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Learning life in the lab


High school students from Chelsea tried their hands at a little genetic engineering last Thursday, in a lab exercise at Harvard’s Science Center that first coaxed bacteria to produce a red fluorescent protein, and then harvested the material.

The group of about 15 students carefully followed steps outlined on the blackboard by research assistant Alia Qatarneh. In the process, they completed the Amgen-Bruce Wallace Biotechnology Lab Program, an eight-lab biotechnology course supported by the Harvard Life Sciences Outreach Program and funded by the Amgen Foundation.

“For over a decade, the Outreach Program has shared the technology of our teaching labs [with area schools] through class visits to campus,” said Robert Lue, outreach program director and professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology. “The Amgen program gives us another way to package technology with curriculum in a manner that brings it to the schools. The bidirectional combination of approaches maximizes the beneficial impact of Harvard’s resources in the life sciences.”

The course is made available to high schools around the state. The Outreach Program provides instructions for eight labs and lends the schools kits that include $20,000 in chemicals and equipment that many schools couldn’t otherwise afford, such as centrifuges, hot water baths, and thermal cyclers (also known as PCR machines, for polymerase chain reaction) that amplify DNA.

“The class would not be happening at Chelsea High School without this program,” said Melissa Puopolo, a science teacher at the school.

“I don’t have a centrifuge,” she said. Having access to “the equipment is huge; the PCR machine is really expensive.”

The biotech outreach effort has proven popular, according to Tara Bennett, the program manager. In its first two years, it has served 5,000 students in 50 schools across the state, from Yarmouth on Cape Cod to Lee along the New York state border. What that means, however, is that the kits can be loaned out for just three weeks at a time. Because Chelsea had to return the kit before finishing the final lab, the students traveled to Harvard to complete it.

“It is a tight schedule,” Bennett said. “These are big-ticket items whose cost is preventing teachers from introducing students to the [biotechnology] equipment.”

The processes used in Thursday’s lab are standard in biotechnology, Bennett said, and can be used to get bacteria to produce biological products such as the red fluorescent protein — which is used to tag other molecules so scientists can track them — or important therapeutic substances such as insulin.

Chelsea High School students Bahiya Nasuuna (left) and Jolena Gonzalez perform lab work with RFP-expressing bacteria inside Harvard’s Science Center.

The students learn that science is sometimes messy and that experiments don’t always turn out as planned. In the labs, Puopolo said, students get hands-on experience that could give them a leg up in college or even help them land a biotech job out of high school.

“They can say … ‘I can work with DNA or pour gels,’ ” Puopolo said. “There are so many jobs in biotech in the area.”

Neris Yanes, a junior at Chelsea High, said she liked the lab work because it allowed her to participate rather than just listen. Bahiya Nasuuna, a senior, enjoyed the clear steps outlined in the lab and said science may be in her future.

“Science is my favorite subject. I definitely want to pursue it in college,” Nasuuna said.

Tony Morrisson: Good, but never simple


Toni Morrison silenced the audience in Sanders Theatre on Thursday afternoon, not with one of her own stories, but with a tragic tale from real life.

The author, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, recounted the “mindless horror” of the 2006 murder of five Amish girls in a one-room Pennsylvania schoolhouse by a gunman who then committed suicide, and the shocking reaction to the tragedy. Instead of demanding vengeance, the community comforted the killer’s widow and children.

Their behavior “seemed to me at the time characteristic of genuine goodness, and so I became fascinated, even then, with the term and its definition,” Morrison said. Above all it was the community’s silence, its refusal “to be lionized, televised,” she added, “that caused me to begin to think a little bit differently about goodness as it applies to the work I do.”

Morrison expanded on the theme of goodness for the Harvard Divinity School’s (HDS) 2012 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality. In a talk titled “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination,” she explored how authors illuminate concepts of good and evil. She also examined the treatment of goodness in her own novels.

“Expressions of goodness are never trivial in my work, they are never incidental in my writing. In fact, I want them to have life-changing properties and to illuminate decisively the moral questions embedded in the narrative,” she said.

“It was important to me that none of these expressions of goodness be handled as comedy or irony, and they are seldom mute. Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil, but it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness: the acquisition of self-knowledge. A satisfactory or good ending for me is when the protagonist learns something vital and morally insightful and mature that she or he did not know at the beginning.”

A true exploration of goodness demands a thorough examination of its opposite, Morrison argued. The author, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, said that she has never “been impressed by evil,” and that she is “confounded by how attractive it is to others and stunned by the attention given to its every whisper, its every shout.”

“Evil has a blockbuster audience,” she said, “goodness lurks backstage.”

With a few notable exceptions, the 19th-century novel made sure goodness triumphed in the end. Writers such as Dickens, Austen, and Hardy mostly held to a formula that left their readers turning the final page “with the sense of the restoration of order and the triumph of virtue.”

But there was a “rapid, stark” shift away from such endings in the wake of World War I, as writers confronted a catastrophe “too wide, too deep to ignore or to distort with a simplistic gesture of goodness.” In Faulkner’s “A Fable,” which tells of trench warfare between German and American forces, “evil grabs the intellectual platform and all of its energy,” said Morrison.

Goodness hasn’t fared well since. Through portrayals of grief, melancholy, missed chances, and personal happiness, authors depict their versions of evil. “It hogs the stage,” said Morrison. “Goodness sits in the audience and watches, assuming it even has a ticket to the show.

“Many of late and early 20th-century heavyweights – Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth – are masters of exposing the frailties, the pointlessness, and the comedy of goodness,” she added.

But in Morrison’s work virtue is a force, and it takes various forms, including the instinctual form of a mother desperate to save her child.  In “A Mercy” (2008), which revolves around slavery in the United States in the late 1600s, one of the main characters gives her child away to a stranger in order to save her.

The mother’s compelling motive, “seems to me quite close to altruism, and most importantly is given language,” said Morrison, “which I hoped would be a profound and literal definition of freedom.”

For the past three months, members of the Harvard community have met weekly at HDS to explore the religious dimensions of Morrison’s writings. The working group was convened by Harvard’s Davíd Carrasco (pictured) and Stephanie Paulsell.

In the mother’s words, Morrison read: “To be given dominion over another is a hard thing. To wrest, or take dominion over another is a wrong thing. To give dominion of yourself to another is an evil thing.”

Many in the crowd arrived well prepared. For the past three months, members of the Harvard community have met weekly at HDS to explore the religious dimensions of Morrison’s writings. The working group, convened byDavid Carrasco, Harvard’s Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, and Stephanie Paulsell, Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies, brought together scholars from across the University.

Earlier Thursday the group met for the final time, with Morrison in attendance. “We are grateful to Toni Morrison for creating this extraordinary body of work,” said Paulsell. “We could swim and swim in it for several more semesters and never reach its depth.”

The guest of honor was ready to engage with an eager group that included avid readers and fans. In response to one question, Morrison expanded on the intersection of the divine and the human. “This is really what art is for … whether it’s music, or writing, or dance … that’s what it does in the best of times.”


Harvard Gazette

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