BAR HARBOR — The MDI Biological Laboratory will take a national lead in teaching data literacy to students and teachers though a five-year, $1.2 million SEPA (Science Education Partnership Award) grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health.
Residents of Maine and New Hampshire rely heavily on private wells for drinking water, but few have their wells tested and standard assays do not test for arsenic, which has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the environmental contaminant with the biggest impact on human health.
Long-term exposure, even at low levels, can lead to severe health problems, including cancer; diabetes; heart disease; and reproductive, developmental and cognitive problems, including lower IQs in children. Arsenic is a particular problem in New England’s coastal “arsenic belt,” where up to 60 percent of wells have levels that exceed EPA limits.
“Students are more likely to expand their scientific inquiry skills and retain what they learn when the data have relevance,” said Jane E. Disney, Ph.D., senior staff scientist and director of education at the MDI Biological Laboratory. “The data they collect will be meaningful for them and their families, as well as for the larger community.”
The project will create student-teacher-scientist partnerships by recruiting scientist-mentors from the faculties of institutions of higher learning that participate in the federally funded Maine and New Hampshire INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) programs, which promote biomedical education and research.
“We anticipate that long-term relationships will develop as a result of the connections between these institutions and nearby secondary schools,” Disney said. “Our goal is for these informal STEM ‘satellite centers’ to inspire generations of students to become critical thinkers and to consider careers in science, medicine and public health.”
As an example, Disney cited the interest of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and Colby College in Waterville, Maine, in working with students and teachers from their local high schools.
Disney, who directs the project as principal investigator, will collaborate with Bruce A. Stanton, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology and immunology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, the director of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program and a visiting scientist at the MDI Biological Laboratory.
The water samples that students collect will be tested by the Trace Elements Analysis Core at Dartmouth. Results will be provided to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to help monitor the extent of arsenic exposure and implement mitigation strategies.
The project will also serve as a national model for engaging students and teachers in other types of citizen science inquiries, Disney said, including those involving other regional public health threats, as well as those involving environmental degradation and the effects of climate change.
About the MDI Biological Laboratory
We are pioneering new approaches to regenerative medicine focused on developing drugs that slow age-related degenerative diseases and activate our natural ability to heal. Our unique approach has identified potential therapies that could revolutionize the treatment of heart disease, muscular dystrophy and more. Through the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation we are preparing students for 21st century careers and equipping entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to turn discoveries into applications that improve human health and well-being. For more information, please visit mdibl.org.