As Falmouth Academy (Massachusetts) sophomores Dan Eder and Tyler Barron considered topics for research projects for their science fair last year, they read statistics indicating a high rate of Alzheimer’s disease on Cape Cod. They told their biology teacher, Alison Ament, they wanted to learn more about human memory. She put them in touch with Alan Kuzirian, a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory down the road in the science community of Woods Hole.
Seven years ago, Kuzirian pioneered experiments on sea slugs, for the drug Bryostatin, which is used as an anti-cancer treatment. The drug activates an enzyme that kills cancer cells, but because it also happens to activate memory acquisition and retention, it is now in clinical trials for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and strokes.
Kuzirian has developed a system that uses the sea slugs to test simple learning and memory. Since he knows the effects of Bryostatin on the animals, he uses it as a control in tests to determine whether other chemicals enhance or inhibit their memory. Dan and Tyler wanted to know the effects of the drug Aricept on the sea slugs.
“Dr. Kuzirian was happy to help,” said Tyler, “but he was clear that he wanted the project to be ours.”
“Their work is independent; that’s what a science fair project should be all about,” said Kuzirian. “For the most part, we’re really conscientious about having the kids do the work; I don’t want them just watching.”
“The science is real,” he continued. “I could use their data and extend their experiments, perhaps to show how Aricept — one of two drugs approved for treating Alzheimer’s — might be important to the overall pharmacology in Alzheimer’s treatment.”
It’s not just proximity to top scientists that adds value to Falmouth Academy’s science programs, it’s their willingness to mentor students that goes above and beyond their normal duties.
For Joanne Muller, one of two Falmouth Academy science faculty members who balances teaching responsibilities with being an active scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, mentoring and connecting students with nearby scientists is a natural extension of her job.
Muller has connected several Falmouth students with Woods Hole scientists, including bringing some into her lab to help with her research into monsoon activity in the Flores Sea of Indonesia.
“When our students work with mentors in their Woods Hole labs, they have a chance to participate in doing real science,” said Muller. “They can participate in experiments that relate to meaningful issues such as climate change or DNA modification. A good mentor gives students a window into the life of a working scientist. Most students don’t get to see that and it’s very valuable. ”
David Faus, headmaster of Falmouth Academy, agrees. “Every year, our students work closely with their science teachers on independent research projects, but the additional opportunity to work with Woods Hole mentors is one way we enhance a traditional, academic curriculum, and increase our students’ understanding and interest in science.”