illustration by VSA Partners

Road Warrior

Spreading the word that research is doable is in Mike Yerky's DNA.

Tall, long-haired, and dressed in black, Mike Darwin Yerky looks like a rock star. His appearance also fits with his informal moniker: road warrior.

Yerky travels in a minivan—packed with pipettes and gel rigs—to schools in upstate New York and beyond as the mobile division of the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers (CIBT). Supported by an HHMI grant, CIBT brings college-level labs to high schools, conducts workshops for science teachers in Cornell's hometown of Ithaca, and runs a lending library where cash-strapped teachers can borrow expensive equipment.

A primatologist from Switzerland, Yerky took the middle name Darwin when he became a U.S. citizen days before his 40th birthday. Each year, he shares his love of science with about 2,000 students from special education groups, advanced placement classes, and everything in between. In November, he visited the Cuyahoga Valley Career Center, a vocational school in Brecksville, Ohio. His mission: teach a room full of half-interested teens how to do DNA electrophoresis, a sophisticated technique that uses an electric current to separate DNA strands in a gel slab for analysis.

We usually get people who are not that secure in how they teach science, and they soak up stuff like sponges. They exchange information and experiences. So you see them progress in their confidence level. 'Oh, yeah, I can do that now!'

Mike Yerky

"I don't think I can do this," says a girl named Danielle, as she uses a pipette to extract DNA from a microfuge tube. She and her classmates from nearby Garfield High School are visiting the career center as part of a health careers field trip.

"Yes, yes, you can," says Yerky, talking her through step by step. "Nice. See?" This is progress. Earlier, Danielle had been whispering and giggling with her friends, but Yerky managed to keep her and the rest of the class in check with some droll remarks delivered in his Teutonic accent.

"If you're between six and seven milliliters after adding the alcohol, you're in good shape," he announced at one point. "If you're way up, to 14, you may need to lay off the booze a little bit next time."

Sheri Zakarowsky, a science teacher at the career center who teaches anatomy for health careers, biochemistry for the culinary arts, and physics for engineering technology, had invited the suburban high school students for the day to gauge interest in a biotech program she hopes to start next year. She says she was pleased by the students' interest in Yerky's training.

Teachers in Ithaca

Zakarowsky met Yerky when she attended CIBT's two-week workshop last summer. Every year, 40 to 50 new teachers go through the program. Shorter workshops during the school year attract another 50 or so. "It was grueling," Zakarowsky says. In one lab, she and other teachers performed DNA analysis on insects to determine the prevalence of parasitic bacteria. "But I learned a lot."

Yerky enjoys seeing the teachers come into their own during their time away from the classroom.

"We usually get people who are not that secure in how they teach science, and they soak up stuff like sponges. They exchange information and experiences. So you see them progress in their confidence level. 'Oh, yeah, I can do that now!'"

After a workshop, teachers can borrow from the CIBT lending library—a real boon, considering equipment for the DNA lab, for example, can run about $10,000. Another popular high school lab is a protein gel kit for analyzing and comparing protein bands according to their molecular weights, then establishing evolutionary relatedness among different groups. There are kits designed specifically for elementary teachers, too, like a "Bat Trunk" for learning nocturnal animals' habits and habitats, with interactive learning games, videos, and plenty of cool stuff to pass around: desiccated bat wings and skin, and bat masks and puppets. Teachers can also borrow microscopes and anatomic models.

Tips and Tricks

School visits give Yerky follow-up time with teachers after they return to the classroom. "They can see me present the lab again and take notes on what I do, jot down little tips and tricks that I point out that might not be in the written lab."

Carolyn Wilczynski, a science teacher at Binghamton High School's Regents Academy for at-risk kids in New York, attended her first CIBT summer workshop in 2000, as a rookie teacher. "It gave me a community of teachers that I could interact with all over the state," she says. "And a support system at Cornell. I could borrow equipment that wasn't available at the high school and ask questions." She also learned more about cellular molecular biology. "I had never used a pipettor before," she says. "I had never run DNA gel electrophoresis in any of my college courses."

Each year, Wilcyznski attends follow-up workshops in Ithaca to stay sharp. In the classroom, "I like talking with the kids, but the interaction with my peers is on a different level."

Wilczynski teaches about 60 at-risk students. "They might not otherwise meet a scientist in their lives," she says." Having someone like Yerky come in is really exciting for them. When they figure out the results of their lab—oh, my gosh, the joy! They're running to tell the secretary what they've done. I've taught the accelerated kids, but they're more reserved. They've done a lot of involved experiments already."

Back in Zakarowsky's class, the students finish running their gels. Yerky instructs them to come to the front of the room, one group at a time, to review their findings. "But first you have to disconnect and unplug everything," he instructs, with a wink. "We don't want you to leave with a free perm. Right?"

An all-female group of budding forensic scientists goes first. They've made a few technical mistakes and the output is a "little weak," says Yerky, but strong enough to see some results.

One girl, Barbara, looks crestfallen. "I was disappointed about my DNA—I got some, just not enough," she says. "But I really liked the experiment. I understood everything. And I thought it was all interesting." She wonders aloud whether she and her fellow group members can divide up their gel and take a piece home as a memento. But her chemistry teacher, Brad Lambert, proudly says he first wants to show it to the principal, "so he can see what we're doing."

As Barbara leaves, she says goodbye. "Thank you for everything. Wonderful lab."

"You're welcome," Yerky replies. "Maybe I'll see you at Cornell a couple years from now."