MRICD welcomes first GEMS students

Olivia Webster assists Mathew Varghese of Forest Hill

Near-peer mentor Olivia Webster assists Mathew Varghese of Forest Hill as he practices loading samples in an agarose gel for gel electrophoresis, in the DNA fingerprinting experiment.

This summer, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense broadened its tradition of encouraging the scientific endeavors of students by welcoming children from the Army Educational Outreach Program called Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science.

GEMS provides students in the fifth through eighth grades with one to four weeks of hands-on experience in Army laboratories while paying the students a small stipend. MRICD hosted two groups of students: forty-two students participated in the institute's program from July 18-22, and thirty-two students conducted the same experiments from July 25-29.

MRICD's parent organization, the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Md., and its sister lab, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Bethesda, Md., have held GEMS internships for several years. MRMC expanded its program this year to other subordinate laboratories and provided the funding and guidance for MRICD's participation.

Like MRMC, the institute hopes GEMS will become a feeder program for other internship opportunities available to students, such as the Science and Engineering Apprentice Program for high school students and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education internship program for college students and those who have recently graduated from college. By bringing students into the lab throughout their education, the institute hopes they'll one day join the workforce on a permanent basis.

The responsibility for getting the GEMS program up and running at the institute fell to Christina Weber, MRICD's marketing manager. Weber worked tirelessly to publicize the institute's participation, to coordinate with the necessary administrative offices, and to plan a fun, educational experience for the mostly local students. Most importantly, she persuaded several MRICD principal investigators to donate laboratory space in which to conduct the GEMS experiments, and she secured the assistance of Linda McDonough, an advanced science, research and technology teacher/advisor at the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School, to serve as the program's lead resource teacher.

McDonough explored options for the experiments, looking for age-appropriate, stimulating activities. She also selected the SMA students that served as near-peer mentors to the GEMS interns. The mentors were responsible for guiding the students through the week-long group of experiments and activities, helping them to prepare presentations, and conducting the graduation ceremonies.

Getting these high school students to give up three weeks of their summer vacation to mentor younger children was not difficult. (The near-peers had a week of training prior to their two weeks of teaching.)

"I love science," said Olivia Webster of Abingdon. "I thought it would be really fun helping other kids to love science, too."

McDonough selected five kit experiments for the GEMS students to conduct and planned several other activities and challenges to round out the week. Her primary objective was to have the students experience what conducting scientific research was all about.

"Linda really wanted to focus on the scientific method and to teach the students that there is a process to follow, from planning the experiments to presenting the data and your conclusions," said Weber.

Toward that end, students documented their experiments in laboratory notebooks, which they reviewed at the beginning of each day. At the end of the week, the students gathered in groups to prepare poster presentations of the week's experiments. The posters illustrated with text and graphics the experimental objectives, materials and methods, results, and conclusions, and were on display for viewing by the GEMS parents during the graduation ceremonies.

The experiments McDonough selected tracked closely with the biomedical sciences and chemistry disciplines used in the research conducted at MRICD. Over the course of the week, in small groups of five or six, the GEMS students performed experiments in DNA extraction and isolation from fruits and vegetables, DNA fingerprinting analysis, such as is used in crime scene investigations, genetics, studying daphnia (tiny, transparent freshwater crustaceans used in biological research), blood typing, and colors of pH indicators. When supplies didn't arrive in time for a proteomics lab, Dr. Heidi Hoard-Fruchey, one of MRICD's principal investigators, stepped in with a hands-on lab to teach the students about vertical gel electrophoresis and how it is used to separate and compare proteins.

While the kits took students step-by-step through the experiments, a light-in-the-bag study allowed them to vary the experimental methods and to hypothesize about the results. By varying the amount and the temperature of the water they added to chemiluminescence crystals, the students could vary the brightness and duration of the glow the water/crystal mixture produced. Prizes were awarded to the groups who figured out how to get their light to glow brightest and longest.

Bringing the experiments into an actual research laboratory and having the institute's Ph.D. scientists available to occasionally answer questions or to interact with the students clearly enhanced the students' experiences.

Lauren Impallaria, 13, from Bel Air, was "really excited to work in a real lab and do real experiments." Biology, genetics, and chemistry particularly interest Impallaria, whose favorite experiment was the genetics lab.

"I enjoyed the labs and experiments," said Justin Knoll, an eighth grader from Bel Air. "It gave me a better idea of what it's really like to be in a lab."

Karl Cauley heard about MRICD's GEMS internship from his science teacher at Aberdeen Middle School. This future ichthyologist of course found the experiment with daphnia to be the most interesting, but being "really into science," Cauley also enjoyed learning about an area new to him, proteomics.

"I feel like I learned a lot," Cauley said. "It was great."

Challenges conducted during the week also gave the GEMS students the opportunity to think through problems and work as teams. How do you construct a boat out of a square of aluminum foil to hold the maximum amount of pennies? How many full cans of soda can your straw tower support? The teams whose boat held the most pennies and whose tower supported the most cans received prizes at the graduation ceremony.

It was clear that the students, and their near-peer mentors, enjoyed the program and got a lot out of the experience.

"This experience was amazing," said Maggie Weese, a near-peer mentor from Bel Air. "The best thing was just seeing the kids faces when they had done something awesome."

Chloe Meyer, 12, from Flushing, Mich., and niece to MRICD scientist Dr. Devon Andres, particularly enjoyed the DNA fingerprinting lab. Though interested in becoming a doctor, she said that the GEMS experience has made her think about other career possibilities. Megan Rodriguez-Puente, 12, whose mom, Staff Sgt. Melinda Rodriguez-Puente, works at MRICD, said that she would like to participate in GEMS next summer as well.

"To have the support of the Command, the administrative staff, and especially the PIs was vital," said Weber. "To share our technology and the mission-relevant experiments was critical for us successfully executing the program here."

Weber is already thinking about how to make next year's program at MRICD even better. She hopes to have the announcement out for participants in late winter, early spring 2012.

The mission of the MRICD is to discover and develop medical countermeasures to chemical warfare agents; to train and educate personnel in the medical management of chemical casualties; and to provide subject matter expertise in developing Defense and National policy and in proper crisis management. Please visit our website at and our Facebook page at

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Last Modified Date: 26-Nov-2012