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-The classroom full of eighth graders sat, transfixed, watching the presentation about how donated organs could spread disease -- in this case, valley fever, which is caused by a soil-dwelling fungus

The students at Sinagua Middle School were learning basics of pathogen genomics from TGen North research associate Michael Valentine. Valentine was presenting in the class’ first Scientist in the Classroom visit.

Valentine showed the class a slideshow of DNA analysis, and talked to them about how researchers at TGen would track diseases.

In his story about valley fever, he said three organ recipients all contracted valley fever after receiving from a common donor. He said researchers from TGen were brought in to study where the illness originated from and if the donated organs were to blame.

Students answered questions about how bacteria could become resistant to antibiotics, and filled their notebooks with new vocabulary words.

Scientist in the Classroom is a program developed by Sinagua science teacher Jillian Worssam, who began the program about eight years ago when she worked at Project New Start, now known as Summit High School.

“I wanted to show the relationship between life and learning,” Worssam said. “I wanted to show them that there are connections between what we do in the classroom and jobs in these fields.”

In the program, classes are visited by a scientist from a particular organization once a month. Each class has a different organization, including TGen, Purina, Mountain Heart and Lowell Observatory.

Students in honors classes work one-on-one with a mentor from one of the organizations, and students in non-honors classes work in their group with a scientist visitor.

Worssam said there are about 60 one-on-one mentors for students at the school, including people from 12 states and at least three countries.

“The honors kids get one-on-one mentorship into a specific topic,” Worssam said. “The general science kids get to see that partnership between the classroom and the organization.”

In May, each class will take a field trip to their given organization to see the equipment and scientists in action, Worssam said. All of the meetings throughout the year will give them the background knowledge to understand what is going on at the organization.

The Scientist in the Classroom is open to all science teachers at Sinagua, but Worssam hopes the program will expand to more schools.

“This is something I would love to see at Mount Elden (Middle School) or NPA or Basis because it is such a great program,” Worssam said. “This is the type of model that can work at any school.”

She has gone to international conferences to talk about the benefits of the program and how much her students have enjoyed it.

Worssam said in addition to helping get the students excited about STEM in the classroom, it can also give students an idea of what kind of jobs are available.

“This keeps kids in your community,” she said. “It shows students we have these amazing organizations right here, so they don’t have to leave the city to pursue those types of jobs. It creates a valuable and valid workforce in our community, and they’re homegrown.”

As for the mystery of the donated organs and Valley fever, TGen North scientists were able to link all three cases to the same strain of  fungus found in a specific area of California -- the same area where the donor lived before dying.  

The reporter can be reached at cvanek@azdailysun.com or 556-2249.

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City Government and Development Reporter

Corina Vanek covers city government, city growth and development for the Arizona Daily Sun.

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