Gideon Dunster: Outreach with Taf Academy and STEM OUT

At the beginning of the fall of last year I began working with a volunteer group called STEM OUT. This group, headed by a UW graduate student in the education department, is seeking to create mentoring relationships between graduate students and professionals with high school students from classically underrepresented groups in science. For the past 7 months, this small group of graduate student mentors have been making bi-monthly trips to TAF academy in Kent to meet with our "mentees" to talk science, college preparation, classwork, lab work, and the other general interests of life that are important to high schoolers.

TAF academy is a public school that was started in 2008 through a partnership between the nonprofit Technology Access Foundation and the Federal Way Public School district whose goal is to reach out to students from classically underrepresented minorities in STEM fields in order to help them succeed. STEM OUT was started as a partnership with TAF Academy to provide mentoring to students who wanted the opportunity to learn from individuals actively pursuing STEM careers in academia or the private sector.

There is no specific goal for this project, we are not supposed to ensure the students graduate on time or make it in a specific career. Rather, we have spent our time helping out with a myriad of questions, building a layer of support that the students can rely on, and providing an example of what you can do with a career in STEM if that is what they decide to do. We are there to make connections and, in some cases, settle important scientific questions like if toilet paper should be installed with the leading edge over or under (a topic which included a 10 minute formal debate with opposing sides and judges).

As an obvious extension of that work, on Friday March 27th the majority of STEM OUT students took a field trip to the UW in order to tour the labs of their mentors and participate in some awesome hands-on science. The timing was great because the university was out for Spring Break so no one minded 20-30 high school students poking their heads in labs. During the morning, I lead a group of 9 of our high schoolers around to two of our other mentors labs so the kids could see some science in action. In our first lab, the students used common berries to make photovoltaic solar cells and then got to measure their electrical output. In the second lab, the students were taught how bacteria can produce light and the ways that viruses can cause cancer. I was proud of how involved the students got into each project and the amount of really awesome questions they asked. 
 

The workspace. The black laser (top) shoots down into the muscle.

Finally, in the afternoon our groups broke up and I lead my "mentees" to the Daniel Lab in order to show them the work that I have been doing during my rotation. For those of you who don't know, I have been spending my time helping with a project investigating the physics of muscle contraction. In short, I have been stimulating frog leg muscles while passing a laser through in order to measure the cross-bridge interactions during contraction. This project is not only fun, but it results in some pretty cool pictures. Muscle proteins are so highly organized and regular, that when you pass a laser through it, it produces repeating lines (see photo below). How those lines move during contraction gives us a measure of how the proteins are interacting. After a quick demonstration to what I can only describe as a captive audience (the bus wasn't leaving for another half hour so they had nothing better to do than to listen to me yammer on) it was time to head back to the bus and send them on their way.
 
Muscle is made up of two main proteins: actin (thin filaments) and myosin (thick filaments). These two proteins slide along  each other during contraction, that's what causes the muscle to shorten. The z-disks are where the actin proteins come together and form a line, an anchor if you will. Muscle is so highly organized that these z-disks (and there are millions of them) line up even when we scale up to the size of a whole muscle. What we do when we shoot a laser through the muscle is bounce the light off of those repeating z-disks, resulting is the discrete lines you see in the picture. Those lines are for all intents and purposes, a real-time visualization of the z-disks. Thus, when we stimulate the muscle and those fibers slide past each other, the distance between the z-disks changes. The laser allows us to watch how those distances change and make conclusions about the physics of the muscle contraction. Top image credit

As many of you know, I am here in graduate school because I want to teach some day. I chose the UW because of the impeccable researchers and mentors, but also because this department provides it's graduate students with some amazing opportunities to help us define what it means to be a scientist. As we all know, some weeks the daily minutiae of the lab can pile up and cause us to question the intelligence of our decisions. After several hours, days, or weeks of an experiment not working we begin to tell ourselves that maybe the original question isn't THAT interesting after all and perhaps your parents were right, you should have gone into a more lucrative business like art history. Those are the times when I am the most thankful that I volunteer in STEM OUT. Not because it's a resume booster or good karma, but because through those interactions I am reminded why I love science. Teaching, like any career, is not for everyone. For me, however, it is a perfect way to help the next generation of scientists and recharge the soul.

~Gideon

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