Andre Samuel runs the Citizen Science Lab, Pittsburgh’s only community life sciences laboratory. It’s an accessible makerspace showcasing all that’s wonderful about the sciences, bringing test tubes, petri dishes, protein discovery and now SeqStudio sequencing into the hands of people who wouldn’t normally find themselves behind the bench.
The Citizen Science Lab started in 2015 as a collaboration between Urban Innovation 21, a nonprofit supporting start-ups in the region, and Duquesne University. During Samuel’s PhD studies in biology at the university, he puzzled over the lack of diversity within the life sciences field before realizing that underrepresentation was due to lack of exposure. Up-and-coming students simply didn’t know about the science world; they had never handled a pipette or experienced working on experiments behind the bench. Furthermore, without knowing the kinds of technology involved, there was nothing to spark an interest in a life sciences career.
Samuel started an outreach project to tackle this underrepresentation while studying for his PhD. Noticing that the university labs lay mostly empty during the summer, he started a program that brought local ninth grade students on site for an immersive hands-on science camp. Success put the program on the radar of local supporters, and eventually the Citizen Science Lab was born. Since 2015, the facility has offered weekly after-school and homeschool programs for local third to twelfth grade students to spark curiosity in science. Students work on a wide variety of projects: microscopy, cell culture, circuits, robotics, tissue culture, plasmid preparations and cloning.
With its focus on real-life projects with potential for publication and maybe product development, Samuel describes the Citizen Science Lab programming as a practical “learn through doing” space that engages students.
“Students tend to be more engaged when they have the hands-on aspect of the programming,” says Samuel, explaining the approach taken to encourage exploration. For this reason, he looks for experiments that not only give the students lots of bench time, but also introduce them to the tools currently in the hands of life sciences researchers all over the world.
And this is where the Applied Biosystems SeqStudio Genetic Analyzer comes in. Not only is it a cutting-edge instrument found in molecular genetics labs all over the world, but its single-step, cartridge-based operation brings real-time biology easily into inexperienced hands. Samuel brought in the SeqStudio to complement the students’ interest in matching disease with genomics.
Initially, students will use SeqStudio to answer microbiome questions in the lab’s owl pellet project. These matted projectiles of owl vomit hold surprising insight into an owl’s last meal and its internal health. As well as confirming the owl’s menu choices by sequencing pellet content, the students will also look at the difference in microbiome between captive and wild birds. The whole project takes them from visual inspection at dissection, sequencing and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for plasmid construction and vector cloning, to analyzing results for novel bacteria and potential pathogens. SeqStudio analysis makes sure that results are easy and fast to obtain.
After this, Samuel has plans to introduce the students to SeqStudio sequencing as part of a drug discovery/molecular biology program straight out of real-world life sciences. The program combines in silico drug discovery and molecular protein modeling as students examine cold shock–related proteins in Escherichia coli as antimicrobial targets for antibiotic development. In his five-year vision, Samuel sees students publishing their results.
But it’s not just the students who are enjoying the SeqStudio’s ease of use; Samuel mentions that there are many “back in my day” moments as he reflects on how far molecular technology has advanced since his days in the lab.
“Thermo Scientific is making so many advances in technology in these older techniques that we’re able to get a lot more done; it used to take me as a graduate many hours, days or even years,” he reminisces. “Being able to get through things faster helps keep the students’ interest. Being able to have a sequencer here, and for it to run in as little time as it takes now compared to my time at the bench, is a big plus for us.”
Citizen Science Lab also gains economy from SeqStudio functionality; consumables last longer thanks to the single-cartridge system and optimized storage within the instrument itself. There’s no need keep the machine constantly in play to maximize value—it is ready at the touch of a screen whenever needed. Moreover, Samuel finds that training staff and volunteers is easier because of their familiarity with the touchscreen user interface and the instrument’s simple maintenance plan.
The Citizen Science Lab’s value is already showing; now in its third year of programming, Samuel has noticed a number of students making changes in their career choices and options after the projects open up their worlds. Around 1,500 students have taken part in programs and some are now enrolled in life sciences degrees—thanks to Citizen Science Lab outreach, the life sciences world is becoming a little more diverse.
If you would like to find out more about the Citizen Science Lab and how you can support its programming, please visit the lab’s Support Us page.