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Making Research Personal
by Helen Fields
A West Virginia program pulls students into science by teaching them about the health problems in their own community.
On a cold morning in late January, terrified teenagers arrived one by one in the health clinic waiting room in Welch, West Virginia. They were there to have blood drawn for a cholesterol test. Some were crying. “I said, ‘Suck it UP!’” says teacher Lori Bishop, glaring over her glasses. “Just go back there and close your eyes!”
Bishop, an English teacher at Mount View High School, which shares a building with the clinic, says she wasn’t being mean for the heck of it. The students had chosen to become subjects in their own research project on cholesterol. Bishop and her science teacher husband, Bob, run one of the state’s 80 Health Sciences and Technology Academy (HSTA) clubs. HSTA is an HHMI-funded program to get West Virginia high schoolers excited about science and college. The program focuses on the major health problems of West Virginia: diabetes and obesity. Meanwhile, the students’ research has clarified just how common obesity is in the state.
The Bishops have a reputation for coming up with creative projects for their students. Last year, the couple joined Weight Watchers and experimented with ways to modify family recipes. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we try to do something like this with the kids?’” They organized the club’s project around nutrition. Students brought family recipes from home and devised ways to make them healthier—for example by substituting skim milk for whole.
For this year’s project, the Bishops dreamed up a plan to have the 20 students in the program monitor their cholesterol levels and look for changes related to activity and what they ate. They arranged to have the kids’ blood tested three times—in January, February, and March—as they boosted their exercise.
Before the first test, Lori Bishop remembers some of the students telling her they were thinking, “oh, the chubby kids are going to have the bad cholesterol.” But the worst cholesterol level in the class turned out to belong to a thin junior. “She might have gone years before she had her cholesterol checked. When we sent the first set of results home, her mother immediately took her to a doctor.”
Between the first and second tests, however, nature changed their plans. Harsh winter storms closed local schools for 10 days. The blood test was delayed.
On a bright note, the students were much calmer about the blood draw the second time around. But for many, cholesterol levels rose. “My cholesterol went up,” says ninth-grader Jenna Muncy. “The reason why is, it was snowing and I didn’t get out.” Lori Bishop agrees: “They were just sitting around eating junk, watching TV, and playing video games.”
Before the final blood test, the students got busy. “We had them do as much exercise as we could,” says Bob Bishop. The club met two or three times a week. On nice days, they walked circles around the outside of the school; in bad weather, they walked the halls. It worked. By the third test, in March, most had lower cholesterol. The study also showed that the athletes had an advantage.
“My cholesterol never went high or low because I stayed in sports. I do cheerleading, volleyball, tennis, and all that stuff,” says junior Joanna Bailey. Like many people in this rural county, Joanna’s parents have diabetes, so the family also eats carefully, says her mother, Patsy Bailey.
Illustration: Patrick Leger