A Field Trip to the Lab

Most days, EOH Department Chair Melissa Perry’s lab in Ross Hall is devoted to studying the links between environmental exposures and chromosomal abnormalities in sperm cells. Recently, though, it was the site of more formative scientific explorations when it hosted a group of five- and six-year-olds from Teri Eckel’s primary class at the Aidan Montessori School in Washington, DC.

GW Facilities Manager Ken Crosson was the first to welcome the class when they arrived in Ross Hall, and he issued everyone personalized ID badges. Then, the class learned first about the importance of protective gear to protect everyone in the lab from hazards while also keeping the lab free of contaminants. After donning caps and lab coats, they received a tour from Perry. She showed the children microscopes, centrifuges, microbalances, ventilation hoods, and big freezers.

“What do you think we use this big refrigerator for?” Perry asked. “For lunches!” one student called out. When they learned that it actually held urine samples, a chorus of “ewww!” echoed through the lab.

Assistant Professor Amanda Northcross demonstrated a microbalance, and it didn’t take students long to figure out that waving a hand in front of it made the machine rotate and make noise automatically. Lab Manager Yuwei Zhang captured the young visitors’ attention by zooming in on magnified cells on her computer.

Research Assistants Sheena Martenies, Sarah Fukui, and Dustin Marks helped the students use microscopes to examine salt, cork, and a tick; one sharp-eyed scientist-in-training noted that the cork sample looked like a plant.

Requests for additional turns with the microscope fell silent when Executive Associate Kallista Bernal, who is completing a graduate degree in hominid paleobiology, delighted everyone by unveiling a human skeleton, courtesy of the GW Anatomy Department. After pointing out different bones in the human body, she taught the class a trick for determining whether a skeleton is male or female: Find the greater sciatic notch (on the inside of the pelvis), and see how wide it is – a wide, shallow notch means the skeleton is female, while a deep, narrow one means it is male. As they each walked single file out of the lab, everyone had a chance to touch a crocodile and snapping turtle skeleton, loaned for the field trip by the GW Biology Department.

When the field trip was over, the students got to keep their caps and gowns, and everyone received a goody bag with an anatomy coloring book and GW pencils and balloons.

On the Metro ride back to school, one five-year-old boy recited the trick for telling male and female skeletons apart. One student who particularly enjoyed being a scientist for the day later decided to wear her lab coat while baking, and realized that following a recipe was like conducting an experiment.

Perry was delighted her lab could host the field trip. “It’s a real privilege to conduct science, and having a group of curious children in the lab is a great reminder of how science can turn on the mind,” she said. “Exposing children to science early will surely benefit public health and humankind in the long run.”