It’s no surprise Martha’s Vineyard is a Lyme hotspot, and three MVRHS students are fighting back. Senior Maggie Burke and juniors Sam Cranston and Owen Engler enrolled in teacher Carrie Fyler’s science research elective with little idea of what to expect.
“It’s the kind of class that can be whatever you want it to be, as long as it has to do with science and research,” Fyler told The Times.
When the course started in mid-January, the students settled on studying ticks. Four and a half months later, they’ve created Martha’s Vineyard’s only tick-testing lab, and have become experts and educators in a project led by MIT associate professor Kevin Esvelt.
Esvelt visited the high school last year to give a talk on the premise of his project proposal, which would use molecular techniques to genetically alter the population of white-footed mice to be inheritably immune to Lyme. White-footed mice are the main reservoir host where the bacteria for Lyme is transmitted on Martha’s Vineyard, according to Fyler.
“Some white-footed mice are immune to Lyme,” Fyler said. “So Dr. Esvelt is proposing we take that existing gene and put it in a larger population of mice, and release them to breed and create a population. This would mean ticks can’t get [Lyme] from mice, and we can’t get it from ticks.”
The students spent the semester creating an educational pamphlet explaining the ins and outs of the project proposal in language everyone can understand.
“It was hard,” Maggie said. “We’ve been working on [the pamphlet] the whole semester. First, we had to read the research proposal for the project — which is really thick, dense, and science-y. We had to understand that, and then decide what people needed to know. We had to organize and write it in a way people would understand, but that’s still scientifically accurate. It took a lot of work.”
Owen, Sam, and Fyler will be at the Vineyard Haven library on Tuesday, June 19, at 7 pm to introduce their pamphlet to the community. It will be available in town halls, libraries, and potentially on the Steamship Authority. But the future of Esvelt’s project is in the hands of Vineyard voters.
“If we do get to a point where people want to vote on this project, we need informed voters,” Maggie said, “which is basically the end goal.”
“This is a community-driven project,” Fyler said. “So our community will have to embrace this if it is to move forward.”
According to Fyler, more regularly, science is done behind closed doors. The community doesn’t get to have a say. But this project is different. It’s open, transparent, and relies on the community. “That’s why it’s so important that Martha’s Vineyard residents understand the project. So they can feel confident making an informed decision if this is something that should move forward,” Fyler said.
Esvelt and collaborating scientist Sam Telford, a professor of infectious disease at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, both read and approved the pamphlet. They even invited Fyler’s class to visit their molecular lab at MIT.
“The students got to see the real science at MIT. It was kind of neat. Their lab setup isn’t so unlike the one we have here,” Fyler said. “We’re just a much smaller version.”
The pamphlet was just the first part of the two-tier self-created syllabus for the class. Running the tick-testing lab was another beast.
Fyler is a molecular biologist, and always thought it’d be fun to set up a tick-testing lab in her classroom. “I’ve done a lot of experiments in my past, but not here, and not with ticks,” Fyler said. “So I had a lot to learn. But I was pretty sure that with the help of my students, we could probably get there.”
Fyler lives in Chilmark, and has two young children. “Living on Martha’s Vineyard and raising my kids in Chilmark, I knew that I wanted to be part of a solution,” Fyler said.
She reached out to Esvelt, and met him and his Ph.D. student, Joanna Buchthal, over a Skype phone call. “I told them I would love to get students involved,” she said. “It unfolded beautifully.”
Maggie, Sam, and Owen placed protective goggles over their eyes and rubber gloves on their hands before entering their molecular lab in the corner of Fyler’s classroom. They walked through a tick-testing simulation.
“First, we grab the tick, and place it here,” Owen said, as he discussed the basic premise of tick imaging. “Because we have to destroy the tick during the DNA extraction process, it’s important we take the image at the very first step of the process.”
“Next, we break the tick up with a razor blade,” Maggie said. “We have to break down the tick gut so we can extract the DNA.”
Maggie simulated placing the homogenized tick in another tube containing an alkaline lysis reagent, and placed the tube in a hot bath for boiling. “We’d continue the process of extracting the DNA and breaking down the cells so we can run the rest of the test that we need to,” Maggie said.
“Once we’ve done that, we put the extracted DNA into this PCR [polymerase chain reaction] machine,” Sam said. A PCR machine amplifies segments of DNA in the Lyme bacteria, which then stain to essentially glow under a certain light. “If we see a glowing band, it’d mean the tick had Lyme,” Sam said.
The class tested 12 ticks, and seven had Lyme. The students meticulously outlined each and every step of the different tick-testing protocols.
“Next year it’ll be lot easier for the kids coming in to do this,” Owen said. “Dr. Fyler taught us to write everything down.”
“We’re a relatively small school on Martha’s Vineyard, we’ve set up a molecular lab in our classroom, and we’re communicating with top scientists at MIT,” Maggie said. “It’s really crazy that we’ve has this opportunity.”
“It’s been a really eye-opening semester,” Sam said.