Teacher Becomes Pupil for the Summer
A week and a half into his summer internship at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), high school science teacher Paul Messier asked his supervisor what she was doing for the Fourth of July. "The holiday does not dictate how we spend time," answered Pilar Blancafort, a research associate in the Department of Molecular Biology. "The cells dictate."
This type of dedication is just one of many things Messier is learning on a daily basis in TSRI's Barbas lab. He is assisting Blancafort on her project, which involves transfection of mammalian cells, that is infecting the cell with isolated viral nucleic acid followed by production of the complete virus in the cell. The project has him learning various techniques and procedures associated with the cloning process, including electrophoresis, DNA extraction, PCR digests, and ligation.
Messier is self-effacing about his place in the lab. "They're amused," Messier jokes, referring to his lab mates' reactions to his sometimes awkward execution of certain procedures. Such modesty, however, does little to disguise Messier's zest for learning and his ambition to expand his scientific knowledge.
After obtaining a B.S. in pre-med zoology (with a minor in physical science and chemistry), and a master's degree in biology from San Diego State University, Messier taught high school science for seven years, then took a 17-year hiatus in the medical diagnostics industry. He returned to education in 1995, teaching standard and advanced placement biology at San Marcos High School. He will move to Helix Charter High School in the fall.
Necessities of Learning
Mindful of the rapidity with which science is changing and the need to keep abreast in order to be an effective educator, Messier has attended as many institutes and summer sessions as possible in the past several years.
"Involvement is the key for both teachers and students," he says. "My hope is to transfer some of my experiences to the classroom... to awaken my students to the opportunities for meaningful work, improving our lives, and fighting disease."
His education this summer has been in the area of transcriptional regulation, one of the Barbas lab's research concentrations. The focus, Messier says, is to utilize three- or six-zinc-finger proteins to regulate transcription of naturally occurring genes and engineer antibodies to bind specific targets thought to be important to HIV and cancer therapy.
"The group that Dr. Blancafort is in works with zinc-finger proteins to regulate transcription in bacteria, E. coli, or mammalian cells," Messier explains.
As he assists in this project, Messier is compiling detailed notes, data, graphs, and photographs in a lab notebook with the idea of recreating the experience for his students next year. He plans to design a seminar series, possibly culminating in a field trip to the Barbas lab.
"If they know it's going to lead to the real thing," he says, "they'll really get excited."
Messier's own excitement is clear as he talks about teaching a course called "Coordinated Science," which offers an integrated approach to science he says he's always wanted to take.
"If it's going to be molecular, it makes more sense to teach biology and chemistry at the same time," he says, adding that an emphasis on protein synthesis, structure of DNA, biotechnology, evolution, and genetics is where science education is heading. "I just want to make sure it has enough rigor," he concludes.
Messier is one of three high school science teachers selected for the Summer Research Internship Program this year and is the second to be funded by a Diekman fellowship. Last year John Diekman, chairman of TSRI Board of Directors and his wife Susan Diekman gave the institute $100,000 to endow a summer fellowship for science teachers, the first gift ever made to TSRI for this purpose. The gift ensures that at least one high school or middle school teacher participates in TSRI's Science Teacher Summer Research Program every year in perpetuity.
"I'm so thrilled to have the opportunity," remarks Messier.
The Truth about Scientists
Along with the science at TSRI, Messier has enjoyed immersing himself in the atmosphere of the Barbas lab and has quickly adopted Blancafort's practice of coming in early and leaving late. He describes the group as fun, excited, and focused, but says it's their high level of intensity that impresses him the most. That, and how young they all are.
"They all speak with different accents, and they all walk faster than I do," he jokes. Challenging his high school students' stereotypes of scientists as stuffy and isolated is just one of the many lessons he'll have to share with his students come fall.