UTPA's Biotech Mobile Lab delivers bioscience education to Valley schools
Posted: 06/29/2006
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The University of Texas-Pan American celebrated the official ribbon cutting June 16 of its Regional Biotech Mobile Laboratory - one of a few clinical laboratory classrooms on wheels in the United States and the first of its kind in Texas. The lab will deliver hands-on bioscience education to Rio Grande Valley fifth through 12th grade students at their schools with a goal of stimulating their interest in pursuing biomedical research and related health science careers.

Pictured at the ribbon cutting of the new UTPA Regional Biotech Mobile Laboratory June 16 are left to right Dr. George Eyambe, associate professor, Clinical Laboratory Sciences and Regional Biotech Program director; Patricia Soochan, program officer, Undergraduate Science Education Program, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Dr. Bruce Reed, interim dean, UTPA College of Health Sciences and Human Services; Dr. Blandina Cárdenas, UTPA president; Dr. Tony Beck, program director, National Center for Research Resources, National Institutes of Health; and George Cabrera, teacher at South Middle School in Edinburg.
The 40-foot mobile lab is an extension of UTPA's Regional Biotech Program that began in 2002 under the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, which provided an on-campus clinical lab environment for students and teachers funded by Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Funding for the mobile lab to bring science to students and teachers in remote areas lacking adequate travel funds to access the on-campus lab was provided in 2004 by a portion of a $1.3 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to expand the infrastructure supporting bio-medical research at the University.

Able to serve 24 students per session, the mobile lab was modeled after one first created at Boston University in 1991. It became fully outfitted and operational in February 2006.

In her welcome to the more than 100 guests at the ceremony and mobile lab tour, UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas said she had just returned from Washington D.C. where she heard the NIH director talk about the transformation of medical care and how this century will be shaped by the fields of biology and biotechnology.

"This mobile laboratory is about putting thousands of students in the Rio Grande Valley in contact with this wonderful new science because you have something to give this country that nobody else can. In order to make it work you have to grab at science, you have to grab at biology, you have to grab at technology. Take what you know and mix it all together so you can serve our community, our state and our country in a wonderful way," she said, noting the lab has already served 4,000 Valley students. Teachers trained in the lab curricula are eligible to earn continuing education credits.

Dr. Tony Beck, program director at NCRR, which administers SEPA talked about that program and the important role it plays, particularly in collaboration with other programs and agencies, in providing a pipeline of future scientists particularly women, minorities and underserved and underrepresented populations.

Samantha Almanza (center), an eighth-grade student at South Middle School in Edinburg, points out the glowing results from transforming bacteria with recombinant plasmid DNA to her classmates (left) and at right State Representatives Aaron Peña (TX-40) and Veronica Gonzales (TX-41) during a tour of the new Regional Biotech mobile lab at its ribbon cutting. In this biotech training module, illustrative of what students can experience in the lab, the plasmid contains a gene from a bioluminescent jellyfish, which causes the bacteria to glow in the dark.
"These programs are so important for the future of our country. We need a diverse workforce," he said. Beck also stressed the importance of creating an excitement for science in a student's early years as did Patricia Soochan, program officer of the Undergraduate Science Education Program at HHMI, who also spoke at the ribbon cutting. HHMI, she said, has invested more than $700 million in undergraduate science education, 20 percent of that going to outreach.

The bioscience education - biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics and their real-world application - provided by the Regional Biotech on-campus and mobile labs includes nine training modules that are aligned with many of the National Science Education standards and the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) test. Through the use of state-of-the-art equipment students are able to perform DNA isolation and replication, protein quantization and diagnostic exercises for sickle-cell anemia and HIV, among other hands-on module activities that have names such as "The Search for the Jumping Gene" and "The Case of the Crown Jewels."

Besides a laptop computer at each lab station, the mobile lab bus is equipped with a wireless satellite telecommunications system to allow utilization of Web-based teaching programs as well as overhead LCD monitors to allow students in the rear a view of the teacher at the front of the bus.

UTPA alumnus George Cabrera, a teacher at South Middle School in Edinburg, has had his students at both the on-campus and mobile biotech laboratory and described his excitement about the program and its significant value and impact on both teachers and students.

"I want to thank the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for their vision of the future. I have that vision and want the students to have that vision and go beyond that," he said, adding that he has seen the motivation and effort of his students go up following lab participation.

Cabrera also said the fact that it is a free program and its modules are aligned with state and national testing standards make it easier for districts to choose to participate.

One of Cabrera's students, Samantha Almanza, an eighth-grader at South Middle School, said participating in the lab made her more interested in science than she was previously.

"It is really fun and exciting. I learned a lot of things. Now I am good at science," she said.

The 40-foot Regional Biotech Mobile Laboratory can serve 24 Valley students per session and is the first of its kind in Texas.
Mary Ann Escamilla, a Clinical Laboratory Sciences health education coordinator who oversees the lab's scheduling and program content, explained that each module includes a pre- and post-test to evaluate the increase in knowledge.

"We estimated that 80 percent of our students would increase. We are up at 80 to 85 percent depending on the module and how long we have a student. It is a wonderful thing," she said.

Dr. Bruce Reed, interim dean of the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, said Regional Biotech's long-term impact is that many more young Valley students will be interested in science and technology and embrace science as an exciting field and as a future career.

"We are trying to reach younger and younger students focusing more in middle schools as well as high schools because that's when more career decisions are being made," said Reed, who pointed out that many of the programs that students can pursue in the field are available at UTPA, particularly UTPA's Clinical Laboratory Sciences program which combines biology and chemistry with health science.

For Escamilla, the work with students in the Regional Biotech labs has become addictive.

"Every time that I deal with students and work with them there is a light that shines in their eyes. There is always that moment of wonder and amazement that they have actually learned something and they are relating it back to what they know and you know they are going to keep that moment forever," she said.

Participation in the Regional Biotech program is open to any school district as well as private and home schooled groups. For more information or to participate in the program, call 956/292-7204.