Forensics Lab

I had such a good time teaching lab today. It was our “forensics” lab, where we talk about DNA fingerprinting techniques. (Specifically restriction fragment analysis and PCR). We do two activities – a “paternity test,” where students analyze a “gel” with the mother, child, and four possible fathers, to determine which father is most likely to be the biological dad. Then we try and solve a murder by comparing electrophoresis results for a whole bunch of suspects and comparing them to “blood” found at the crime scene that doesn’t match the victim. It’s the kind of lab that can be super fun or really dull, and today was super fun.

Also, I totally geeked out while teaching it. First, Taq DNA polymerase is just COOL! (It’s what allows us to take small samples of DNA and duplicate them enough to run tests. So much of the stuff we see on NCIS and every other crime show on the planet? POSSIBLE BECAUSE OF TAQ). It’s from a bacteria that lives in hotsprings like the ones at Yellowstone, and I sort of geeked out about how awesome biology is because of cool stuff like this. (There might have been some bouncing).

Then one of my students asked me how it was possible to get DNA from dried up tears, and that got us onto the topic of thousands of years old DNA extracted from frozen mammoths (AND FROM DINOSAUR BLOOD IN MOSQUITOS IN AMBER THAT IS REAL HUSH I BELIEVE IN IT AND I WILL HAVE A T. REX AS A PET SOMEDAY). So, we had a fun conversation about mammoths (and also about T. rex, because it’s possible I literally bounced up and down even more than I had before, and told them how much I really want a T. rex as a pet, even if it ended up eating me. And, I’m pretty sure they understood I WAS NOT JOKING). Then one of my students mentioned the possibility that T. rex had feathers, and I put that discussion off (because it was a bit off-topic) … but then the COOLEST thing happened.

After I dismissed the class, I brought up the subject of T. rex again with the student who had asked (and I won’t go into details here, but I’ll just say that the current “birds evolved from dinosaurs” theory has some GAPING holes, and should in no way be considered an absolute at this point in time) … ANYWAY … I started talking about this, and about a third of the class just STAYED TO LISTEN! They could have walked out, I expected them to walk out, but a bunch of them stopped, and stood around and they were totally interested in this little paleontology discussion we had and IT MADE ME SO HAPPY! Because I really did geek out at them quite a lot today, and they don’t seem to mind. If anything, I think it helps them get excited about the subject.

And I realized that THIS, really, is the best thing I can give them. Sure, they’ll learn some bits and pieces of biology from me in class, and hopefully remember at least some of it into the future. But if I can do something that helps THEM get as excited about science as I am, THAT is the real gift. And they probably won’t geek out about the same things I do, but that doesn’t matter, as long as they get the idea that it’s okay to geek out about SOMETHING. And holy crap, biology has an ENDLESS SPECTRUM of things that are geek-out worthy. Because biology is just F-ING COOL!

I think that might be my true calling. To help at least some of my students discover just how much they actually love biology, and see that it’s fine to express that. (Although I don’t expect all of them to bounce up and down about dinosaurs. But if they decide to do that, they will have my FULL SUPPORT).

So, yeah. Lab today was awesome. Oh, and I also told one of my students “I LOVE YOU,” because when I wrote “Thermus aquaticus” on the board, and asked them what I’d done wrong HE KNEW IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ITALICIZED OR UNDERLINED. I must be doing something right.

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