By Alisha Prather

This past spring, researchers at the Galveston National Laboratory received a curious phone call from a 12-year-old.

He asked simply, “Can I borrow a virus?”

Sixth-grader Miguel Gonzales explained that he and his classmates at Ambassadors Preparatory Academy wanted to borrow a small sample of a flu virus to look at under a microscope. He thought it would be “cool” to study with his class.

While regulations wouldn’t allow that sort of loan — regardless of its cool factor — word of his request made it quickly around the laboratory. Associate director Joan Nichols, said she admired Miguel’s keen intellectual curiosity.

And that curiosity would lead to an opportunity for University of Texas Medical Branch researchers to collaborate with the charter school.

The idea was to “teach beyond the classroom” — a phrase heard often at Ambassadors Prep. Miguel’s teacher, Ashley Williams, said that the school is focused on providing rigorous academic programs for all of its students.

“Teaching beyond the classroom by involving the community is vital to achieving this goal,” Williams said.

As the only biosafety level four (or BSL4) lab located on an academic campus in operation in the United States, the GNL is uniquely positioned to offer expertise in the fields of science and research. “As home to many of the world’s foremost experts on infectious diseases, the GNL has always seen community outreach and education as one of its primary missions,” said laboratory director Jim LeDuc.

Researchers and graduate students have met with Ambassadors Prep students from all grades, kindergarten through eighth, for mentoring, hands-on learning and help with science-fair projects.

Students often dictate the topics of conversation, and Nichols said she found the students quite sophisticated for their age. In fact, they’ve challenged several scientists with questions ranging from basic hand-washing to the inner workings of diseases like tuberculosis and West Nile virus. In seeking answers to those questions, the students have had the opportunity to participate in simulated lab exercises and don the high-tech suits that researchers wear while working in the lab.

“The collaboration has helped our students to practice critical thinking and problem solving as well as better their communication skills and creativity,” said Williams. This collaboration gives students a unique opportunity to venture into a rarefied research atmosphere. And she said experience is playing a major role in helping students to experience hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

Ambassadors Prep isn’t the only group to take advantage of the lab’s local expertise. Even before the Galveston National Laboratory officially opened its doors in 2008, it has been a ready resource.

“In any given week we meet with our community members to answer questions and promote an exchange of ideas,” said Nichols. “From kindergartners to middle-schoolers like Miguel, from college students to civic groups, the research we do here is relatable on every level and we enjoy sharing it. The things we study stand to help each of us live healthier lives.”

LeDuc believes that working with these young students is a privilege. “While we may offer them the chance to see some very cool science in action, I sincerely hope that we’re also inspiring future students and scientists,” he said. “Maybe one day they’ll want to come to UTMB and work with us in search of vaccines and treatments for some of the world’s most perplexing diseases.”

For Miguel, that phone call and his interest in science may indeed inspire his future career. For now, he hopes to concentrate on biology in high school and perhaps become a veterinarian.