Teacher Becomes Pupil for the Summer
By Jennifer O'Sullivan
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. His role
assisting Blancafort involves transfection of mammalian cells,
production of retroviral particles and infection of several
host cell lines. 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
High school teacher and TSRI summer intern
Paul Messier (left) is learning about zinc-finger proteins
working with Research Associate Pilar Blancafort in the Barbas
lab. Photo by Jennifer O'Sullivan.
Messier is keeping a
detailed notebook to use in his classes next fall.
Photo by Jennifer O'Sullivan.