DURHAM, N.C. – Nearly 70 4th and 5th graders from Durham’s Morehead Montesorri Magnet School got an inside look at Duke University’s renowned Superfund Research Center – and what it’s like to be a scientist there – thanks to a virtual field trip earlier this month led by two of the lab’s researchers.

Lab manager Melissa Chernick and postdoctoral associate Lindsay Jasperse co-hosted the visit, which was filmed and posted on YouTube as part of the Museum of Life + Science’s “Durham Public Schools Real Science: Field Trip Fridays” series.

“We wanted to show the students the types of cool things environmental scientists get to do,” said Jasperse. “Inspiring the next generation is a big part of our mission.”

The video of the field trip, titled “Super Fish from a Superfund Site,” is viewable in two versions: a 15-minute clip that includes the lab tour and interviews with Chernick and Jasperse, and a 27-minute extended cut that also includes questions from the students.

The Duke Superfund Research Center is internationally cited for its studies on early-life exposures to environmental contaminants and their developmental effects, which typically become evident only later in life. Researchers at the center, which receives primary funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), investigate these effects across five levels of biological organization – whole organisms, organs, tissues, cells and genes.

To make the pioneering science relatable to the Morehead Montessori students, Chernick and Jasperse focused on an ongoing study they and their colleagues in faculty member Richard Di Giulio’s lab are conducting. Its aim is to discover how populations of Atlantic killifish that live at heavily contaminated sites in Virginia’s Elizabeth River have been able to adapt to the pollution and survive while other species decline or die. The study also aims to document what the metabolic tradeoffs of the killifish’s survival might be – does its resistance to the pollution come at the cost of other vital defenses or biological functions?

“It’s a great example to use because it’s a puzzle and kids love puzzles. They also love learning about animals like killifish, which are these seemingly defenseless little creatures that don’t look that different from most pet fish but can somehow survive in the face of major threats,” said Chernick.

As their curiosity is engaged, the students become more likely to wonder what makes the killifish so resilient; what the effects on humans who are exposed to the contaminants might be; and, ultimately, what’s the solution to the problem. At that point, Chernick said, “they’re beginning to think like a scientist.”

To help the students visualize how scientists go about answering these questions, Jasperse and Chernick lead the students on a virtual tour of the Di Giulio lab, explaining what the various tools and pieces of equipment are – a pH meter, a dissecting microscope, various digital imaging technologies, etc. – and how they are used. They also show how the killifish are caught in the wild and maintained in specialized tanks in the lab.

Additional background and context is provided through interviews with Jasperse and Chernick by Museum of Life + Science staffers Jenna Gant and Steve Scholle.

Filming the virtual field trip during a pandemic presented some logistical challenges; the lab tour and interviews had to be filmed over holiday break under strict COVID safety protocols, while the Q&A with students was held live via Zoom on Jan. 8. But despite this, Chernick and Jasperse say they’d volunteer to host another in a heartbeat.

“As researchers, I think we can get a little bit isolated in our ivory tower and forget that we also need to be talking to the public and explaining to them what we’re doing and why it’s important,” said Chernick. “If we want to inspire students, we have to engage with them.”

“The concept of applied research, which is intended to benefit human and environmental health beyond the laboratory, is central to NIEHS’s Superfund Basic Research Program and to the work we do here at the Duke Superfund Research Center, and it is clearly evident in Melissa and Lindsay’s work,” said Bryan Luukinen, senior program coordinator.

It’s too soon to know whether the virtual field trip and video will inspire a love of scientific investigation in the Morehead Montessori students and encourage some of them to follow in Jasperse and Chernick’s footsteps, but the two researchers are optimistic that their efforts will pay dividends.

“If I had been exposed to this type of thing at their age,” said Jasperse, “I’d definitely have been even more excited about a future career in science.”