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Fall 2019

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Xuehua Zhong, associate professor of genetics, and high school summer science camp participant Sadiq Wanyaka look at a solution of supernatant and isopropanol during a DNA extraction experiment at the Morgridge Institute for Research at the Discovery Building on the UW–Madison campus. Photo by Michael P. King

Genetics professor Xuehua Zhong is a true believer in the power of outreach to instill a love of science in young people and develop mentoring skills in her students. To her delight, she has found an opportunity to do both.

Every July, hundreds of high school students from across Wisconsin descend on the Discovery Building at UW–Madison for Summer Science Camps run by the Morgridge Institute for Research and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Over the course of a week, many of the participants are introduced to Arabidopsis thaliana, epigenetics, and members of Zhong’s laboratory group.

Graduate students Sarah Leichter and Ray Scheid BS’16 lead the high schoolers through a molecular biology experiment to investigate the difference between two types of plants: the wild- type, or “normal,” plant and a mutant stripped of its ability to methylate DNA. The students extract DNA from the plants using the same tools and techniques Leichter and Scheid use in their own experiments.

Next, they go on a molecular treasure hunt for DNA methylation using a special enzyme that cuts methylated DNA and a technique called PCR, which makes copies of sections of DNA to make it visible on agarose gel. At the end of the week, they talk about what their experimental results mean for the plants with whose DNA they have been tinkering.

Many of the students may never have encountered a centrifuge or micropipette, but Leichter is impressed with how quickly the young minds take to science. “I like seeing the kids problem-solve and work together as they go through the protocol, and I’m really surprised at how naturally good they are at molecular biology techniques,” she says. “I find that they ask really good questions about science beyond what we are doing for the experiment in the lab.”

The camps are just one instrument in Zhong’s arsenal of outreach activities, but she sees them as a unique opportunity to impact not only the students but also their teachers. “The idea is that the influence of a science teacher could be very big,” she says, recalling that her own sixth-grade teacher was responsible for cultivating her early interest in science. “The students go home and influence their friends and local communities and talk about their research experience at UW–Madison, but the teachers can also have a huge impact on an entire generation of future scientists.”

The benefits don’t end there. Zhong’s own students learn valuable mentoring skills by participating in camps, lab internship programs, and other outreach opportunities. Those abilities, says Zhong, are just as important as the laboratory skills they develop on the way to receiving their degrees.

“Eventually, they’re going to be leaders and mentors somewhere, and these are great opportunities for them to learn how to mentor junior students and to model what scientists look like.”

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