Pitt Unveils Tractor-Trailer Mobile Laboratory

Issue Date: 
November 10, 2008


Western Pennsylvania middle and high school students with a flair for biology won’t have to wait to go to college to study in a real lab—the University of Pittsburgh can bring it to them now. Today, Pitt unveiled a 70-foot tractor-trailer fabricated into a mobile science laboratory that will give precollege students in the region hands-on experience with medical research and advanced biology. The unveiling is the culmination of a three-year effort initiated by the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse (PLSG) and primarily involving Pitt, the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative Inc. (PTEI), and the Pittsburgh-based Lyceum Group LLC to acquire the mobile laboratory with the goal of exciting youth in the region about science.

The University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) purchased the mobile laboratory on Pitt’s behalf for $120,000 and will support its operation with $25,000 annually. Operated by the educational outreach program in the Department of Biological Sciences in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, the fully equipped laboratory exposes students—with a focus on those in rural and low-income districts—to experiments they typically would not encounter in their classrooms. CTSI also may use the mobile lab to conduct components of research studies on the road, increasing the availability of experimental protocols to people in rural areas and creating opportunities to educate adults about the clinical trial process.

“The mobile laboratory will let us continue and expand our effort to get children interested in and excited about science by bringing it to them,” said Alison Slinskey Legg, director of Pitt’s biological sciences outreach program. “Our outreach program is operating at full capacity, and demand was beginning to exceed our capabilities. We were limited by what we could physically bring to a school, and the mobile lab removes that limitation.”

Steven Reis, Pitt associate vice chancellor for clinical research and CTSI director, supported the Pitt mobile laboratory’s purchase after Boston University provided its 40-foot mobile CityLab—the first mobile lab in the nation—for an April educational event CTSI and Legg’s program hosted at Dorseyville Middle School.

“That made me realize we needed to provide this kind of opportunity more regularly throughout the region,” Reis said. “We need to show kids that science is fun by high school, middle school, and, ideally, elementary school, if we want to foster a pipeline of new scientists. After all, the next big breakthrough could come from a young person who discovers a passion for science through a program like Pitt’s.”

The mobile laboratory will serve as a setting for Pitt’s biology outreach programs, such as Outbreak!, wherein students must diagnose and control a fictional viral epidemic, or a program in which high school students investigate natural selection in gut organisms. Pitt also will incorporate one-week summer workshops for high school teachers in other parts of the region to update them on the latest scientific knowledge and help them design laboratory courses. The mobile lab could then be taken to those schools during the academic year to support laboratory lessons.

PLSG, Western Pennsylvania’s only investment organization focused on the life sciences, initiated the development of a regional mobile science program in 2005 with funds from the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education as part of an educational and workforce development initiative. The intent was to encourage the excitement of scientific discovery among students and educators, particularly those in rural and economically disadvantaged districts. PLSG conducted the first national study of mobile lab programs and, in 2006, organized the first national Mobile Laboratory Best Practices and Networking Conference, held in Pittsburgh. PLSG also organized a Mobile Lab Advisory Committee for the Pittsburgh region—a consortium of educators, school board officials, and university professors. To see the project through, an executive panel formed to research the laboratory’s feasibility in Western Pennsylvania, develop a curriculum with local educators, and launch a pilot program that led to the eventual purchase of the mobile lab. The panel included Legg; PLSG; Lyceum Group, a workforce and education development consulting firm; and PTEI, which supports the emergence of the Pittsburgh region as a center of tissue engineering and the growth of regional tissue engineering industries. PTEI also works to provide students and teachers with hands-on education in biotechnology, biomedicine, and regenerative medicine, including a tissue-engineering module for the mobile lab. Once the vehicle was purchased, Fisher Scientific provided the lab equipment and supplies.

The mobile laboratory stems from CTSI’s collaboration with Legg’s program as part of a novel federal partnership piloted at Pitt this year by the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NCRR aims to combine college-level biology and medical research into a comprehensive outreach program for middle and high school students.

“The effort to acquire this mobile lab and use it to encourage children to become the scientists we’ll need in the future is a wonderful example of science serving the community,” said Barbara Alving, director of the NCRR. “This vehicle illustrates that positive collaboration between the community, local schools, research universities such as Pitt, and the National Institutes of Health can benefit our middle and high school students and help secure our nation’s presence in the world of science.”

The pilot brought together the resources of two federal grant programs: the Science Education Partnership Award, which specializes in K-12 education outreach and supports Pitt’s biology outreach program with a five-year, $1.27 million award; and the Clinical and Translational Science Award, which promotes the transfer of medical research from the lab to the patient- care setting. Pitt received an $83.5 million grant from this program in 2006 to launch CTSI, which is one of only 38 (of a planned 60) programs in the country funded by this award; Pitt was among the first 12 institutions to receive the award.