UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Undergraduate students participating in a summer internship opportunity through Penn State’s Department of Food Science recently co-led the “On Deck Genetic Tech” program at State College’s Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania.
The two students, who were part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduate Fellowships program, spent several weeks at the University Park campus learning about food microbiology.
Community outreach in science communication also was an important component of their education, noted Josephine Wee, assistant professor of food science in the College of Agricultural Sciences and a program director for the undergraduate fellowship program.
Wee coordinated the outreach visit to Discovery Space, a children’s museum and learning center, with support from food science faculty members Ed Dudley, Jasna Kovac, Darrell Cockburn, Jonathan Campbell and Chris Sigler.
“The internship program, called ‘Bugs in my Food,’ focused on giving undergraduates a chance to perform research in food microbiology,” Wee said. “The partnership with Discovery Space was an excellent opportunity for our interns to gain some experience in communicating science efficiently across different audiences.”
At Discovery Space, the interns, Emma Medlock, a rising sophomore at Juniata College in Huntingdon, and Kerely Lorenzo, a rising junior at the University of Puerto Rico, worked with graduate students from the Department of Food Science to teach gel electrophoresis techniques to campers between the ages of 10 and 14.
“Gel electrophoresis is basically a way of separating and analyzing DNA fragments based on their size and charge,” said Medlock. “We knew that we would be talking to kids who don’t really know what DNA is, so we made sure to create a demonstration that would help them understand it.”
Using demonstration units provided by Thermo Fisher Scientific, Medlock, Lorenzo and the graduate students set up four learning stations that the campers rotated through. At the stations, the youths learned the answers to basic questions: How do we analyze DNA? What can you do with this technology? What are the principles behind that technology? What are potential careers in DNA technology?
The outreach was a great success, according to Lorenzo. “These kids were brilliant,” he said. “They were so smart, and they just wanted to learn. I enjoyed teaching them some of the skills we’ve gained.”
Medlock concurred, adding, “We had a lot of fun making the demonstrations and running them with the kids.”
As USDA Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduate Fellowships interns, Medlock is researching the ability of wild yeast to consume various sugars, and Lorenzo is studying potential yeast probiotics. Both see a place for science communication in their respective futures.
Lorenzo, who plans to pursue a medical degree, said effective outreach skills will serve him well as a doctor: “Patients don’t have the same knowledge base as doctors, so these communication skills are super important.”
Though Medlock is unsure what she will do after she completes her bachelor’s degree, she agreed that scientists need to know how to communicate with non-scientists. “If we can show non-scientists how they can experience and understand science, they will be able to apply it to and improve their own lives,” she said.
USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture recruits 10 students each summer from undergraduate-centric institutions in Pennsylvania and from the University of Puerto Rico-Aguadilla for its Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduate Fellowships program. For more information about the program in Penn State’s Department of Food Science, contact Dudley at firstname.lastname@example.org.