UAB School of Health Professions Current News

Dish liquid, rubbing alcohol and UAB instructor help kids see their DNA

McWane Students RobbinsCarol Robbins, Ph.D., (right) with McWane campersDeoxyribonucleic acid – better known as DNA – stores all of the information necessary for life and of course is in every living thing.

One item in every living human is mucus, or as a group of middle schoolers at the McWane Science Center Biotechnology Camp would call it, snot.

“See that stuff in the tube that looks like snot? That is DNA from millions of your cheek cells,” said Carol Robbins, Ph.D., laboratory teacher in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Biotechnology Program, and guest instructor at the McWane Camp.

“As you know, your DNA is what makes you, you; so if you take a picture of yourself holding yourself in a tube then you will be taking the ultimate selfie,” said Tabitha Finch, Ph.D., manager of science education at the McWane Science Center and the student’s camp instructor this week.

SEE MORE: View all the photos on the SHP Flickr page

UAB’s Robbins spent an hour teaching, and relating biotechnology, to the Birmingham-area kids. She explained that biotechnology is as it sounds – using biology to make technology. The kids learned that most people associate the field with medicine but it is also important for the environment and in the agriculture and manufacturing industries. Biotechnologists use their knowledge of biology to develop alternative fuels, manufacture plastics and textiles, and to produce GMO (genetically modified) foods, just to name a few.

McWane StudentsStudents at McWane Science Center Biotechnology CampBut most of all, Robbins taught the kids that science is DNA-mazing.

“The DNA in one human cell stretches about 6 feet long and the average person has 10 trillion DNA cells in their body,” said Robbins. “That means your body has enough DNA inside of it to travel to the sun and back 70 times. That is what I call DNA-mazing!”

As you would expect from Robbins style, instead of teaching technical mumbo jumbo you would hear on NCIS, CSI or another acronym crime solving show, she taught them hands-on forensics skills.

And just like that, eight Birmingham-area middle school students officially became DNA collectors – middle school MacGyver style.

“Swish the water in your mouth really hard to get the buccal cells off your cheeks and then spit it into the tube,” Robbins told the kids. “Now we’re going to add a little dish soap and a little rubbing alcohol which will cause your DNA to separate from the solution.”

And while the kids worked on collecting their DNA and turning it into a substance that looks like snot, Robbins let them know that the future of DNA is nothing to sneeze at.

McWane StudentRobbins assists McWane student“In the near future, because of biotechnologists and DNA research, medicine will be personalized based on your personal DNA sequence,” said Robbins. “Today we can sequence DNA in one or two days but we can’t compute nor understand the information stored in the DNA that fast. However, with the strides being made daily in biotechnology that day is coming soon.”

The Biotechnology Camp is one of many summer camps offered by the McWane Science Center in Birmingham. In addition to learning from Robbins, the kids have done strawberry DNA extractions, built origami DNA models, studied blood endotoxins with horseshoe crabs and studied the sharks in the McWane’s Waterworld where they learned that researchers studied shark skin in an effort to build better swimsuits for worldclass swimmers - an effort known as biomimicry.

The UAB Biotechnology Program is located in the School of Health Professions Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences. It is designed to offer graduates of science programs a viable alternate path into practical, lucrative job tracks.