It was a normal Saturday at the Dolan DNA Learning Center, which is in Cold Spring Harbor. After setting up the day’s “Biological Evidence” experience for school children, DNA instructor Gregory Reilly moved from table to lab table, keeping an eye on the work of eager “Crime Team Sleuths,” who were attempting to discover the identity of a criminal by sifting through mock evidence left at the scene of a crime.
It’s been over a dozen years since the learning center, which is part of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, has been putting on its Saturday DNA! programs, utilizing instructors from the lab, but attesting by the eagerness of students and their chaperones at the center on Oct. 17, it never gets old.
“The program is popular with all sessions full each time it is offered and these sessions fill rapidly,” said Amanda McBrien, an instructor in the program. “Many of the Saturday DNA! child participants have previously attended weeklong summer camps, or have come with their school classes for a few hours of instruction.”
The Saturday DNA! series includes a number of themes — how seeds have been used to do genetic research and what evidence is retrievable from the archaeological evidence that was found with the Utzi, the “Iceman of the Alps,’ for example.
As for the Biological Evidence program, it seemingly requires a good sleuth, and works off the fact that these days, DNA that is isolated from evidence such as hair or blood can be visualized using a method called gel electrophoresis. In a lab setting, children and their chaperones use an electric current to separate DNA fragments by size. The result, called a DNA fingerprint, can be used to identify whose blood or hair was found at the crime scene.
For Reilly, it’s all about realizing a childhood passion. “My interest in science began as a child with an abnormal obsession with roller coasters,” he recalled. “I also love animals and wanted to become a veterinarian when I was a kid, even though I was bitten by a dog in kindergarten. So the DNA Learning Center is a great fit for me as it combines two things that I’m so passionate about — science and education.”