Boca science teacher’s research grant a reel whopper

  • Faran Fagen
  • Special to The Palm Beach Posr
Dec 13, 2017
Students learn a variety of science concepts in Mary Fish’s classroom, including how to perform a DNA extraction. Contributed

The smallest members of her classroom are the gill-breathing, fin-sporting fish. Then there’s the students who love to feed and take care of them.

But the biggest fish at Spanish River High School? That’s science teacher, Mary Fish.

“In my 28 years as a science teacher, I always had some tank in my room full of fish,” Fish said. “It doesn’t matter how old the student is, there always seems to be a natural curiosity and interest in these little creatures in the classroom. There’s always a group of students who want to feed the fish, watch them, take care of the tank, and clean it.”

Fish’s passion for pupils and popular marine life just reeled in a big reward.

Fish received a $5,000 STEM research grant from the Society for Science & the Public to purchase equipment for her classroom, located in the Boca Raton school known as, what else, the home of the Sharks.

“I am so very grateful to Society for Science & the Public for awarding me this generous grant,” Fish said. “My students are very excited, and this year I may have up to 20 of them doing individual research with the zebrafish.”

Fish plans to invest the money in a zebrafish breeding system. Due to the high degree of genetic overlap between humans and zebrafish, zebrafish have made a big impact in the biological landscape, from cancer research to translational neuroscience, Now, with the new breeding system, Fish plans to give more of her students the opportunity to do innovative research that may apply to their careers early on.

For the past five years, her students in the Biotechnology Academy have been doing experimental projects for the regional Science Fair in Palm Beach County. The money from this grant will be used to construct a zebrafish facility that will have over 90 tanks, allowing multiple students to perform protocols involving fin regeneration, shoaling behavior, breeding and genetic screening, and environmental changes that affect zebrafish development.

Another part of this grant will be put to building a facility to study and conduct experiments with coral.

“I’m in awe of teachers and what they are doing in the classroom today, but they need more resources,” said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News. “I am thrilled to help these six innovative teachers and provide them with the resources to purchase the tools they need to engage the next generation of STEM leaders.”

The Society for Science & the Public announced $20,000 in grants to six science research teachers to help them purchase much-needed equipment and services for their classrooms. In total, the Society has granted $120,000 to STEM teachers in 2017, having given $100,000 to 23 teachers earlier this year.

Fish is mentoring another grant recipient – Michele Zielinski, a teacher at Sleepy Hollow High School in New York who plans to work with zebrafish in the future.

“We are sharing ideas and that’s really nice,” Fish said. “It opens up for both of us new ways of raising and taking care of the zebrafish in a high school setting.”

Turns out there are a great deal of discoveries being done in a number of research labs using the zebrafish as a model organism. From development to cancer, more and more scientists are finding the little fish a great tool. It reproduces quickly, eggs are developed outside the body, and “84% of genes associated with human disease have a counterpart in the zebrafish”. (www.yourgenome.org/facts/why-use-the-zebrafish-in-research).

Fish started setting up 10 gallon tanks in another room in Spanish River’s Science building. Like luring in the fish, she lured in some interested seniors. They decided to use the zebrafish for science fair.

One student observed fin regeneration by anesthetizing the fish, surgically removing their fins, and then watching them grow back. Another student made covers for the tanks to see if the fish’s genes that code for scale patterning would change their expression because of a change in their environment. They will be presenting their results this year at the regional fair.

“Perhaps they will discover something novel,” Fish said. “Maybe they will be able to publish their work. The sky’s the limit.”

Society for Science & the Public is dedicated to the achievement of young scientists in independent research and to public engagement in science. Established in 1921, the Society is a nonprofit whose vision is to promote the understanding and appreciation of science and the vital role it plays in human advancement. Learn more at www.societyforscience.org