Ivy League experiment excites students

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 23, 2010

NATCHEZ — For high school students, working with Ivy League professors and thousands of dollars worth of lab equipment doesn’t happen every day.

But on Friday, a group of 20 Cathedral School juniors and seniors spent the day learning how DNA testing works while being instructed by Cornell University’s Mike Yerky.

Yerky, outreach coordinator of the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers, travels thousands of miles each year bringing lab equipment to schools across the nation to instruct students in DNA testing and protein bonding.

Yerky said part of his job is to not only introduce students to new labs and ways of viewing science, but also help teachers feel comfortable teaching such labs on their own.

Yerky said the constant travel and teaching children all over the country are two aspects of his job he enjoys the most.

“I get to see new faces every day,” Yerky said. “The good part of teaching labs is when the classes are really into it, and this class is really into it. They were prepared and they are nice and focused.”

Students were given samples of DNA — not belonging to a real human — and given a scenario involving two couples and a child.

The students were given the task of figuring out who the child’s parents were based on the DNA pattern’s outcome.

Cathedral Biology II teacher Denise Thibodeaux said when she attended Cornell’s Institute for Biology Teachers last summer, she participated in labs such as the one her students were working on.

Thibodeaux requested Yerky pay a visit to Cathedral and introduce her students to lab equipment not available to them.

“Dr. Yerky has a wonderful talent of being a colleague who can discuss with scientists at Cornell and can take (the same information) and explain it the students where they can understand it,” Thibodeaux said.

While Yerky may not fit the stereotype of how scientists look or behave, students found his expertise and approach to teaching to be a comforting challenge.

“When Ms. Thibodeaux told us Yerky had jet black hair that looked like a biker’s, we were kind of nervous,” senior Cole Mann said.

Mann said after meeting Yerky and spending time in his all-day DNA course, he was impressed by the wealth of knowledge Yerky was presenting to him and his classmates.

Junior Catherine Myers said Thibodeaux reviewed with the class on Thursday to prepare them for the questions they would run into during the lab.

“When we got here this morning, we were trying to keep up with him,” Myers said.

“It’s just scary with him having the title of an Ivy League professor, and we’re only in high school.”

Junior Ana Perry said while she went into the lab feeling anxious, Yerky’s instruction put her at ease.

“I was kind of nervous at first, but he told us what we had to do and made it easy for us,” Perry said. “He made it interesting.”

Senior Cameron Horton said Yerky’s lab presentation has given him a different look at something he once found somewhat intimidating.

“It makes me want to consider going into something that concerns this now,” Horton said.

Thibodeaux said she hopes to see Yerky come back to Cathedral next year.

She also would like to see other teachers attend Cornell’s two-week course so Yerky can travel to more schools in the county.