school biology class that has some basic tools. There will be a more basic version that will just be worms and bacteria, and … the idea will be to have a molecular biology module that you can put in or not put in" based on a school's particular resources and the students' learning level.

And that learning level appears to be advancing rapidly. "Today I taught a course [at the Dolan DNA Learning Center] where we isolated DNA from cheek cells, then amplified one part of the genome that [includes] a polymorphism, ran the gels, then looked at it," Nash said. "That was with grade 11 [students], but I've done it with grade 9 [students, as well]."

— Doug Macron ([email protected])

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