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October 12, 2018

MDI Biological Lab lands grant to promote data literacy in public health project

Courtesy / MDI Biological Laboratory
Courtesy / MDI Biological Laboratory
Jane White, a teacher at the Tremont Consolidated School in Tremont, prepares a slide during a Data Literacy Institute for Teachers at the MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor in September.

About the MDI Biological Laboratory

MDI Biological Laboratory is pioneering new approaches to regenerative medicine focused on developing drugs that slow age-related degenerative diseases and activate a person's natural ability to heal. Its researc has identified potential therapies that could revolutionize the treatment of heart disease, muscular dystrophy and more. Through the Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation the lab is preparing students for 21st century careers and equipping entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to turn discoveries into applications that improve human health and well-being.

The MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor will take a leading role nationally in teaching data literacy to students and teachers though a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The goal of the Science Education Partnership grant from the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences is to establish a national learning model for STEM secondary school education in data literacy. The project will focus on a major regional public health problem — namely, the contamination of well water in Maine and New Hampshire by arsenic that leaches out of the bedrock.

"The MDI Biological Laboratory has a distinguished history of achievement in the field of environmental health," said President Hermann Haller. "We are pleased to be building upon this legacy with this project, which offers a huge potential reward in terms of building scientific literacy and promoting public health."

Why this matters

Residents of Maine and New Hampshire rely heavily on private wells for drinking water, but few have their wells tested and standard assays do not test for arsenic, which has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the environmental contaminant with the biggest impact on human health, MDI Biological Laboratory said in a news release.

Long-term exposure, even at low levels, can lead to severe health problems, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and reproductive, developmental and cognitive problems, including lower IQs in children. Arsenic is a particular problem in New England's coastal "arsenic belt," where up to 60% of wells have levels that exceed EPA limits.

Creating partnerships

MDI Biological Laboratory said that under the project students will learn how to manage and analyze data about water collected from their homes. They also will learn how to effectively communicate their results to inform action at the local, regional and even national levels.

"Students are more likely to expand their scientific inquiry skills and retain what they learn when the data have relevance," said Jane E. Disney, senior staff scientist and director of education at the MDI Biological Laboratory. "The data they collect will be meaningful for them and their families, as well as for the larger community."

The project will create student-teacher-scientist partnerships by recruiting scientist-mentors from the faculties of institutions of higher learning that participate in the federally funded Maine and New Hampshire IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence programs, which promote biomedical education and research.

"We anticipate that long-term relationships will develop as a result of the connections between these institutions and nearby secondary schools," Disney said. "Our goal is for these informal STEM 'satellite centers' to inspire generations of students to become critical thinkers and to consider careers in science, medicine and public health."

As an example, Disney cited the interest of Bates College in Lewiston and Colby College in Waterville in working with students and teachers from their local high schools.

"The scientists from these institutions are enthusiastic and so are the institutions," she said. "They want to serve the communities that serve them. They also recognize the value of the interaction between students, teachers and scientist-mentors to furthering scientific inquiry and addressing the public health threat posed by arsenic."

Disney, who directs the project as principal investigator, will collaborate with Bruce A. Stanton, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, the director of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program and a visiting scientist at the MDI Biological Laboratory.

The water samples that students collect will be tested by the Trace Elements Analysis Core at Dartmouth. Results will be provided to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to help monitor the extent of arsenic exposure and implement mitigation strategies.

The project will also serve as a national model for engaging students and teachers in other types of citizen science inquiries, Disney said, including those involving other regional public health threats, as well as those involving environmental degradation and the effects of climate change.

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