By Chris Winters Herald Writer
MUKILTEO — Some teachers spend the summer teaching summer classes, attending conferences or working a second job outside education.
Heidi Dullum spent hers chopping up and analyzing fish DNA.
Dullum, who teaches science and math at the International School of Communications on the Marysville Getchell Campus, has been taking part in an innovative outreach program called Teachers in the Lab, an offshoot of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Teachers at Sea program.
The goal of the program is to bring teachers into research laboratories to learn or refine their skills in a manner that can be then passed on to their students.
For Dullum, it’s her fall sophomore Advanced Placement Biology class that’s going to be on the receiving end of her experience.
For three weeks, Dullum went to the Mukilteo Research Station of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. There, under the guidance of research geneticist Gary Winans and Jon Baker, a science teacher at Mariner High School who has worked in the lab for 10 years, Dullum extracted DNA from the fins of English sole (Parophrys vetalus), making copies of the DNA through a chemical process, then analyzing the samples with sophisticated software that can detect similarities in the samples’ genetic code.
One day toward the end of her “externship,” as the program is called, Dullum worked with a sample of English sole from British Columbia. But over the past four years, the researchers and participating teachers in the program have looked at fish samples from all over Puget Sound from Commencement Bay to the Straight of Juan de Fuca, from the mouth of the Snohomish River to Hood Canal.
Genetic analysis can determine how closely various populations are related, and that can ultimately help shape fisheries management practices, for other, higher-profiles species as well, including salmon.
“If we’re looking at population genetics in this way, then we’re potentially looking at restoring populations,” Dullum said.
Teachers in the Lab came to the Mukilteo Research Station in 2010 as a pilot program within NOAA, but money has always been tight, Winans said.
The Teachers in the Lab program was nearly canceled during the sequester of the federal budget two years ago, and Winans said the relatively small lab space and staff means that he’s only able to take on two teachers each summer.
Dullum’s stipend came from the Washington Alliance for Better Schools, an initiative of 11 Puget Sound school districts in which they share resources to improve student achievement, especially in the sciences and math.
Winans selects teachers for the program based on their experience and their enthusiasm for working with what he calls the “unsung heroes” of the Puget Sound ecosystem: English sole, dog whelks (a species of snail), spot prawns, eelgrass.
“It’s not sexy, there’s less money involved in it, but it is more important,” he said.
These foundational species form the lower rungs of the sound’s food ladder, he said, and studying those populations will help in understanding impacts to those ecosystems that also affect salmon.
Dullum’s students will be doing the same work she has been doing this summer: extracting DNA, analyzing samples and identifying similarities.
She envisions a unit that covers the broader ecosystem of the sound, then narrowing the focus of the lesson to salmon species, and then shifting to the less visible species such as English sole.
That will lead into the lab work with the sole DNA, after which Dullum said the focus of the class will be on looking at the broader ecosystem again, this time with the knowledge about how other marine species can be studied at the genetic level and how their populations can be managed.
“Having done this on sole, you can now see patterns in different populations. I will try to align this with what’s known about salmon,” she said.
The science Dullum performed in the lab is the same work Winans and Baker have been doing for the past four years. With the work already done, Winans feels that they will soon have a good grasp on English sole populations in the region. Then it will be time to start work on another species, with the goal of eventually building a detailed model of many Puget Sound marine animals and plants.
That will be a powerful tool when it comes to monitoring and protecting the marine life in Puget Sound, he said. Species in some areas — Hood Canal, for example — might face different threats or challenges than their relatives elsewhere in the sound.
“If a population decreases and we know they are distinct populations, it changes the management of those areas,” Winans said.
“It’s ownership of what we have in our back yard,” Winans said.