THE BLOG
11/05/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bridging the Science Gap

Much has been made of the United States falling behind the rest of the world in science and math education. Anthony Arment, Ph.D., in Ohio, is doing all he can to cultivate young, raw talent. It is his belief we are not lacking in such human resources -- we just don't teach and elevate such youths well. Here is my Q & A with this teacher making a difference:

Can you tell me about your extracurricular work you do mentoring young people you choose from science fairs?

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Central State University hosts the West District Science Fair in Ohio. Each district is allowed to select two students to move forward to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). (INTEL probably needs credit somewhere in there as they host.)

I have worked with the local fair for the last 10 years, but a few years ago made the realization that there were students who were doing amazing work that could benefit greatly from having good lab facilities to work in instead of their homes. My area of research is environmental microbiology and bioremediation, but I dabble in all things molecular biology. I came across a student (Andrew Abboud) who had done some pretty amazing work on the kinetics of the enzyme catalase with a home setup. His hypothesis was that UV irradiation would inactivate the enzyme. I suggested his experiment would work better studying UV damage on DNA instead of proteins (enzymes).

I invited him to work in my lab to expand on his project the following year (2011). He decided to incorporate a microbiology angle to his project to measure the protective effects of pigmentation against UV damage by measuring cell viability pre-/post- exposure. I suggested the purple-pigmented bacterium Chromobacterium, and he began work generating white mutants then testing them. He continued measuring catalase activity as an enzyme marker for damage. What he ended up discovering was that not only was the pigmentation UV-protective, but mutants without it switched on expression of previously unknown catalase genes to overprotect. His project took a first place in microbiology at the ISEF in microbiology that year, and he had his first scientific publication during his freshman year of college.

Andrew was in great demand for all colleges nationally and ended up at the University of Pittsburgh. He is somewhere between a BS/MD/PhD at this point and is working in a research lab. He wrote a research proposal that was being given serious consideration for NIH funding at one point. In short, an amazing student and overachiever. Some articles on him are linked here, here and here.

That spring, I identified another student (Azie Dingra) who had done a project on bacterial decay on dental adhesives in the presence of colas. I offered him my lab so be able to study the source bacteria for most decay (Streptococus mutans) to expand his project. He began to focus on the ability of the bacteria to colonize dental adhesives (form a biofilm). We developed a simple test to measure how well bacteria were adhering, then began using different spices to see if they disrupted the colonization process. Azie went to ISEF the following year (2012) and took a fourth place in microbiology. He also ended up at the University of Pittsburgh and is pursuing a BS/DD. He has continued his research there in a host lab, I believe.

At the 2012 local fair, I identified a student (Karthik Chakravarthy as a sophomore) who was working on the effects of food antioxidants to protect against Alzheimer's Disease. I invited him to work in my lab the following year. The model he needed turned out to be beyond my facilities, but he became interested in my research on the destruction of chemical warfare nerve agents by bacteria. He began working in my lab to identify bacteria with the potential to destroy the most deadly of the nerve agents (VX) using the insecticide malathion as a model compound. He chose the most promising bacteria from my environmental screens and began making mutants that could no longer utilize malathion as a source of phosphorus; the key to VX destruction is the breaking of a P-S bond which is also present in malathion. Karthik made mutants and did the analytical chemistry to establish that each had lost its ability to utilize malathion as a phosphorus source. He then made gene libraries of the mutants and began screening them to ID the gene that was mutant. This work took him to ISEF where he received a fourth place in microbiology. Karthik stayed in my lab to grow his project.

We had a setback after that and were unable to develop a genetic system to trap the candidate gene. Karthik worked until late in 2013 to no result. Rather than give up, he switched projects in January 2014 to work with his brother on atrial fibrulation. He was able to crank out another ISEF winner in months with his brother. They have a patent on the project method now and it is being considered as a new medical diagnostic tool.

The algorithm they created is what we will try and use this year in microbial fuel cells to pull out fields of research together in a first place for his senior year!

So in a nutshell, I take the time to spot budding talent and nurture it by giving it my facilities and my time as a mentor. I spend evenings and weekends and vacations with these kids in the lab doing real scientific research. The students flourish under the individual attention and grow into amazing young scientists.

Can you tell me about your role at your school?

I am currently a professor of biology at Central State University and became Department Chair this summer. CSU is an Historically Black College/University (HBCU) which serves mostly first-generation students who would not be considered college-worthy by other institutions. I have had success with these diamonds in the rough just as I have had with promoting high schoolers.

I am a molecular biologist by training and have focused in environmental microbiology. I have known I wanted to teach science since I was 5. My family dubbed me the "little professor." I began teaching high school science but always knew my end game was college teaching. My resistance to a full-time research career puzzled my advisor in graduate school and all my former professors, who thought I belonged either in medical school or being a big guns researcher.

My focus on education has turned to the undergraduate level, where I have continued to champion the critical role of undergraduate research in shaping good scientists in the next generation. I have another article in review by a White House initiative.

What is the state of science education in the U.S. at present? Are we still lagging behind other countries?

The United States is lagging behind the rest of the world in science and mathematics. It is not because of a lack of raw talent. The U.S. educational system has become so focused on assessment that it has lost the trees in the forest. The emphasis on testing has made gains in some areas but has inexorably linked funding to teaching to tests. Every year, I see students who are scoring better but are less prepared for college; they are not retaining information and linking ideas. Of course, there are many factors at play here, but the model institutions in other parts of the world who lead in these areas (e.g. Sweden) do not emphasize standardized testing to the degree the U.S. does. We need to refuel the passion and love of learning alongside the emphasis on content and good teachers. The best teachers I remember had a passion for their craft.

How do you encourage young women to get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) specialties?

The research has shown that women have equal interest in STEM through at least early high school. The turn away appears to be largely born in social queues (e.g. girls can't do math). I treat it with gender blindness in my classroom. I look for an interest and fan the flames, regardless of sex. At CSU, we seem to have a better success rate with nurturing women in STEM in the last few years. I have not tracked down the why but the ladies coming out of my lab are outpacing the men. My working hypothesis is that the peer pressure that science is not "cool" is worse for men then for women here.