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New LIJ genetics facility welcomes boro students

The new genetic research facility opened by North Shore-LIJ Research Institute and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a scientist’s dream. But it is reserved for borough students rather than top researchers.

The DNA lab’s purpose is to open the door to genetic research and education for middle and high school students throughout Queens and Long Island. So instead of seeing scientists in white-lab coats peering into the world’s genetic future, sitting behind the microscopes examining DNA are groups of fifth, sixth and seventh graders.

“I think it is of critical importance to have programs like this,” said Dr. Leslie Goodwin, director of molecular genetics core facility at North Shore-LIJ. “I think bringing a facility to kids in this area is vital; city kids never have this access. It opens their eyes to look at the world in different ways.”

The Lake Success, L.I. facility — DNA Learning Center West — was the brainchild of Arthur Spiro, who sits on the boards of North Shore-LIJ and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He wanted to make certain that as science advances children do not get left behind since one day they will be the ones make the cutting-edge discoveries.

“Genes are the fingerprint of life,” Goodwin said. “These students get to look at the snips of what makes us different and why one person has a propensity towards disease and others do not.”

The 2,200-square-foot facility opened June 27 and expects to hold classes throughout the year. It was modeled on the Dolan DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor and uses an interactive approach to scientific learning.

“It is an investment in our community and in the educational futures of our young people, giving them an unparalleled glimpse into the world of genomics,” said Michael Dowling, president and CEO of the North Shore-LIJ health System.

Danielle Sixsmith, the DNA Learning Center coordinator, said the program gives children a background in genetics and the genome. The students who start researching at the facility, she said, will be more advanced when they get to high school or college and be able to start in upper-level science classes.

“This is a state-of-the-art facility,” Sixsmith, who taught at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village for five years. “The city system does not have access to this type of equipment.”

During the summer, the facility offered four different weeklong interactive genetic workshops. Each workshop, consisting of about 15 students, focused on different subjects all relating to DNA and genetics.

The first workshop — DNA Science — introduced students to the basic techniques needed to construct and analyze DNA molecules. The second workshop — Genomic Biology and PCR — focused on the use of the polymerase chain to reaction to analyze the genome of plants. The third workshop — Fun with DNA — was designed to increase genetic literacy. The fourth workshop — World of Enzymes — used genetics to increase knowledge of biochemistry.

At the beginning of each week the new students are handed a lesson and work book, which outlines the program the class will follow, gives a brief key to basic genetics, describes the characteristics of living things and then the outlines the experiments the students will undertake.

“I signed up for the program because I was interested in DNA and how it works,” said Ravneet Kamboj, 11, of Flushing. “Before I came here I always though I wanted to study DNA and the class helps make the decision easier.”

Nikil Kumar, 12, of Glen Oaks, decided to attend the class for the same reason. He said he was always interested in science and studying genetics was an interesting way to improve his scientific knowledge.

“We learned a lot,” he said. “Most of us didn’t know much about DNA. The class helped a lot and will make next year’s science class easier.”

Mark-David Josue, 10, of Rosedale, came to the weeklong class to learn more science, which will help him become an astronaut or develop “a time machine” when he grows up.

“I also liked when we took out the DNA from bacteria,” he said, although he let it be known that his favorite experiments were examining a fruit fly to note the differences and looking at the genetics of bananas.

“I wanted to come here because my favorite subject is science,” said Robert Reategui, 11, of Bellerose. “I like to learn stuff about science and want to know about DNA because I want to be a doctor.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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