Valley school's new DNA lab on cutting edge

CART lab gives Fresno, Clovis teens rare privileges.

November 1, 2010 

Most high school students only get to read about DNA. At the Center for Advanced Research and Technology in Clovis, they shake, separate and duplicate these complex molecules in a gleaming new laboratory.

The $1.5 million lab, which opened last week, has cutting-edge equipment rarely found in high schools -- including polymerase chain-reaction machines, electrophoresis apparatus and a spectrometer.

Only about a dozen California high schools have biomedical programs similar to the one at CART, where students research genetics and diseases.

With the lab up and running, teachers have set their sights on a new challenge: finding enough money to run all the equipment. One machine alone costs $10,000 a year to operate.

CART, a project-based educational center, is operated jointly by Fresno and Clovis unified school districts. About 1,300 high school juniors and seniors from the two districts spend half their school day at the center and dedicate as much time as they can to laboratory projects -- some of which are fairly sophisticated.

For example, a few years ago a CART student extracted DNA from a carrot and then cloned it.

Graduates of CART's biomedical engineering class have become doctors, nurses, food safety officers, pharmacists, engineers and biotech researchers.

When college professors learn that their students studied at CART, they typically are enlisted for research projects sooner in their college careers than their peers, teacher Keri Wagnon said.

Being on the cutting edge also keeps teachers on their toes, she said.

"Everything we are teaching now is nothing I learned in college," Wagnon said. "That is what's fun about teaching here, you are just learning all the time."

The students view CART as a way to get an early start on their science careers.

"Most of the time, students don't [even] get to use this stuff in college," said Alyssa McGee, a Hoover High School senior, pointing to a polymerase chain-reaction apparatus that was duplicating a fragment of DNA for her group's experiment.

Said teammate Gareth Knnablian, a senior at Clovis High School, "we can see how science and technology work in the real world."

Students choose projects based on their interests and teachers mentor them.

With the new 2,250- square-foot laboratory, students have more time and space for projects. In the past, they would split their research between a classroom and trying to get lab time in the older, cluttered laboratory.

The old laboratory, which is still in use, had a capacity of 24 students, but teachers sometimes would cram in up to 36, Wagnon said. With the new lab, 70 students can work there at one time, she said.

With 110 biomedical students, CART teachers are relieved to have the extra space.

"They will be in the lab more frequently, doing more hands-on things, which is how a lot of students learn best," teacher Matt Jordan said.

With the added space, teachers are setting a goal that 80% of class time be spent in the laboratory.

Half of the new laboratory was financed through the state's Career Technical Education program. The program also paid half the cost of Buchanan's Energy Academy, Clovis North's medical careers academy, an automotive technology building at Clovis West, construction and trades facility on Clovis High's campus and an agricultural mechanics building at Clovis East.

The projects are among more than $13 million in improvements on Clovis Unified campuses.

The money was made available through Proposition 1D, which California voters approved in 2006. It made more than $3.6 billion available for school modernization and upgrades.

But while they've gotten substantial money for building, they are lacking in money for operations.

The equipment and its maintenance is costly. A gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, a machine that identifies substances in samples, may not even get used because of the cost -- $10,000 or so -- to maintain it, Wagnon said.

"We just don't have a budget to run it," she said. "Our hope is that someone can come in and pay for a maintenance contract." They're not actively looking for sponsors yet.

The class has an annual operations budget of $6,000, less than half of what it takes to run the program.

But teachers have found help from the private sector. Amgen, a biotech research company based in Thousand Oaks, and Massachusetts-based New England BioLabs have donated items such as test tubes, shaker platforms and enzymes that help students in their research.

Amgen gives away surplus equipment through its donation program to schools or nonprofit groups, said Mary Klem, an Amgen spokeswoman.

Among items available are stirrers, warming plates, flow meters, filters, tubing and furniture. Since 2009, the company has had more than 61 donation events at its Southern California headquarters, she said.

And CART teachers have driven there to reap the benefits.

Altogether, CART has received about $7,000 in products from the two companies for the biomedical program.

"We couldn't do what we do if we didn't have those corporate sponsorships and donations," Jordan said.

Closer to home, Kaiser Permanente also funded CART from 2003 to 2009. Much was for the biomedical engineering program. Kaiser also provided lab equipment, mentoring, speakers and facility tours for CART students.

The support from the medical community has been crucial, Wagnon said.

"Just to run our baseline labs and projects costs $15,000, plus replacement costs or other things you want to do," she said, "and when you get help, you feel like people are listening and they know how hard it is for schools."

The reporter can be reached at mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6166.

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