March 14, 2011

Off to high school with axolotls, tortoises, frogs and more

On the students’ visit to Homewood, doctoral student Zehra Nizami of MInDS, second from left, talks with Don’Liyaha Green, Latisha Robinson and Sherry Bogier of Baltimore Talent Development High School in West Baltimore. Photo: Will Kirk/

Zehra Nizami carefully sets a plastic bin onto a desk, and four high school students simultaneously gasp in fascination—and maybe a little bit of horror—at what’s inside, floating in several inches of water.

“What the heck are those things?” one yelps, looking a bit repulsed.

“They’re so cute!” another cries, leaning forward and reaching out to poke a pale pinkish amphibian that resembles a mythical dragon or an anime character.

Nizami, a Johns Hopkins doctoral student, calmly explains that the creatures—there are two of them, one pink and one black—are axolotls: six-inch-long salamanders that are native to Mexico. With their ruffled gills fanning out from their faces like the rays of a sun in a child’s finger painting, the axolotls (pronounced ax-oh-LOT-uhls) are at once charmingly earthy and otherworldly.

They are also an opportunity for 10th-grade biology students at Baltimore Talent Development High School in West Baltimore to learn about how living organisms are classified scientifically. (BTDHS is a public high school associated with Johns Hopkins’ Center for Social Organization of Schools.)

The lesson was brought to the students recently by Nizami and a dozen other members of Mentoring to Inspire Diversity in Science—MInDS, for short—a group of young researchers in Johns Hopkins’ PhD Program in Cell, Molecular, Developmental Biology and Biophysics. As its name states, MInDS is designed to promote diversity in the sciences, and one of the ways it does it is by exposing students at the inner-city high school to the joy of “hands-on” science.

“My main goal [in taking part in MInDS] is to instill these students with the sense of excitement and joy that I experience every day in the lab, and to get a taste of the thrill of discovery that science has to offer,” said Nizami, who graduated from Princeton University before coming to Johns Hopkins.

For the past three years, members of MInDS have visited the school on Harlem Avenue once a month, offering two 10th-grade biology lessons that range from the scientific method to evolution, antibiotic resistance, genetics and more. Whenever possible, the instruction is hands-on, according to Rosalinda Miyares, a MInDS member.

“Our goal is to make science and biology come alive for the kids and to make them see that science isn’t just memorizing facts out of a book,” said Miyares, who came to Johns Hopkins from Macalester College. “I can’t tell you how much fun it is for us to see our lessons working and to see the students’ imaginations catching fire.”

Just as important, Miyares posits, is that the high school students, most of whom are African-American, get the opportunity to observe and interact with energetic young Johns Hopkins scientists, many of whom defy the stereotypical image of the white male intellectual.

“Most of us are either underrepresented minorities and/or women, so simply by being in the classroom, we expose these students to a different picture of what a ‘scientist’ is and is supposed to be,” she said. “I think seeing us makes it easier for them to imagine themselves as scientists.”

Krista Porter, who teaches 10th grade biology at Talent Development, is enthusiastic about MInDS members’ presence in her classroom and their influence upon her young charges.

“It’s wonderful having MInDS come into the school and work with my students,” Porter said. “The kids really look forward to these lessons, and it’s a great opportunity for them to be exposed to people who are not much older than they are but who are doing exciting things in the sciences.”

On a recent visit, MInDS members brought with them an assortment of creatures that included two fat frogs, a shy but friendly tortoise, bloodworms, fruit flies and the aforementioned axolotls—all made available so that the teenagers could touch, observe and explore.

Particularly popular was the tortoise named Mache (pronounced mah-shay), which is the personal pet of MInDS member Rachel Niederer, a second-year doctoral student. In addition to offering data about reptiles, Mache’s presence served as a great icebreaker.

“There are students who I have never heard ask a question but who became very interested and involved when they met the tortoise,” said Niederer, who did her undergraduate work at the University of Maryland. “They began asking questions about her shell and diet, which gave me an opportunity to discuss a common calcium deficiency in many tortoises.”

Niederer was thus delighted when one of the students connected Mache’s calcium deficiency to osteoporosis, a bone disease associated with calcium deficiency in humans.

“You never know what one thing you might say or do that will spark the students’ interest, but once you’ve done that, they usually can’t stop asking questions,” she said. “It’s just a matter of working until you figure out how to make that happen.”

Though the high schoolers seem to truly enjoy and benefit from the monthly lessons that MInDS members bring to their school, it is the students’ annual visit to Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus that helps the message “you, too, can be a scientist” really sink in, according to Nizami.

“I get a very strong feeling that this visit plays a major role in making the students begin to seriously consider applying to college,” said Nizami, who this month helped welcome and shepherd 80 Talent Development High School students on a visit to Homewood. “I love that we can not only show them some exciting experiments in a real lab environment, but also that we can touch them on a personal level with our own stories about college. It’s very rewarding.”

Joanna Fox, deputy director of the Everyone Graduates Center at CSOS and the liaison between the Talent Development High School and MInDS, says that the program’s benefits are obvious.

“MInDS students are great. They take biology beyond a textbook or lecture and make it real. They give our 10th-graders exposure to things many have rarely experienced before and help motivate them to think about new things in new ways, and their own diverse backgrounds open a window to a larger world,” Fox said. “Most of what we do at CSOS is focused on engaging students in learning at higher levels, and MInDS is a great contributor.”

Fox points out that the Johns Hopkins students benefit as well.

“The experience of breaking complicated ideas down into simple yet accurate language for 10th-graders and figuring out what they misunderstand, as well as understand, is probably good experience for the grad students,” she said.

Nizami agrees.

“Far and away the biggest challenge facing any research scientist is being able to communicate to a lay audience at any level,” she said.