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Science teachers research

Reproduced with permission from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, “ARRA: Helping a Few to Teach the Many,” The Inside Scoop, July 2009, http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/Research/ResearchResults/InterviewsOHR.

Science teacher 1Ben Doolan sat at his desk one day last April, clicked on his e-mail account, and noticed a note in his inbox from Charles Rose, principal of the 2,000-student South Garland High School. Doolan, a 10th-grade chemistry teacher at the high school located just outside of Dallas, clicked on the e-mail and his mind immediately started to race.

“I started thinking, ‘What if?’”

Around the same time in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Dusty Vincer heard the telephone ring and picked up to the familiar voice of a biology professor at nearby Collin College. Vincer, a ninth-grade biology teacher at Williams High School, a 1,900-student two-year high school, listened carefully when her colleague said, “They need your resume right away.”

Two resumes and several anxious weeks later, Doolan and Vincer got the good news. They had been selected from a competitive pool of high school science teachers to spend 10 weeks this summer running assays and broadening their scientific expertise at Baylor College of Dentistry – Texas A&M Health Science Center in Dallas. Doolan and Vincer will work in the laboratories of Dr. Rena D’Souza and faculty colleague Dr. Jerry Feng, where they will explore the developmental biology of teeth, bones, and other structures that form the head and face, also called the craniofacial complex.

The internships, which include a $14,000 summer stipend for each teacher, are just one of 54 oral and craniofacial research supplement awards supported nationwide this summer by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) and its parent organization the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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The 54 awards are supported with $885,000 in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA. Signed into law by President Obama last winter to help stem the current economic crisis, ARRA aims to jumpstart the American economy, create and/or save millions of jobs, and lay a better foundation to meet the challenges that face our country in the 21st century.

“This is the area of most gratification for me personally in academic research,” said D’Souza, who has trained and/or mentored about 50 dental students in short-term summer research programs. “A connection is made, and the students remain mindful throughout their careers of their experiences in the laboratory. Some return to teach part time, while others stay in touch with us as practitioners, referring patients or brainstorming over unique cases.”

“Everything we do now in dental and craniofacial research crosses the traditional boundaries of the biomedical sciences,” continued D’Souza. “We’re studying biological mechanisms that can be applied to any other system in the body. So, Ben and Dusty will be exposed to a model system that is illustrative of all of the questions that we ask about health and disease from head to toe.”

D’Souza said working with science teachers in the summer is a first for her laboratory. But, as she noted, the opportunity offers a telling example of how even a modest, short-term investment can have a tremendously catalyzing effect within a community, starting with the lives of the teachers themselves.

Take Doolan. In 2002, he entered a six-year Ph.D. program in cell and molecular biology at the University of Texas at Austin. By the four-year mark, Doolan had reached a professional crossroads. He had married, his wife was expecting their first child, and their income did not cover basic living expenses.

“I realized that I needed to go find a job tomorrow,” he recalled. “Here we were a struggling, young family staring into a lot of scenarios that neither of us were very happy about.”

Doolan reached a pragmatic decision to earn a steady paycheck, first as a financial planner and then two years later as a high school science teacher. “Teaching has worked out really well for me,” said Doolan. “But I still think about having never achieved my goal of getting a Ph.D. When this opportunity came across my desk, I started thinking, ‘Wow, maybe I can still complete the journey.’”

D’Souza said that’s a distinct possibility. “Ben trained with an excellent developmental biology group at UT-Austin, and he hasn’t been away from the laboratory all that long, meaning his bench skills remain current,” said D’Souza, whose group is especially noted for its studies of tooth and bone formation. “I told him, ‘Give it a try this summer in the laboratory.’ If he can take time off for a sabbatical, we will be glad to let him continue with his Ph.D. training. The door is always open.”

“I’ll work on fast-track research projects this summer,” said Doolan. “The plan is to get some scientific publications out of the 10 weeks. Then, long term, maybe I can finish up my Ph.D. at Baylor on a part-time basis. I still want to teach, though. It’s something that I’ve fallen in love with.”

For Vincer, the research experience is enabling on several levels. She will spend her 10 weeks performing bench research and assisting on projects that explore the genetics and molecular biology of tooth bud formation. Two summers ago, Vincer also worked in a laboratory at UT-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where she studied the hormone relaxin.

“To be quite honest, I’m not real familiar with the biology of tooth formation,” said Vincer, who has been a science teacher for five years and was a biology major in college. “So, I can learn about the formation of the different tissues that comprise the head and face, and then I can take all of that back to my students.”

That includes a large percentage of the 53,000 kids in her school district. Among her many administrative duties, Vincer helps to develop the science curriculum for the Plano Independent School District. “Our ninth-graders participate each year in a science fair,” she said. “They’re really just scratching the surface with some of the projects, but this grant will allow me to make a connection with a respected scientific organization within our local community. If a student is interested in a science fair project to show, for example, how a tooth or a face forms, I can pick up the phone, call Baylor College of Dentistry, and find a knowledgeable professional to help nurture their curiosity.”

D’Souza said this is no small point. Efforts to boost interest in science and technology among young people will help America keeps its competitive edge as a world leader in scientific innovation.

In this spirit, she and her colleagues at Baylor College of Dentistry already have invited Vincer and Doolan to drop in on her lab whenever needed in the years ahead to talk or put on a lab coat. D’Souza also said she and her colleagues would like to meet the students in Plano and Garland and help foster their curiosity for science and technology.

“So often we talk to kids in the classroom about genes and proteins, but our words have no tangible connection to anything that’s real to them,” said Doolan. “Dr. D’Souza has talked about bringing some of her group into the classroom to show the kids, say, a frog that produces a green fluorescently labeled protein or some of the other really cool stuff that they work with every day. In other words, they can tell the students, ‘Here, hold this or look at that. This is the really cool part of what we do.’ Hopefully, their real-world enthusiasm can inspire the students and really just touch them.”