[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.
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.
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.
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.