Meet Your Mites: Family Style

Over the last few months, our first cohort of Students Discover Kenan Fellows have been busy in their classrooms piloting and refining the citizen science curricula they co-created with their scientist mentors from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

If you dropped by their middle school classrooms, you would have seen students busy collecting and analyzing all sorts of new data. They’ve deployed camera traps in schoolyards to capture the secret lives of urban mammals. They’ve planted dandelions in different soil types and sampled the changes in microbes over time. They’ve scraped oily goop from each other’s faces that contained bits of Demodex face mites. They’ve meticulously collected and measured hundreds of fossilized shark teeth, many millions of years old.

And on top of all this awesomeness, some of our Fellows are taking the citizen science work they’re doing with their students and sharing it with their surrounding community. In November, we told you about Juliana Thomas and her students in the Exploris Middle School Fossil Club presenting their research to visitors attending the NC Museum of Natural Sciences Fossil Fair.

2014 Kenan Fellow Willis Foster and his scientist mentor and collaborator, Dan Fergus. Photo credit: Julie Horvath.

2014 Kenan Fellow Willis Foster and his scientist mentor and collaborator, Dan Fergus. Photo credit: Julie Horvath.

Today, we want to tell you about the work Willis Foster, a Students Discover Kenan Fellow from Kestrel Heights School in Durham, has done to engage the parents and families of his students participating in the Meet Your Mites project.

Last November, Willis invited students and parents to an evening gathering in the Kestrel Heights School library. He introduced everyone to his scientist mentor and collaborator, Dan Fergus, and together they explained the goals of the project, showed off pictures of mites, and discussed how exactly one studies these microscopic arthropods living within our hair follicles.

The students interjected their own commentary on the project: “We were so excited about the mites. Our class wanted to watch the video

[of the mite laying an egg] over and over.”

Willis then invited the parents to participate in the project. His students, who were quite experienced at gently scraping face goop from each other, jumped at the opportunity to sample their parents.

Students from Kestrel Heights sampling their parents for Demodex mites. Photo credit: Holly Menninger.

Students from Kestrel Heights sampling their parents for Demodex mites. Photo credit: Holly Menninger.

Several enthusiastic parents even went a step further and volunteered for a more intense mite sampling procedure; with the help of a little super-glue, Dan collected whole mites from these brave volunteers and then showed them off to the oohing and ahhing crowd under the microscope.

Collecting mites in oily face secretions is just the first step of the project. To help his students and their families better understand the next steps in the research process, Willis invited them to a special Friday evening event at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in early March.

The evening started in a Museum lab where Dan and Willis provided the families with an overview of DNA and how one goes about getting it out of cells (a process called extraction) and into a form where the genetic code (the sequence) can be read and analyzed. Scientists use the same general process for extracting DNA from all species, regardless of whether the organism is a fish, a flower or a face mite.

Willis explaining DNA extraction to students and families at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo credit: Julie Urban.

Willis explaining DNA extraction to students and families at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo credit: Julie Urban.

Then came the hands-on part of the evening: everyone extracted DNA from strawberries to learn first-hand the steps Dan used to obtain mite DNA from the samples the students and parents collected a few months prior.

Kestrel Heights students getting hands-on lab experience extracting DNA from strawberries. Photo credit: Julie Urban.

Kestrel Heights students getting hands-on lab experience extracting DNA from strawberries. Photo credit: Julie Urban.

Dan then explained how he goes about sequencing specific genes contained in the mite DNA and how that information is used to help answer a number of research questions including:

  • At what age do we get our Demodex mites?
  • Do men or women tend to have more mites?
  • Do people from different parts of the world have different mites?

He provided the students and families with a special sneak peak of preliminary results from the study, based on the very samples they provided!

The evening wrapped up with a tour of the Genomics & Microbiology Lab led by Dan and Drs. Julie Horvath, Julie Urban, and Heather Farrington so that the students and families from Kestrel Heights could see where their samples had been processed and learn about all of the other exciting molecular biology research happening in the Museum lab — Armpit microbes! Planthoppers! Soil microbes! Salamanders!

Students Discover is in the process of interviewing and selecting its next cohort of Kenan Fellows. Stay tuned for more exciting news and project developments in the coming months at studentsdiscover.org.

Header photo: Willis Foster introducing Meet Your Mites to students and families in the Kestrel Heights School Library. Photo credit: Holly Menninger.

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:45+00:00 March 11th, 2015|

About the Author:

Holly Menninger
As Director of Public Science, Holly coordinates our empire of citizen science projects and manages the online science communication here at Your Wild Life. An entomologist by training, she’s a science communicator by passion and practice.

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