Zebrafish may swim to other schools
Lincoln K-8 Choice School has earned a growing reputation for providing students with opportunities for real-world scientific research through its zebrafish program.
But cost has been a hindrance to growing the program to other Rochester schools. That is, until three Lincoln students — Kiara Yenew, Hannah Fredricksen and Mohamed Jama — discovered a low-cost option for creating the research opportunities and facilities at other Rochester district elementary and middle schools.
"We want to make it so all of Rochester schools can do it," said Yenew, a seventh-grade student.
Zebrafish have become the specimens of choice for medical searchers. The tiny tropical creatures share three-fourths of their genes with humans and can be bred to carry some of the same diseases. They are also prolific breeders, creating hundreds of embryos.
But creating the infrastructure and lab conditions to get zebrafish to breed and create embryos can be pricey. Temperature, pH levels and salinity all have to be just so to get zebrafish in the mood. The fish habitat Lincoln uses to house fish in its lab runs to $17,000, an expensive proposition for most schools.
Spurred by district leaders, including Superintendent Michael Muñoz, Lincoln teachers and administrators were asked to explore ways to expand the program to other schools affordably.
That's where the Lincoln students got to work. Yenew and Fredricksen, both 12, are seventh-graders, and Jama, 13, is an eighth-grader. The trio set up aquariums in Lincoln classrooms and began filling the tanks with zebrafish. The three regularly tested and controlled for salt, pH and temperatures levels. Every week, they pulled some of the fish out and put them in small plastic breeding boxes to see if they would breed.
Their discovery? Zebrafish will create embryos even in less expensive digs. The students were collecting 500 to a 1,000 embryos a week.
"This was a hindrance to a lot of schools because they couldn't afford to have the fish and a place to keep them. Now we have shown them that, yes, there is a way you can do this," said James Kulzer, a Lincoln teacher who assists with zebrafish project. "You can do it with an aquarium. It's a little bit more work, but you can do it."
Since its beginning three years ago, the zebrafish project, a collaborative effort with Mayo Clinic, has ignited an enthusiasm for science. Nearly 90 percent of eligible Lincoln students participate in science fair and a growing number of students go on to take honors science classes.
It has also been expanded to include Kellogg Middle School and Franklin Elementary School, and efforts are under way to cover more schools. Lincoln Principal Jim Sonju said the district is also pursuing a grant that would allow a roll-out to other elementary schools.
"I think we're getting close," said Muñoz about expanding the program. "It sounds like there's a possibility that we can provide some opportunities for all of our students, and that's thanks to all the great work those three students are doing."