Positive Experiences from Mentoring: The Development of “Small Great Scientists”
Gisela Kristoff, IQUIBICEN (UBA-CONICET), Departamento de Química Biológica
For the last ten years, students from ORT Technical School, a local high school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, have taken part in an annual internship program where students work closely with professionals as mentors on a variety of topics such as biochemistry, genetics and biotechnology. These internships were primarily held at institutions such as the University of Buenos Aires, National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET) and the National Academy of Medicine, as well as several other organizations.
In 2014, I offered my assistance to take part in this program for the first time. The topic, “Native Gastropods as Sentinel Species of Aquatic Contamination Caused by Pesticides Used in Argentina,” was chosen by two high school students, Martín Kawaguchi and Juan Sebastián Valls. They worked closely with two graduate students, Paula Cossi and Beverly Boburg, who were actively involved in carrying out the experiments and the rewarding task of showing the kids “the life of a scientist” within the university.
The selected topic, which our group had not previously studied, was prompted by our initial results with the freshwater native snail Chilina gibbosa. This snail is sensitive to exposure to the organophosphate insecticide azynphos-methyl. The objective of the study was to assess the recovery of cholinesterase activity in exposed snails and evaluate potential neurotoxicity after exposure to azynphos-methyl. The high-school students reviewed the relevant study as well as other related articles, learned to perform bioessays and obtain homogenates, measured protein content, determined enzymatic activities using calibration curves, compiled the data, summarized the results and performed statistical assessment of the data.
The experiments were performed by exposing Chilina gibbosa to an environmentally relevant concentration of azynphos-methyl for 48 hours. The snails were then transferred to clean water (free from the pesticide) for a prescribed recovery period. After 7, 14 and 21 days of recovery, lethality, indication of neurotoxicity and resulting differences in cholinesterase and carboxilesterase activities were determined.
It was a demanding and challenging project, a real team effort by all members of the so-called “Gise’s team,” a name coined by the high-school students. Martin and Juan Se were very driven, enthusiastic and hard-working team members. The results were novel and proved to be interesting, showing that cholinesterase activity does not recover after azynphos-methyl exposure, even after 21 days in clean water. Thirty percent of exposed snails died during the recovery period and 40% continued to show signs of neurotoxicity.
As a SETAC member, I always try to take part in SETAC Argentina events, which is a great opportunity to meet colleagues from all over the country and exchange the latest developments. We submitted several abstracts to the V Congreso SETAC Argentina, which was held in October 2014 in the city of Neuquén, Patagonia, including one corresponding to this project titled, “Recovery of a Freshwater Gastropod Chilina gibbosa After an Acute Exposure to the Organophosphate Azinphos-Methyl” by Paula Cossi, Martin Kawaguchi, Juan Sebastian Valls, Beverly Boburg, Carlos Luquet and Gisela Kristoff. Personally, it was rewarding to see the enthusiasm from the students upon submitting the abstract. I was particularly proud of the students when the director of the chemistry orientation at ORT High School, Lautaro Kremenchuzky, told me that the school was endorsing the students to attend the meeting. It was gratifying to see the support and interest from both the school and the students’ families.
That was how Gise’s Team traveled to Neuquén for the SETAC Argentina congress. On the first day of the event, Juan Se and Martin arrived sharply dressed in suit and tie to listen to my 8 a.m. presentation on pesticides. For the remainder of the day, they took part in several of the congress activities, and we even made time to visit the riverfront and have lunch and ice cream as a team. On the big day of the poster presentation, Juan Se and Martin gathered up their courage and presented it themselves with us blending into the background to provided needed assistance. We had discussed the subject beforehand, and they had clearly studied and had a clear grasp of relevant information. The first professional to approach their poster was the recognized ecotoxicology professor Dr. María del Carmen Ríos de Molina, who was also part of the scientific committee of the meeting. She was quickly followed by other participants including the reviewer. The entire team was very moved by the whole experience, taking many photos and videoing the entire process.
For my part, I felt very proud and happy. It was wonderful to witness just how much Juan Se and Martin had learned during their internship. They were beyond excited, claiming they would never forget this experience. But that’s not all! We won the prize for best poster in the Ecotoxicology session. When receiving the prize on behalf of all of us, Macarena Agrelo, part of my crew, said a few inspiring and moving words. After this achievement, upon returning to Buenos Aires, the students once again presented the poster in their school, in front of the ORT authorities, and were again awarded best work in the Chemistry Orientation.
Undoubtedly, they proved to be “Small Great Scientists.” Participating in the internship program was certainly a rewarding way of bringing science and environmental education to SETAC and the local community. Activities such as these proved to be motivation for young students and an experience that meant a lot to me, personally. The dedication and success of these two students was also a positive experience for the organizers, all the professional in attendance, and for sure for the SETAC Argentina Chapter. We hope this is only the start of great success in the coming years.
“In my opinion, working in the laboratory with my group was an excellent experience. I was really able to work in a laboratory and also for a research project that really affects our world today. In addition to learning about the ways of caring and helping the environment, I enjoyed working with the people in my group. The congress was an amazing experience. At first, I didn’t understand much and was nervous, everyone was older and it was our first congress. But then, the nerves started to go away. We attended many different talks and met lots of scientists. Being able to participate was a huge step for me, and I´m looking forward to being in lots of congresses in the future!”
“Working in the laboratory was a great experience because it allowed me to learn about how a research project is developed and about research itself, everything in an amazing work environment. The experience of being able to go to the congress was highly educational because we had the chance to listen to other researchers. I learned a lot by just being at the congress itself and seeing how everything works.”
–Juan Se Valls
“It is a great joy and pride that students from ORT High School were able to attend the SETAC Argentina Congress as authors and that their poster received an award in the Ecotoxicology category.”
SETAC is certainly relevant, but it has the opportunity to grow as an even more prominent platform for scientific exchange and networking in the environmental sciences, representing academia, business and government.
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