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Two local high school teachers make new discoveries in Syracuse University's research laboratories

July 21, 2008

Judy Holmes

Judy Holmes

Two Central New York teachers are spending their summer discovering how the fundamental scientific ideas and knowledge they teach are generated in a university research laboratory. Gina Duggleby, a biology teacher at Paul V. Moore High School in Central Square, and Lisa Hemler, a chemistry teacher at Liverpool High School, are participating in Syracuse University's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), sponsored by the Department of Chemistry in SU's College of Arts and Sciences.

This is the ninth consecutive year SU's chemistry department has been a host site for the highly competitive National Science Foundation-funded REU program, which supports summer research in the sciences and mathematics and attracts students from SU and from universities and colleges across the United States and abroad. Thirty-five students are participating in this year's program, which is one of the larger REU programs in the country, says Chemistry Professor Karin Ruhlandt-Senge, who directs the REU program with Associate Professor Michael Sponsler.

Two years ago, with support from SU Project Advance, the REU program was made available to high school teachers. Like their undergraduate REU counterparts, the teachers work directly with SU's faculty, research associates and graduate students on projects in a variety of research areas, including inorganic, organic and physical chemistry; biochemistry; materials science; and x-ray diffraction. "The program gives teachers an opportunity to do research, gain appreciation for the science they are teaching, and gives them new ideas about how to better communicate that science to their students," Sponsler says.

Both Hemler and Duggleby were selected for the REU program as a result of their participation in SU Project Advance. Project Advance is a partnership between SU and high schools that provides qualified high school seniors the opportunity to enroll in SU courses for credit. The courses are taught by high school teachers who have completed graduate seminars in their subject areas and have been named adjunct instructors at SU. In addition to working in the lab, the REU teachers participate in weekly seminars during which SU faculty members and REU students describe their research. The teachers also receive a summer stipend and six graduate credits.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for us to bridge what is happening in the research world with what we teach in high school," Duggleby says. "I've never had hands-on research experience." Duggleby is working in the laboratory of Assistant Professor Michael Cosgrove, who teaches biochemistry and studies the biochemical structure of proteins.

Duggleby's summer lab project is to determine the three-dimensional atomic structure of a mutant version of a protein that is required to activate an enzyme called Mixed Lineage Leukemia (MLL). A mutated version of MLL is found in infants and adults stricken with some types of leukemia.

"One of MLL's functions is to act as a molecular switch that turns genes on and off at the right time in our cells," Cosgrove says. "It is believed that leukemia develops when this switch works too fast or too slow. The goal of our research is to understand how this MLL switch works and to use the information to find new medicines that will fix broken switches that cause normal cells to transform into leukemia cells."

Cosgrove's research team has already developed the process for isolating this mutant protein. Duggleby will apply the process to her experiment and hopefully end up with a crystal that can then be analyzed by the research team. "When I do experiments with my students, I already know what is going to happen," Duggleby says. "Here everything is reversed. I'm doing experiments without knowing what the outcome will be."

Hemler's REU experience is taking a slightly different twist. Instead of working on a specific experiment, she is working with Assistant Professor Yan-Yeung Luk and some SU graduate students to develop a better laboratory manual for the classes he teaches in organic chemistry and general chemistry. Luk and his graduate students have written a series of original labs. Hemler's task is to test the labs and rewrite them based on the findings from her experiments.

"These experiments bring in concepts and ideas that you never see in a general chemistry laboratory manual," Hemler says. "This experience will definitely change the way I do labs at the high school level as well as the types of labs I select for my students. It's exciting to be working with college students for a change. I'm learning lots of new ideas that I can put into my curriculum and new ways to help my students better understand what is happening in the real world of science."

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