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Pitt program opens lab for high school students

| Thursday, June 12, 2008

Canon-McMillan High School sophomore Jessica Zupancic knew she liked science, but she can't stop talking about how cool it is after studying a microscopic virus in a University of Pittsburgh laboratory.

"The moment you walk into Crawford (Hall), you have a chance for a new discovery right at your fingertips," she said.

Zupancic, 16, of Canonsburg is part of the University of Pittsburgh biology department phage-hunter program. It opens a professional research laboratory to Western Pennsylvania high school students so they can study viruses called mycobacteriophages, or phage for short.

It's real research in a laboratory with real scientists. Professor Graham Hatfull and program coordinator Deborah Jacobs-Sera started the program to excite students about scientific research that isn't offered in high school laboratories.

"I don't have the time or equipment to give them the experience Jessica is getting," Canon-McMillan biology teacher Debbie Steinmiller said.

"People find out what they want to do by exploring," Hatfull said.

Students accepted to the program don't learn what the phage DNA looks like from a picture in a biology book. They process the phage DNA and study it. The research might be published in a scientific journal.

The simplicity of the laboratory techniques required and the abundance of unique phages to be discovered and studied make the program successful even with students who never have been in a lab before, Hatfull said.

The experience starts with digging in the dirt -- literally. Zupancic discovered her phage in a dry Greene County creek bed.

She took the soil sample to the university lab. She isolated a phage in her first sample and spent four to six hours a week in the university laboratory studying it. After the summer break, she's hoping to process the DNA, sequence a genome and compare it to other known genomes.

Students often go in the laboratory hallway after they discover a phage and call their parents, Hatfull said.

"It's hook, line and sinker for her," Zupancic's father, Martin Zupancic, said. "Her worst day was when she took a break for summer."

"As much as people might think it is, the lab is not a boring place," said Charlie Bowman, 19. He recently finished his freshman year at Pitt, but began studying phages there when he was a junior at Yough High School in Herminie.

Students buy into the research because it's legitimate and not an exercise, Hatfull said. For many teenagers, the idea of a scientist or a real laboratory is so far removed from what they've experienced, they shy away from it.

When Aliza Resnick, 18, entered the program, she was reserved and unsure, she said, because she hadn't been in a real lab before.

"I didn't understand what science was," she said. "I didn't even understand that people were discovering new things right down the street from my high school."

Science was "monotonous" for Resnick at Schenley High School before she heard about the phage-hunter program from her grandmother. Now, she thinks she might study biology when she enters Haverford College in suburban Philadelphia next fall.

"It was so simple, and it happens a lot in that lab," Resnick said. "But understanding it on a deeper level, I know there is so much I can learn there, and it makes me excited."

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