Jeff Murray knows how to reach his audience. Standing in front
of a screen in a small auditorium on the ground floor of the University
of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics complex, he holds a laser pointer
and faces an audience made up of 14- and 15-year-olds from rural
"Here." He flashes the red light of his laser on the
simple double helix that is charted across the screen. "Scientists
figured out the basic structure of DNA back in 1953. Think of it
this way: there are 3-billion rungs on the DNA ladder,
which is like a thousand Des Moines telephone books stacked on top
of one another. People like me try to find the one letter in those
thousands of telephone books thats messed up, causing a certain
disease or birth defect. Thats what the Human Genome Project
is doingwere charting out every single letter in the
code, every letter in those telephone books from top to bottom."
The students are exhausted. Theyre away from home, many of
them for the first time. Most havent slept more than a few
hours at a time since they arrived. But when Murray, professor of
pediatrics and director of the Universitys component of the
Human Genome Project, begins to speak, they suddenly are alert.
"What can you do with information like that?" one student
asks. "Will people abuse it?"
"A great question," Murray says. "And its
up to your generation to answer it."
This is just one morning of the week-long residential Environmental
Health Sciences Institute (EHSI) research camp for rural youth,
a program developed by the Environmental Health Sciences Research
Center, and cosponsored by the Universitys Belin-Blank International
Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development and Women in
Science and Engineering (WISE). Applicants coming from towns of
fewer than 2,500 must be nominated to attend the camp, usually by
a teacher or community member. Each year the University invites
15 rural youth and exposes them to a wide variety of new research
and experiments in environmental health. This year there are students
from towns such as Defiance, Wilton, Birmingham, and Jesup.
In addition to hearing Murray and visiting his genome lab, these
students will tour the Molecular Immunology and Cell Biology Facility,
the Inhalation Toxicity Lab, and a water quality testing site. They
will observe a brain autopsy conducted in a pathology lab at the
University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. And they will travel to
the phytoremediation lab in Amana, where researchers are learning
to use natural substances, such as bacteria, microbes, and poplar
trees, in order to detoxify areas blighted by oil spills or chemical
Each teen will then outline an independent research project on
one or more of the topics covered and prepare a lecture. After attending
camp, the 15 participants will be required to return to their home
communities and give at least two formal presentations to school
and public groups.
Chris Brus, director of WISE and one of the founders of the EHSI
camp, attends at least one presentation for each student.
"Im there to say to the people in all these communities
around Iowa, This is your university, and we have resources
here that belong to you, " Brus says. "We do our
research by the good graces of the Iowa population, and we ask a
lot of them. This is one way we can give back and let our communities
know what were doing."
University researchers involved in teaching youth through EHSI
agree that the camp has a greater impact than simply educating and
enriching 15 students each summer.
"Our lab is dedicated to better understanding birth defects,"
Murray says. "But in a larger sense, it is part of a research
labs function to allow talented students to experience research
and see how it will affect the future world they will both inhabit
and create. Then they, in turn, take this knowledge back to their