Real Voices interview: Dr David Colthurst
Biology teacher leading a project to do scientific research in schools
What do you do?
I am a secondary school science teacher. I am also the lead teacher on the MBP2 project, which gives sixth-form students the opportunity to carry out genuine research.
What is the MBP2 project?
Five years ago my wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I wondered if I would be able to combine my 15 years of experience as a biochemist with my 15 years of teaching. The Myelin Basic Protein Project (MBP2) is investigating the role of this protein in multiple sclerosis using genetically modiﬁed yeast. The project is run in collaboration with researchers at the University of Kent. When we ﬁrst started, they ran a workshop at the university to teach DNA and protein techniques to a small group of students, who then taught them to their teachers and other students. It was a nice turnaround to have the students be the experts while the teachers sat scratching their heads, thinking “How does this bit work?”
What do your students gain?
The real wake-up call for them was around experimental procedure – often, experiments don’t work as planned or give the results that are expected. When this happens, you have to tweak and change the design. Very quickly the students realised that while you may do steps A, B, C and D in the hope you will get result E, nine times out of ten it won’t work! It has also given the students the opportunity to try lots of techniques that they normally wouldn’t get to experience until university. For example, our students have developed a genetically modiﬁed yeast strain that can make the human myelin basic protein. While doing this they have learnt how to extract DNA, use the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify DNA, and carry out Western blots to study the proteins produced.
What is next for the project?
I believe MBP2 provides a model for how students can carry out research in schools. Inspired by this, Authentic Biology is a series of research projects led by sixth-form students in ﬁve schools across the UK. Each one is drawing on the expertise of researchers at their local universities to investigate topics relevant to them.
In London, for example, students are researching diabetes, and in Sheffield they are looking at heart disease. We are currently planning the second Authentic Biology Symposium. This is an opportunity for the schools involved to share their research with each other and with academics from the partner universities.