I had been at the Broad for a little over a month, but I had yet to meet the co-worker standing next to me in the elevator. To avoid my tendency to shift between staring awkwardly at the elevator doors and the lighted floor number, I introduced myself. “I’m Megan,” she responded, and we started a conversation.
Megan Rokop is Director of the Broad Institute’s Educational Outreach Program. In addition to the research that goes on at the Broad, the Institute also sponsors a series of programs to engage with students, teachers, and the general public in the Boston area. A main feature of the program is the opportunity for high school classes to visit the Broad, where students get to conduct experiments using Broad facilities.
Megan wasn’t always interested in biology. She started college at Brown as a foreign languages major, but a scheduling error placed her in a biology class. Unlike her previous experiences with the subject, which primarily involved memorizing a list of facts, the professor for this class presented the material in a way that inspired Megan’s interest in the subject. “I wanted to be like him,” she said of the professor.
Sure enough, Megan switched majors and eventually received her PhD in biology from MIT. After teaching at MIT for a few years, a fellow biology instructor told her about an opening for the Outreach position at the Broad Institute. Although she enjoyed teaching undergraduates, Megan recognized that not everyone benefits from a scheduling error, and saw the position as an opportunity to reach students while they were still exploring interests. When I told her I was interested in learning more biology, she was more than happy to oblige.
Our first lab involved identifying and mating different strains of Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm that serves as a model organism for investigators with interests ranging from genetics to neuroscience. C. elegans are only a millimeter long, so we needed a microscope to observe them. Once under the microscope, the distinguishing characteristics of mutant strains and sexes were clearly visible.
C. elegans are divided into two sexes: male and hermaphrodite. Mating two of the mutant strains requires the transfer of a male and hermaphrodite onto the same dish. The offspring can later be counted to determine whether their traits were dominant or recessive. After a few false starts, I was able to use a special hook to transfer a wild-type (WT) male onto the same dish as an uncoordinated (UNC) hermaphrodite. While we couldn’t see the worms without a microscope, we could see the tracks the wild-type was making as he searched for his uncoordinated partner.
The second lab involved running a gel electrophoresis with an application to paternity testing. Not all DNA code for proteins, and in the non-coding regions, certain strings repeat. The number of times these strings repeat can be used to distinguish individuals and determine heredity.
One way to distinguish the number of repeats is via gel electrophoresis. The idea is to load the DNA into different wells on one side of a gel and run a current through the gel. Since DNA is negatively charged, this current causes the strands to move across the gel towards the positively charged end. Since longer sequences diffuse more slowly, sequences with more repeats don’t travel as far away from the negative end.
Unlike the first lab, I worked on the second lab with a group of high school students. They were visiting from the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine, a summer program for aspiring doctors. After the lab, I had a chance to talk to some of the students, who were curious what a non-biologist was doing at the Broad. In turn, it was interesting to hear from the students, some of whom weren’t completely set on a career in medicine. While I wasn’t sure whether their experiences that week would increase their interest in medicine, mine certainly increased my curiosity about biology.