CABNR professor takes Molecules on the Road to Nevada high schools

Dr. Marjorie Matocq has taken her lesson plan on tour. The Natural Resources and Environmental Science (NRES) associate professor from the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR) runs Molecules on the Road - a weeklong program for Nevada high school students and teachers funded by the National Science Foundation and Nevada's INBRE program through the National Institutes of Health.

Last year, Matocq reached 1,500 youth and trained 12 teachers. Her two-year-old program gives Reno-area high school freshmen a crash course in genetics.

"The students start by making an observation," Matocq said. "The observation they make is whether they are able to taste a bitter chemical."

Some students have the genetic predisposition to taste bitterness when they touch their tongues to a test strip containing phenylthiocarbamide, while others taste nothing. A single gene determines the predisposition to do so, Matocq said. "There are two variants in the human population," Matocq said. "So students observe their ability to taste the bitterness or not, they make a prediction of what their genotype is, and throughout the week they test their prediction by isolating this gene from their own DNA to see which variants they have."

Matocq said the primary goal of Molecules on the Road is to awaken the minds of young scientists. "Science and technology is where the future of humanity lies in terms of continuing to sustain ourselves, and so we need to be recruiting the most diverse and bright group of young people we can to this discipline," Matocq said. "They are the ones who will solve our food crises and our water crises. They're the ones we need to recruit."

Matocq said students extract and test their own DNA using cheek swabs. Through these processes, youth learn about their genetic makeup and how their genes shape their everyday lives.

"Students gain hands-on experience with modern genetic tools, and they learn something about the relationship between their genes and the outward traits that make them who they are," Matocq said. The program isn't just for students. High school science teachers get a refresher course on modern biotechnology and genetics research that can inspire them to create new curricula. "Once they see the program, teachers come up with a million new ideas," Matocq said.

"This is kind of a gateway set of exercises. We try to give teachers some tools to design different programs for themselves." Matocq hopes Molecules on the Road will help youth see the fun side of biotechnology. "At the simplest level, what I want kids to get is ‘science is cool, and I can do it,' " Matocq said.