Elephant toothpaste was overflowing on the bio quad lawn while flash-frozen flowers shattered in shards on the pavement outside the U.A. Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Building. Inside the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, children were eating astronaut ice cream, making silly putty and touching pigs’ hearts and goats’ eyeballs under the guidance of grad students, whose various and colorful demonstrations suggested this might be mad scientist training, when in fact it was the BUZZ on Biotechnology high school open house.
This was just part of the scene on Saturday, October 18th, at the annual BUZZ open house event, presented by the Petit Institute and run by the Bioengineering and Bioscience Unified Graduate Students, or BBUGS, the largest, most diverse graduate student group on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus.
“We look forward to this day every year,” says Kelli Schuyler, who teaches advanced placement chemistry in Forsyth Central High School’s STEM Academy, which sent almost 50 students to Georgia Tech for BUZZ on Biotech. They were part of a crowd that approached 400 at what may have been the biggest BUZZ yet.
“We started the STEM Academy three years ago, and as part of that we looked for opportunities for student enrichment,” says Schuyler, while a pair of Georgia Tech bio students were demonstrating freezing flowers, bananas and ping pong balls in a vat of liquid nitrogen a few feet away. “Our students love this. The lab tours, the seminars, making things blow up – liquid nitrogen, you can’t go wrong with that!”
BUZZ on Biotechnology, presided over by the BBUGS’ Education and Outreach committee, is the largest and most popular annual event organized by the group, for the ticket holders – the event is geared toward high school students – and the volunteers. In all, there were about 50 students volunteering. For grad student Ashley Allen, BUZZ has become a welcome routine.
“I think this is my sixth year in a row. I wouldn’t miss it,” says Allen, who is nearing the end of her Ph.D. pursuit. She was overseeing the Egg Drop, the day’s last event, which focuses on the prevention of head injuries by asking participants to design protective “helmets” for raw eggs, which are then dropped from the third floor of the Petit Institute’s atrium.
“I’m really interested in going to Georgia Tech,” says Grace Littlefield. “I want to study biomedical engineering.”
The Dunwoody High School sophomore, who won the Egg Drop competition, attended BUZZ with her father, Jim Littlefield, who says, “We really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with some of the graduate students, not only about their experience here at Georgia Tech, but also some of their undergraduate experiences, how they got interested in biotechnology and some ideas of what Grace can being doing now in high school to be better prepared when she, hopefully, comes to Georgia Tech.”
Though not intended to be a massive recruiting tool for Georgia Tech, the BUZZ on Biotech is “some of the best public relations you can imagine for the university,” according to Loren Williams, professor of chemistry and biochemistry who is director of the Center for Ribosomal Origins and Evolution (Ribo Evo) at the Petit Institute. “It’s also a really good experience for our students.”
Williams never misses BUZZ, an event that puts Tech students, grads and undergrads, front and center. These students performed the demonstrations – there were about 20 of them, experiments for the participants to try. They conducted the lab tours and performed the seminars – usually there’s one, focused on stem cells, but this year the BBUGS added another one, on biomaterials.
“The seminars were particularly popular this year, I think total attendance was about 150 people,” says Tom Bongiorno, part of the BBUGS Education and Outreach leadership team, with Kyle Blum, Jessie Butts and Jennifer Pentz. “The kids love the hands-on demonstrations and seeing some pretty cool science, the lab tours are always very popular. Basically, we can never have enough lab tours.”
But somehow, they managed to squeeze 288 people into three hours of lab tours.
A group of students, all teens, many accompanied by parents, follows BBUGS member Torri Rinker on a tour of Johnna Temenoff’s lab, one of six different lab tours during this year’s BUZZ. Temenoff, associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, works with polymeric biomaterials for orthopedic applications. Rinker works in the lab.
“Has anyone here ever torn an ACL, or know someone who has?” Rinker asks. Several hands shoot up. “Does it heal quickly?”
The group shakes its collective head. “No,” Rinker agrees. “You’re looking at, potentially, a lifetime of pain and disability. The problem with these tissues is, they just don’t naturally heal. If you break a bone, what happens?” A chorus of kids: “It heals.”
“You got it,” Rinker says. “But these tissues are different, and that’s why we’re so interested in working to regenerate them, using different tissue engineering and regenerative medicine techniques.”
As Rinker patiently explains the work of the lab, talks about the synthetic and naturally derived biomaterials that are being used to heal degenerative tissues, the teens nod. They’re making the connections. One of them, Jonah Cloer, a junior at St. Pius High School, accompanied by his mom, Carolyn Zimney, is inspecting a little hydrogel in his gloved hand.
“This is interesting, because these grad students are demonstrating to him how what he’s learned in cell reproduction manifests itself in the real world, what can be done here in the labs, and what he might be doing after school,” Zimney says.
Jonah is impressed though undecided about the direction he’ll take in college. “But this,” he says, removing the protective latex lab gloves, “is giving me some really good ideas about what I’d like to do.”
And that is a big reason why the BUZZ on Biotechnology will be back again next fall.