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by Andrea Widener
Mississippi high school students are getting up close and personal with this pervasive pest all in the name of biology.
Teacher Kathy McKone quizzes Bogue Chitto
high school seniors Britney Saucier and Blake Sasser
about extracting fire ant DNA.
Kathy McKone knew she was falling behind. By 2005, the veteran high school biology teacher in rural Bogue Chitto, Mississippi, couldn't recognize many biotechnology topics covered in the newest textbooks. Even the products listed for sale in teacher catalogues—everything from thermal cyclers to amplification primers—were unfamiliar.
“It was all foreign to me,” McKone says.
But not for long. McKone took action and, using the Internet, found teacher workshops in molecular biology that brought her to the campuses of some of the nation's premier universities, including Princeton, Harvard, and Cornell. Her newfound excitement and knowledge are having a big impact in Bogue Chitto, a crossroads community an hour south of Jackson that consists of a post office, two country stores, two gas stations, and a few churches. Now they are spreading elsewhere in the state.
McKone is one of five Mississippi high school teachers collaborating with scientists from the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Massachusetts to develop a biology curriculum centered on a pervasive Southern pest—the fire ant Solenopsis invicta. HHMI has supported development of the curriculum, and Millsaps College in Jackson is also part of the team.
“Most everybody in the South has been stung by a fire ant,” McKone says. As a child, McKone was often a victim as she played outside or worked in the family garden. And it hasn't stopped now that she's an adult: she was stung around eight times earlier this school year when she stood too close to a fire ant mound outside her K-12 school.
With apologies to William Shakespeare-who invoked “a muse of fire” in seeking inspiration for Henry V—the Muse of Fire project draws its inspiration from a venomous creature whose sting has disrupted many a family picnic or football game. It leaves its victims with a distinctive white blister and, on occasion, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Swarms have been known to kill livestock and invade nursing homes.
Photo: Tom Roster