University of Pittsburgh

commons room

Moving Science

Written by Ervin Dyer

Wearing blue rubber gloves, the high school freshman gingerly handles a petri dish full of agar, a gelatinous substance that’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet for bacteria. He’s standing in a bright lab. He places the dish in a nearby incubator; overnight, the bacteria should munch and multiply into millions of feasting colonies.

Ben Nolan is one of about 20 students in the lab who are studying microscopic life and gaining new science skills for the future. The students are in the University of Pittsburgh’s mobile 70-foot tractor-trailer, a lab on wheels that travels to middle and high schools in Western Pennsylvania.

At about 8 feet wide, the lab is stuffed with 26 work stations and screens that magnify microscope findings. The equipment gives students a chance to conduct college-level hands-on research and open their minds to science careers.

Fourteen-year-old Nolan, from Bethel Park High School, will spend his science class in the lab using micropipettes to experiment with a nonharmful form of salmonella bacteria. He is investigating natural selection and examining how amoebas eat other bacteria.

His science teacher, Barbara Eisel, is thrilled. Some of her students are so excited by the lab, they are volunteering for extra science time. Thrilled, too, is Alison Slinskey Legg, director of Outreach Programs for Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences. Her offices develop lab programs and monitor the mobile lab. She is observing students’ experiences during the lab’s first days at Bethel Park, hopeful that the lab will expand Pitt’s biological sciences outreach beyond the 4,000 Allegheny County students participating each year. “Our outreach program is operating at full capacity, and demand was beginning to exceed our capabilities,” says Slinskey Legg. “We were limited by what we could physically bring to a school, and the mobile lab removes that limitation.”

The science lab traveled a long, winding road to Pitt. It took several years of advocacy by the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative, the Pittsburgh-based Lyceum Group, and Slinskey Legg, along with science and education groups, to make the mobile lab a reality. Last year, purchase of the lab and operational support were made possible with help from Steven Reis, Pitt associate vice chancellor for clinical research, health sciences; and director of the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. The institute also plans to use the mobile lab to conduct segments of research studies “on the road,” increasing the experimental protocols available in rural areas and creating opportunities to educate adults about the benefits of clinical trials.

Funding from the National Center for Research Resources—part of the National Institutes of Health—and from Pitt investments keeps the lab rolling into diverse communities and neighborhoods, where teachers welcome the new equipment and opportunity to connect with professional scientists.

Now, thanks to this lab on wheels, students like Nolan—who wants to be a marine biologist—can get a closer look at what it takes to succeed in science.