Every day, scientists in genetics labs use "gel electrophoresis" to confirm that DNA has been isolated from a blood sample. That sample could be used for paternity testing or to confirm DNA evidence from a crime scene.
This week, students at Beaufort High School and the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence learned how to use gel electrophoresis aboard "The Gene Machine," a 41-foot custom bus staffed by the Greenwood Genetic Center.
The bus, equipped as a state-of-the-art genetics laboratory, travels the state to help students perform hands-on experiments and introduce them to medical technologies used in genetics.
Some biology and health-science students explored genes of a family with a history of cancer, and others distinguished between normal and sickle-cell hemoglobin.
Donning gloves, goggles and aprons to perform experiments beats taking notes in class, some students said.
"It gives us a chance to try something new," student Katherine Workman said. "We do labs, but not with this equipment. It's different from just using a microscope."
"It's more interactive," student Meleah Jaye agreed.
Beaufort High biology teacher Nancy Schoeppner said the visit introduced her students to the biotechnology that genetic scientists use every day. Her students learned to use micropipettes, sophisticated versions of droppers calibrated to precisely measure tiny quantities of liquid. Schoeppner said she didn't see one of the tools until she studied biology in college.
A 2009 grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute allowed the nonprofit Greenwood Genetic Center to acquire the mobile science lab. Schools do not pay for the visits.
Education director Leta Tribble said the mobile lab makes the center's technology and education programs accessible to students throughout the state. Before, it was only available to those schools close enough to the center to take a field trip.
The van began traveling across the state this school year and is booked through the end of the year, Tribble said.
Colleen Price, health sciences instructor at ACE, said the visit introduced her students to the range of careers in the field of genetics. She said some of her students left the bus considering careers they otherwise might not have known were possible.
"Until they are exposed to something, the light bulb doesn't come on," she said.