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September / October 2002 Cover

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Fungi Wars and the Biology Behind Them

Fungi Wars and the Biology Behind Them
UMaine Upward Bound students learn the practical uses of math and science, and where those lessons can take them

About the Photo: This past summer, Sharon Tetteh (above) and 43 other highly motivated math, science and technology students from New England high schools studied at UMaine.


TRIO Programs at UMaine
The Upward Bound Regional Math/Science Center is one of five federally funded TRIO programs assisting people who are economically disadvantaged or disabled.

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Sharon Tetteh surveyed the laboratory counter crowded with dozens of petri dishes. With a pipette in one hand and a tube of a thick, bluish substance in the other, she turned her attention to the five other students standing nearby, ready to help her calculate the fate of some fungi specimens.

"We can decide how much slurry to use," said Tetteh, adjusting the pipette to deposit just the right amount of the mixture of blue cheese, milk and penicillin into the dishes where the students were growing fungi. The slurry had been formulated to destroy bacteria that inhibits growth of the fungi.

"We also can choose what nutrients we want to add (to make the fungi grow faster)," said Tetteh, whose group decided to add yeast and gelatin to several of their samples.

Then it was all over but the waiting.

"We're trying to figure out what makes the fungi grow the fastest," said the 17-year-old from East Boston. "We'll take the fungi that grew the best and put it in a plate against (other fast-growing fungi). Then we'll have a fungi war."

For Tetteh and the other 43 high school students conducting similar science experiments in a biology lab at The University of Maine, such "fungi wars" were a light-hearted front for some serious learning. These highly motivated math, science and technology students from throughout New England spent six weeks at the Upward Bound Regional Math/Science Center, which is located in UMaine's College of Education and Human Development.

The federally funded center assists economically disadvantaged high school students in their efforts to succeed in college. It is one of 123 nationwide; one of four in this region. As a TRIO program, introduced by the U.S. Department of Education 11 years ago, Upward Bound Math/Science (UBMS) helps students overcome economic, social and cultural barriers to higher education.

For the past five years, 90 percent of the students in UMaine's Upward Bound Math/Science program have gone to college.

The teens, often the first generation in their families to pursue college educations, have demonstrated the talents necessary to seek careers in mathematics, science, computer science and engineering. And in Tetteh's case, a career in communications.

This fall, she is enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"We don't just learn by sitting in a classroom and taking notes," said Tetteh, a native of Ghana who immigrated to Massachusetts five years ago. "Between our projects, the labs and the fieldtrips, we learn so much more. It's a loving community. Every staff member and student is willing to help each other."

This was Tetteh's second summer participating in the Upward Bound Math/Science program at UMaine. During her six weeks on campus, she and the other students did group and individual research projects, and took courses on scientific writing, college English and the college application process. When they return to their high schools, the students receive follow-up visits and academic advice throughout the school year.

UMaine's integrated research and college preparatory curriculum has become a model for other UBMS programs. William Ellis, UBMS coordinator and a cooperating assistant professor of marine sciences, says other colleges and universities have asked to observe UMaine's program.

Her first summer, Tetteh's individual research project was "Chemotaxis of Dictyostelium discoideum: Saving the Spore Cells," involving amoebas. As a group, students analyzed the effectiveness of natural pesticides in controlling Colorado potato beetles.

This past summer, Tetteh did research on the health benefits and risks of vegetarianism. Fungi was the focus of group research.

The students gathered specimens such as mushrooms, flowers and bark in the nearby Marsh Island Trails. In the lab, they measured the growth of their fungi daily, analyzed them using statistics and reported on their results.

"This allows the students to get acquainted with science in a way they normally wouldn't unless they were taking advanced undergraduate or graduate courses," said Dan Look, an Upward Bound staff member who served as a mentor to Tetteh's group.

"The processes they are learning here teach them how they would begin to study fungi if, for instance, they were trying to figure out how to protect crops, or eliminate fungus on the human body," said Look, one of 12 graduate and undergraduate students who taught this year's math/science program with five UMaine faculty members. Look has undergraduate and graduate degrees in math from UMaine, and is working on his doctorate at Boston University.

For their individual research projects, students worked with mentors from on and off campus. Some projects took students to chemistry, physics and biology labs to work with UMaine professors and graduate students; others took students into the community to work with physicians or veterinarians. The results of their research projects were published in the program's Journal of Explorations and placed in UMaine's Fogler Library.

"It's an entirely new style of learning. You learn the practical uses of math and science," said UBMS student Vireak Gilpatrick of Sanford, Maine, a native of Cambodia who came to Maine seven years ago and is now an electrical engineering major at UMaine.

"I loved being on my own, and doing the research. It made me really proud of what I do," said April Butler of Irasburg, Vt., who is now studying marine biology and secondary education at Middlebury College in her home state. "The experience I got working with college professors and having resources like a library and labs I just didn't get that in a small high school like mine."

In addition to offering a rigorous curriculum, the math/science program included free time for students to socialize, as well as trips to museums and weekend camping.
"I slept in a hotel for the first time on one of those trips. I did so many things for the first time because of this program. I learned so much, from how to camp to how to do statistical tests," Tetteh said.

"Before Upward Bound Math/Science, I was 100 percent nervous about college. Now everything seems smooth. Upward Bound really does push you higher," she said.

by Gladys Ganiel
September-October, 2002

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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