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A Vision of the Future

An energetic Aussie professor brings biotechnology to life for southern Oklahoma students with a little help from the Noble Research Institute

By Caitlin Powers, 2013 Communications Intern

Posted Dec. 20, 2013

Ask Fiona McAlister, Ph.D., her philosophy on teaching and the answer is simple and direct - "Students learn best by doing."

So for the past seven years, McAlister's students at the Southern Oklahoma Technology Center's (SOTC) Biotechnology Academy have been doing more than just listening; they are experiencing biotechnology.

The pamphlet description of the two-year academy is simple - high school juniors and seniors learn theoretical and practical skills surrounding various fields of biotechnology. However, the reality is that the program takes concepts and skills from the book to application. Lectures are accompanied by actual laboratory experiments that relate to real-world situations, changing the students' view of the curriculum.

"Suddenly these seemingly simple concepts have a purpose," McAlister said. "Students are not learning just because they are told to, but because there is now a purpose behind it. All of the labs have something to do with their life. It makes a big difference because they see the reality behind it."

Fiona McAlister, Ph.D.Fiona McAlister, Ph.D., built the Southern Oklahoma Technology Center's Biotechnology Academy program from scratch.

Building from scratch

McAlister built the biotechnology program from scratch. As a former Noble Research Institute postdoctoral fellow, she had extensive biotechnology training and experience, but her passion for teaching led her away from pure research and into the classroom.

After six years at a local high school, SOTC came calling with an interesting proposal - build a biotechnology program to train laboratory technicians and research assistants. SOTC is part of a statewide network of career and technology education centers that focus on translating education into practical skills - but had nothing in the area of biotechnology.

McAlister jumped at the chance, but she wanted more than just a training platform, as did the high school administrators who were also worried that such a class would only be available to the brightest students. McAlister intended her offering to be both technical and academic, as well as a college preparation course, open to any student, no matter their GPA.

So she developed a hybrid program which tied in high school academic courses, such as advanced placement biology and environmental science, and practical skills training. Students could earn high school credit and possibly college credit. This combination of traditional career tech training with academic underpinnings made the program the first of its kind in Oklahoma.

Preparing DNA sampleMcAlister shows students how to properly prepare a laboratory DNA sample.

"I wanted a program that offered them more - academically and personally," she said. "I wanted students to fall in love with research, to see how it could change the world and their lives."

The SOTC Biotechnology Academy opened in the spring of 2006 with just 12 students. But word of mouth about this Australian teacher and hands-on experiments started to spread. The following fall, McAlister was able to have a morning and afternoon class with 24 students. Then it happened. The program exploded, and students were clamoring to get in. A waiting list began to lengthen, and SOTC administrators moved to expand.

In 2008, SOTC constructed a 4,000-square-foot laboratory and classroom space. The Noble Research Institute helped support almost half of the $800,000 cost. "We would have never reached this level of success without Noble," McAlister said. "More than providing financial support, Noble has been a partner in so many ways from the very beginning."

Through this partnership, McAlister has contributed to the development of the Noble Research Institute's youth education outreach program which takes science into the classroom of area middle and high schools. In addition to sharing practical classroom techniques, McAlister and Frank Hardin, Ph.D., Noble's educational outreach manager, collaborate to reach McAlister's next generation of students through the introduction of hands-on science in the students' own classrooms.

Avoiding contamination at a crime sceneStudents learn how to avoid contamination of a crime scene.

A Noble cause

As part of SOTC's Biotechnology Academy, first-year students learn fundamental knowledge and concepts with a heavy dose of technical laboratory skills, such as how to properly use a pipette, a common laboratory tool. These skills advance the students' work in the classroom, and, through the relationship with the Noble Research Institute, students see how these same skills are used in the real world.

Students also visit the Noble Research Institute campus (which is adjacent to SOTC) for tours, workshops and educational internships. For McAlister, this is a chance to show students the various scientific disciplines and occupations required to produce quality research.

"We love to show the students that science is not just this little thing," McAlister said. "What we are doing is demonstrating how you can incorporate all these different disciplines, and the Noble Research Institute is a perfect example of that."

Noble Research Institute professor Elison Blancaflor, Ph.D., offers a microscopy workshop where students use some of today's most advanced microscopes to learn about cell biology. Professor Lloyd Sumner, Ph.D., also leads a workshop - a Science Carnival - where students participate in multiple experiments throughout a fast-paced day.

"For some students, the Biotechnology Academy is reshaping their entire view of science and even education," Sumner said. "We want to continue to foster that perspective shift. These students are future scientists, and we want them to walk away knowing the importance of research and the passion we have for our work."

For certain second-year students, their immersion in science can include conducting meaningful research. As part of their curriculum, they spend time in Noble Research Institute laboratories working side-by-side with Noble researchers. These students spend as many as three hours a day, three days a week, for four to eight weeks working in the laboratory as though they were a laboratory member.

Lab analysisA Biotechnology Academy student prepares a tissue sample for lab analysis.

Depending on the laboratory, students will be assigned a specific project or will work with a different mentor every week. Students' activities range from making media in the lab to collecting data in the field. Some have even had the opportunity to transition their semester's work into a longer summer internship.

The laboratory time has given students advanced technical training that some postdoctoral fellows do not even get until after receiving their Ph.D. "It is a confidence builder for them when they walk into a lab, see all the equipment, and realize I know how to do this,'" McAlister said.

A not totally unexpected outcome of the academy has been the increase in science scores on the students' ACTs - a standardized college assessment test and an important gateway to college. McAlister says some students have raised their scores as much as 7 points.

Together, all the experiences at the SOTC Biotechnology Academy leave students changed in countless ways. "They have this realization that they have abilities, they have potential, and they have a future," McAlister said. "This gives them a vision of where their future might go."