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POLK COUNTY TEACHER TURNS STUDENTS INTO DNA DETECTIVES

In one of North Carolina's most remote, rural counties, a high school biology teacher is offering students the chance to become high-tech lab researcher scientists.

This past summer, Jennifer Allsbrook of Polk County High School prepared for another year teaching a course in biotechnology. In the class, her students perform DNA fingerprinting on an unusual species of magnolia plant. It's all part of what Allsbrook calls the "Magnolia Detectives Project."

Though Allsbrook's class represents a unique opportunity for Polk County students, she sometimes struggles with the logistics of sustaining the project. Many of her biotechnology students are seniors, who graduate high school as soon as they are trained. Recruiting new students to the class frequently proves to be an obstacle at the school of just over 700 students.

"I have a $33,000 grant and a high-tech biology lab and I can't get students to sign up for the class!" Allsbrook said.

The challenges do not dishearten Allsbrook, who has persistently sought resources and development opportunities for her course since 2008, when she first started applying for grants to obtain biotechnology equipment.

That year, Polk County Extension Manager John Vining tipped Allsbrook off to Magnolia virginiana, a strain of magnolia that appears in Polk County but is more commonly found in coastal areas. Realizing that a successful grant application would propose a specific project, Allsbrook requested funds for equipment that would allow her to perform DNA sequencing to compare the unusual Polk County magnolia plants to other strains.

When she was awarded the grants, Allsbrook began consulting with Dr. Andrea Wolfe, a biologist at the Ohio State University who is a specialist in inter-simple sequence repeat (ISSR) DNA fingerprinting. Allsbrook has spent two summers working with Wolfe to improve her own skills with biotechnology equipment, and in May, Wolfe visited Polk County for three days to meet and observe Allsbrook's students.

Wolfe, who frequently works with undergraduates at Ohio State, believes that Allsbrook's biotechnology students perform substantive work, and that their experiences are valuable when they move to college.

"The research is not cutting edge, but [it] certainly is contemporary with how students in our programs would go about gathering genetic data for population analyses," Wolfe said. She added that for lab managers looking to hire undergraduates, "Those with [lab] experience have a higher priority for hiring or mentoring."

Allsbrook takes pride in the fact that by the time they reach the end of the course, her students are qualified for entry-level positions as laboratory technicians. She is similarly pleased by Wolfe's belief that her students are at an advantage over many of their peers when they apply for research positions in college.

More than half of the original Magnolia Detectives went on to pursue science-related research and coursework when they left for college, according to Allsbrook.

Having seen the positive influence of biotechnology education at Polk County, Allsbrook is working to expand the school's biotechnology offerings. She is currently applying for more grants to bring new equipment to the school. Next on her wish list is equipment to study biodiesel fuels.

In a state where biotechnology is one of the fastest growing industries, Allsbrook believes that it is important to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to see real-world applications of science and technology.

"If you look at the data, North Carolina has been in the top three states for biotechnology for a long time, but a lot of those jobs are filled by people from out of state or internationals," Allsbrook said. "There are some talented people right here at home who we can train instead."

For the foreseeable future, it appears that Jennifer Allsbrook will be leading that charge.

 
 
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