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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.